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)