This article from Pastor Alan Sherouse originally appeared in the July issue of our Connections newsletter, available here.
Our church sign on W. Friendly Avenue displays the message “All Are Welcome” to those who pass. In the last couple months, we’ve come to experience that if you say that, some people might actually think you mean it!
Like me, many of you have noticed that in recent days we’ve had a growing number of visitors from among the homeless community in Greensboro. We want our church to be a place of hospitality, “welcoming all as we would Christ himself” as the old Benedectine practice describes. However, we also recognize that the presence of a number of new community friends is an opportunity and a shift. Our pastoral staff and church leadership is already talking about the opportunity and challenges in this, but I also want to make sure we’re making space for all of us to think together about why it is happening and what it might mean.
The first question – Why is it happening? – is answered by First Baptist’s past and present commitments to be a church that seeks to blur lines between community and congregation. We see it in our long commitments to service and community outreach, most notably in places like our WE Shelter, our involvement in Greensboro Urban Ministry, our participation in the Grace Community Meal and the Arise breakfast, and the leadership of those who have invested in such ministries over time. This aspect of identity has found new emphasis in the last few years as so many have sought to speak and work toward being a “church outside our walls.”
In our recent history, we have sent several messages to the community – and even to ourselves – that we are seeking to live deeply into our call to love our neighbors. In January 2014, our friend Amy Murphy, the “Chicken Lady,” was seeking a space where some of our friends who live outside could watch a Panthers playoff game, and with a 24-hour turnaround our staff and members arranged to host a party in the Café. Such nimble hospitality sent the message that we mean what our sign says, and we are a church seeking to say “yes” when a need or opportunity arises. Around that time, Kim Priddy was hired and has furthered our community relationships, bringing her own network of community friends and partners and – along with our excellent Missions Committee – leading us to clarify and deepen our community efforts. FBC members have devoted themselves to projects like Church Under the Bridge, our Shower Ministry, growing support of Step-Up, Community Cookouts, and continuing community relationships. A couple months ago, we even hosted a funeral for one of our friends we met through our shower ministry, providing space to give witness to his life and identity as God’s beloved child. As a result of all of this work and investment over time, many say we are as well poised as we have ever been for local community impact.
But, what does it mean? Hospitality and welcome are not passive commitments, but active considerations of a dynamic and growing church. To welcome all as Christ himself means we must do more than throw open the doors. It means we must consider our programming, and whether our weekly schedule makes space for all – even those who don’t have transportation, can’t routinely pay for a Wednesday night meal, or bring their belongings to church with them because they don’t have a home in which to store them. It means considering our assumptions about the life experiences of our congregants and attendees. It means thinking about our language. Do we say “homeless”? Houseless? Community friends? Do we call them “Kim’s people” as some have affectionately done? Or might we just call homeless people “people”? It means we might be asked for a ride or some money by someone who has joined us for worship, and it means we can feel comfortable saying “No, I can’t do that” in routine moments because we know that we as a church are working to speak a greater “Yes” to our community and to God through ongoing and emerging ministries.
Most of all, it means we will continue to find opportunity to blur the line between “us” and “them.”
That’s hard work. It’s uncomfortable sometimes. It doesn’t come naturally to us – in fact, this entire article is written with an assumption of who constitutes “us” and “them.” With that in mind, we assure you of the space all of us need to reflect honestly together in days ahead about what this blurring of lines means, even as we work together to do the work of the gospel, which more often than not is hard, uncomfortable, and unnatural.
Our friend Frank Dew tells the story of a Greensboro businessman who works downtown and began attending Frank’s church, New Creation Presbyterian. New Creation is a church for all, and has done as much as any church in our community to offer welcome and hospitality to those who live outside. After attending New Creation for several weeks, the businessman was walking down Elm Street one weekday at the lunch hour. Looking ahead he saw a man who appeared to be homeless pushing a cart full of his belongings outside a convenience store. Months earlier his practice would have been to cross to the other side and continue on his way, but in that moment he found a different thought passing through his mind: “I wonder if I know him from church?”
Together we will continue to be active and diligent in our hospitality amidst the opportunities and the challenges, as we seek to be a place where people are welcomed and known. Maybe before long our church sign can read, “There is no them. There’s only us.”