What Does Your Church Do With Those People?
June 23, 2014
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In her book, Pastrix, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber notes that the first Gentile convert to Christianity– the Ethopian eunuch– was also black and a sexual minority. Bolz-Weber ponders the wideness of God’s mercy and struggles with what it means to welcome the “stranger.” After Philip presents the good news about Jesus to the man, the man asks, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) Bolz-Weber challenges herself, “I continually need to hear the stranger, the foreigner, the ‘other’ to show me water in the desert.” What is to keep me, the stranger, from being baptized, whether the stranger is “me the queer or me the intersex or me the illiterate or me the neurotic or me the overeducated or me the founder of Focus on the Family?” (Pastrix, p. 94) She implies that Philip was as much changed by his encounter with this black, ambiguously gendered Gentile as was the Ethiopian.
Her questions lead one to ponder whether the tent of one’s church is wide enough to embrace the stranger. So she even challenges the assumption that the “tent” belongs to the church. “It’s God’s tent. The wideness of the tent of the Lord is my concern only insofar as it points to the gracious nature of a loving God who became flesh and entered into our humanity. The wideness of the tent is my concern only insofar as it points to the great mercy and love of a God who welcomes us all as friends.” (Pastrix, p. 94)
One time, I gave my elevator speech about Disability Concerns to a fellow Christian Reformed pastor. He responded, “Well, if any of those people come to my church, I’ll send them to you.” For this pastor, people with disabilities were strangers who would not be welcome at his church. He did not understand the point of the many Scriptural references to welcoming the stranger nor the radical prescription for good church health from 1 Cor. 12:22: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”
In sharp contrast, I have had a number of conversations over the years with pastors and church members who have struggled with engaging people with various disabilities in the life of the church – a man with dementia who propositions women in the church, a woman with borderline personality disorder who manipulates fellow church members, a man with intellectual disability who body slams people in the foyer. As I consulted with these pastors and others, with miraculous frequency I heard them striving to embrace these "strangers." They said something like this, “God brought this person to our church. This person belongs here. We just need to figure out how to set appropriate boundaries so that they can remain part of our fellowship.”
On rare occasions, after all options have been tried, as a last resort, a church can appropriately say to a person, “We need for you not to come back here,” but churches often use this as their first response when a “stranger” comes into the fellowship. Too often I hear stories from people who have been rejected by a church, even though God led them to that church.
God calls every one of us who is part of a congregation to ask ourselves and to ask of our congregation, “How well do we engage the ‘stranger’ in our midst?” As much as we do, Bolz-Weber writes, we will “be converted anew by the stranger, and see where there is water in the desert and enter fully into the baptism of God’s mercy with foreigners, with the ‘not us.’ And then [like the Ethiopian] go on our way rejoicing, having converted each other again and again to this beautiful, risky, expansive life of faith.” (Pastrix, p. 95)
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Well, I can't complain of having experienced that sort of rejection in my congregation, but then the Montreal CRC is the only one in Québec, so maybe they couldn't be too picky. Especially now that our numbers have dwindled siginificantly. Still, I think that some congregations are more hospitable than others, because a lot of people who walk into our church for the first time come back for more, and we have a microcosm of the United Nations attending our services, not just ethnically but all sorts of handicaps as well. We have an elevator for those who can't climb stairs ; we have people with intellectual deficiencies and varying forms of mental illness, yet others with food allergies or Native background and to my knowledge no one has complained of being ostracized in our community.
Our congregation in Montreal is inclusive, and I am not aware that anyone was asked to leave because they were different or handicapped in some way. On the contrary, we have added an elevator over the years to accommodate people who could not climb stairs, and the church p.a. address is used at congregational events to accommodate those who are hearing-impaired. And, of course, I as a member with schizophrenia have been part of this church for close to 40 years now. We also have a child in our congregation who has an Autism spectrum disorder, and none of us have ever been told we should leave.
I'm sorry for the people attending the congregation served by that pastor friend of yours because he needs to realize that handicapped people are no longer confined in nursing homes or asylums, and God doesn't put our personal convenience at the top of His priorities' list. I hope he smartens up. SOON.
Michele, yes, it's sad that people fear others coming to church. Just a few days ago I just talked with a man who advocated in his own congregation for including people with various disabilities and the importance of making accommodations so that they can participate. He said that one person objected saying, "Well, if we make more accommodations, then more of those people might start coming." What a terrible thing! The church might grow. Oh no!!!!
Of course, this man did not fear church growth. He feared growth via people coming that he did not consider desirable. But the gospels make plain that Jesus was not concerned about the "right" kind of people coming to church. He was concerned about people coming to him, anyone, maybe especially people whom society pushes to the margins.
In the 1970s a young family like our family, 3 kids, Mom and Dad, came to the church regularly, only their son - I'll call him "Paul" who was my age (at the time we 13-15), had Down Syndrome. Yes, many people shied away from Paul and his family, but my Dad and Paul's Dad knew each other and so Paul learned my Dad's first name. One day just as the Service ended and people were getting up to leave, and to talk with one another, from the back of the Church boomed Paul's voice to my Dad "Hi Jimmy!" you could hear the needle float through the air before it hit the floor the church was that quiet and nervous and aghast! A teenager calling an adult by their first name was OUTRAGEOUS! But what people were really waiting for was how my Father would react... They didn't have to wait long, my Dad boomed back "Hi Paul good to hear you!" Later that day I asked my Dad, why did you say hi back to Paul - ONLY Grandma can call you Jimmy NO ONE ELSE let alone a teenager! His response has stayed with me all my life (I'm 62 now), "I responded to Paul just like Jesus would to a friend, to a special friend. Jesus would recognize him and let people know that everyone has a friend in Jesus" It has taken years for me to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but I have learned, one of my Dad's favourite songs, hymns is "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"
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