On a scale of 1-10 – how welcoming are you?
A friend’s daughter was 4 years old – and she was learning letters. So, when she came home from shopping with mom, she noticed there were letters on the mat in front of their door. “What word is that and what does that mean, mommy?” “The word is welcome and it means to meet people.” The blank expression made her realize her daughter needed more information. “To meet people is to talk to them, to look them in the eye; to ask how their day is; to make them feel at home.” That seemed to satisfy her, and Teresa thought no more about it. However, that Sunday, after mass, when they were walking to the car, her daughter said: “No one met me today at church. Am I welcome there?” Her comment floored her mother, and has haunted me ever since I heard the story… “Am I welcome there?”
Am I welcome there? What a great examination of conscience for us, not just as individuals, but as a community. It is not just our greeters who are supposed to be about that work. When we first meet people in the parking lot, when we sit next to them in church, when we interact in the gathering space, when we pray together – does our body language, our words, our choices – do they all say: “I am so glad you are here? You matter to us, you are important to us, thank you for being here!”
The gift of welcoming is an expression of one of the key virtues in the Old Testament: Hospitality. Hospitality is the virtue of recognizing the presence of God in others and nourishing this presence. That is what we hear from both the first reading and the gospel. The Shumanite woman who provides a room for Elisha and Jesus’ teaching that “the one who welcomes you, welcomes me” invites us to practice that virtue of hospitality. And it strikes me that there are three moments (at least) to the virtue of hospitality.
1) Creating the space/attitude for the welcome. The Shumanite woman created a space both physically and emotionally for Elisha. She slowed down enough to meet him, to listen to him, to not be in a rush to get on with the rest of her life, so there was the space and time for the welcome to happen. I sometimes get into my: “Busy Pastor mode.” I create an aura that says: Don’t even bother to speak to me – I’ve got important things to do now. I will have time for you later.” Hospitality demands a presence to the moment – to know that this person in front of me, at this moment, is the most important person in the whole world to me. At its best, that is what the gift of celibacy is meant to do – to free up my brother priests and me from the work of family so that EVERYONE is my family. It is to live with a welcome mat permanently attached to my/our feet.
2) Enter into their world AS THEY SEE IT. Hospitality takes root when there is enough safety for people to be who THEY are at the moment. Which I why I have loved the bulletin articles detailing people’s witness to their struggle with mental illness. I have no idea what it is like to be Obsessive-Compulsive. Though I am sometime sad, I have no experience of depression as a disease. But reading their stories helps me to see the world as they see it.
I don’t feel that grief like those who are recently widowed. It has been years since my dad died. But I remember what it was like. So I try to be present to the recently widowed especially. And the good news is: I don’t have to fix their grief; I don’t have to make it go away. I just have to be present to them in their loss. Simply saying to the person grieving: “What is it like – to come here to mass without your significant other?” creates the space where people can be who they are. The second act of hospitality is to meet people where they are.
3) The third act of hospitality is to NOURISH the spirit of the person. The Shumanite woman opened an apartment where Elisha could be welcome. Elisha inquired gently of the servant – what do they need. Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs so they could share the struggles together. Hospitality keeps asking the question: How can I nurture the good/the God in the one before me.
Having been here for one year now, I thank you for the welcome you have extended to me. What a gracious gift that has been. And I wonder – if my friend’s daughter, now a 28 year old single mom would walk into any mass here at St. Justin – what would be her response today? When mass is over, as she is walking to her car with her daughter, would she question, as her mom did so many years ago – “Am I welcome there?” May we choose to make her answer “Yes” by our gift of hospitality…