School is back in session, Sunday School and Confirmation and Adult Ed are gearing up, and the program year is off and running! We greet each new program year with hope that everything will come together and that we will succeed in reaching out to new people. And we rejoice when kids bring their friends to activities, when members bring neighbors to church. It's what we are about, right? Spreading the good news. "All are welcome!" is printed in our bulletins, and on our signs out front.
But are all welcome? The ELCA was recently revealed to be at the bottom of the list of US churches in terms of racial diversity. Lutherans came to the US from northern Europe, and continued to grow and more and more immigrants came. But unlike other denominations in the US, we have not been particularly successful in making it clear that all (as in "people not like us") are welcome. We have all kinds of reasons. Montana, for example, is the least racially diverse state in the union, with Wyoming not far behind.
It is easy to put up a sign, make a statement in the bulletin, even to sing Marty Haugen's "All Are Welcome." It is another thing to step back and analyze what really makes people feel welcome, and what barriers there are. It is hard work, but we need to do it. I don't know of a single congregation that doesn't think of itself as "friendly and welcoming." But I hear story after story of worship that is "insider," of announcements that assume everybody knows everybody, of coffee hours where nobody talks to visitors. It is so easy to spent time with our friends, to touch base, and to miss the person who is an unknown.
We are really good at service. We are good at raising money for world hunger and malaria, contributing to the food bank and the homeless shelter, doing projects for victims of domestic violence and child abuse. We'll "show our stuff" in those areas this Sunday, when we do our "God's work. Our hands." Sunday work in the community. That is important work, and I am glad we are doing it. It helps the community and it gives us a bit of visibility, which as "shy Lutherans" we often avoid.
But service isn't the same as engagement. Sara Miles, in her book Take this Bread, tells of a San Francisco church that took very seriously the feeding of the hungry. But what they missed was that these were not simply clients to be serviced, they were living, breathing human beings, as hungry for spiritual nurture and dignity as they were for food. In their efforts not to be coercive and not to impose their faith as a condition for the food, the congregation missed out on authentic engagement with their guests. Even to distinguish between the "hosts" and the "guests" misses the point. It is not "our" church, into which we invite "them." It is God's church, into which God invites all of us.
So, what if we were to expand the conversation into the political sphere? What if we were to ask the question of our policy on refugees and immigrants-who is welcome? And why? Last summer we saw a crisis of refugees crossing our southern border from Central America. Thousands of unaccompanied minors risked their lives to come into the United States, because their lives at home were even more desperate. Frantic parents sent children northward to avoid the death squads in their countries. Lutherans were there to welcome the children, to advocate for them, and to provide for physical and emotional needs. But the overwhelming response of politicians was not particularly welcoming.
Now we are watching in amazement as thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa venture into the Mediterranean and across the borders into Europe, seeking a place where they can be safe. Europe had been unprepared for such an influx, and many countries are being less than welcoming. Germany has taken the lead, offering to take in half a million refugees a year. The United States has thus far taken in 2500 refugees from Syria. We are a nation of immigrants. Most of us have ancestors who came from elsewhere. (The native Americans, of course, were already here, and were not asked to take a vote on whether to let the rest of us in.)
There are many things we can do for the world's refugees. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service is a great source of information and resources. We can pray. We can make donations. We can support relief efforts. We can advocate with our government to be more open to Syrian refugees (and others.) And we can open our hearts. We can delve deeply into all the meanings of hospitality. And we can struggle to embody "All are welcome."
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA