Welcoming the stranger

I wrote the following in our Monday email:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35)

In the great parable of the Last Judgment that Jesus relates in Matthew 25:31-46, when the king separates righteous from the unrighteous, he proclaims to those who are saved that  “just as you did it to one of the least of these… you did it to me.” Among the actions cited is welcoming the stranger.

Each Sunday, we encounter the stranger as we come to worship God. Each Sunday, at each of our services, there are strangers. Sometimes, they are visitors from afar, traveling to Madison for business or pleasure, and choosing to spend their Sunday morning with us. Sometimes, they are local residents who are “church-shopping.” Occasionally, there is someone who has come this day because of some deep spiritual longing that yearns to be met. Some of those strangers are not newcomers. They have attended services before, several times, for several years, perhaps even for several decades. We may recognize their faces, we may have seen them dozens of times, but we don’t know their names let alone anything else about them.

In this, Grace is like most churches. In fact, in many respects, we do better than many churches. We offer visitors delightful visitors’ bags; some of us are aware of visitors and make sure to introduce themselves; in nice weather, I like to stand on the sidewalk before services, to welcome everyone who comes, and to greet passers-by as well. But we could do better.

A couple of months ago, I met a visiting priest, who responded to the email I send to everyone who signs our guestbook with a description of his experience. No one welcomed him. At the peace, he received perfunctory handshakes from those around him, and after the service, I was the only person who greeted him and asked him his name. How many others have had similar experiences? How many people have come to Grace, looking to connect not only with God but with other people, and went home disappointed?

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Do you know that person who is sitting in the pew in front of you? Have you seen them before? Have you seen them dozens of times and still don’t know their name? Introduce yourself. Invite them to coffee hour. Welcome them.

Welcoming newcomers is one of the things we focused on in our Vestry retreat this past Saturday and we agreed that it will be one of the areas that will receive attention at Grace in the coming year. How can we be more welcoming as a congregation? How can our physical space be made more welcoming? How can we help newcomers become active in the life of our congregation and active in our ministries? We will explore these questions and others. We hope you will share your ideas with us and learn with us how to make Grace a truly welcoming congregation.

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