Welcome others as you have been welcomed. That’s right up there with “Love others as you have been loved.” (John 13:34, my paraphrase)
It’s a bit harder though when you haven’t been welcomed yourself first. I’ve always wondered and struggled with that. I was so definitively not welcomed by classmates and peers growing up, and it was agonizing years of unrelenting rejection. By nature, I’m almost a pure extrovert, but I was so isolated for so long, I spent years functioning as an introvert to survive. It was an experience that taught me to assume I’m not really welcome, which can make it hard to realize I am.
You’d think that, knowing how it is to be on the outside, I’d be all the more welcoming of others as a result, but it hasn’t always worked that way.
Sometimes my natural extroversion exerts itself and I welcome all comers with a more-the-merrier enthusiasm. But other times I fight an instinct to raise the drawbridge behind me and repeat the pattern of exclusion that kept me on the outs for so many years. And far too often, I struggle to feel like I have the right to welcome others – like I’m still a guest and only have probationary status at best. It’s not always easy to find the space inside of me that knows how to welcome others.
It’s hard to move yourself from outsider status to belonging. It’s something we need help from others with.
Welcome others as you have been welcomed.
Late each Sunday afternoon I head the two blocks east to a neighborhood bar where Gilead Chicago meets, a quirky bar church where we tell each other our stories, sing pop anthems like hymns, and welcome all sorts (including a surprising – or maybe not – number of former seminarians who weren’t sure they could ever feel really good about church again).
It’s a place where I’m learning more about welcome, but it’s not the only one. Most of the places that have taught me the most about welcome have been queer spaces to one degree or another. The LGBTQ storytelling night I go to each month. The classic Episcopal church in my old neighborhood where the gay families came around me as my own family began to reject my faith and life. Gilead.
There’s a common experience of being outsiders that is shared in those spaces, and with it, a radical welcome. Conservatives (including me when I was one) often complain that they aren’t welcome or tolerated in these spaces, and thus dismiss them as hypocritical. It feels clever, like playing a trump card, but I’ve come to realize it’s an exercise in missing the point.
Every community gathers around something, and these communities gather around a radical welcome. If you are unwilling to extend that radical welcome as well, you have excluded yourself.
It’s like a baseball enthusiast wanting to join a soccer league in order to play with baseball’s rules, and then complaining that no one will play ball with them.
It’s disingenuous at best, gross presumption at worst.
Radical welcome excludes no one, but it also doesn’t include everyone, because it leaves room for some to exclude themselves. It wouldn’t be very radical otherwise.
Ironically, it was fundamentalist separatists who first taught me that, with their insistence that God’s love welcomes all, but that those who persist in false beliefs exclude themselves. They removed themselves from all who held and acted on such beliefs –hence the identification as “separatists.”
That’s something Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t walk away from anybody, turned no one away – even the ones with good reputations who would only come secretly at night (John 3). And the one outsider he tried to turn away? She called him on it and he changed his tune (Matthew 15). Everyone was welcome with Jesus – including the scandalous, but many walked away.
It broke his heart, but he let them.
Welcome others as you have been welcomed.
So many people still need that radical welcome of Jesus, and the only way they’ll ever know a welcome like that is if it comes from you and me. “Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours,” as the poem says.* I’m grateful for those who’ve given me such welcome. They continue to challenge me to broaden my own welcome of others.
And I ache for the day when no one any longer feels the misguided need to exclude themselves.
*Usually misattributed to Teresa of Avila, the poem is actually the cumulative work of a Methodist minister and young Quaker woman in the late 1800’s.