Thursday, November 10, 2011

Radical Hospitality

In January, 2005, the congregation of the church I attend, voted to become "Open and Affirming." ONA is a designation in the United Church of Christ that "a local church, campus ministry etc."
has publicly and specifically declared that those of all “sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions” (or “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender” people) are welcome in its full life and ministry (e.g. membership, leadership, employment, etc.) It bespeaks a spirit of hospitality and a willingness to live out that welcome in meaningful ways.

The congregation, which had shrunk from an average weekend attendance of over 400 on a Sunday in the 40's and 50's, to less than twenty, in 2005, was taking a very bold step. Some might ask if it was a bold step, or one of desperation in attempting to increase membership. I began attending at Easter of that year so I can't authoritatively answer that question - I wasn't there. My conclusion, after several discussions with the members who were there, is that it was a move taken because it seemed to be the right thing to do. Some of the members have GLBT children and/or siblings. One of the members at that time is transgendered.
The reason that I tell this story is that what we experienced as a result becoming ONA was quite different than what most of us expected. First of all, we didn't explode with dozens of GLBT people joining our church. In fact, today, with an average Sunday attendance of about 75, the number of GLBT people attending is roughly 10%.
What we found was that in adapting the "spirit of hospitality and a willingness to live out that welcome in meaningful ways," we became more willing to become radically hospitable. It was the attempt to make the GLBT community feel welcome and equal that changed not just how we behaved on a Sunday morning, but how we think. Radical hospitality changed how we treated all people attending our church, whether for the first time or the thousandth time. 
The miracle that ensued, was and is, that focusing on radical hospitality transformed our church. It should come as no great surprise given the two most important commandments. What many of us didn't foresee was how thoroughly it would permeate the soul of our church and everything that we do.
I will speak for myself and not for the congregation. I found myself listening to those that I might have thought that I had little in common with, only to find commonalities that brought us closer. I found that discussions on topics that revealed differing beliefs or opinions become opportunities for enlightenment instead of dissension, even when they focus on how we interpret or understand our Christian faith. I've witnessed a willingness in the congregation to question the validity of time honored traditions and activities. Our church now provides space for the are PFLAG group and a new GSA (Gay Student Alliance) group.
Am I surprised by this transformation? Not really, I take it for granted - granted by God. I give thanks for it. I am in awe of the power of God's transforming grace. 
What I love is how thorough God is. When we reach out to our brothers and sisters, God doesn't just bless that exchange, God creates more opportunities for us to take the risk to welcome and love unconditionally. Awesome!

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