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Welcoming strangers to ready-made church


There was a time when I loved my church too well. Loved it as my sustenance and renewal, found spiritual guidance among its like-minded members. Smiled fondly at the familiar faces as they walked back from Communion. Slid into the pew each Sunday with a relieved, contented sigh, feeling like a beloved daughter who’d come home at last. And resented, deep down, everyone who came only for special occasions, crowding the pews at Christmas and Easter, showing up with fiancés or new babies to wait a few decorous weeks before requesting the desired ritual.

They are taking advantage of our community, I thought. We have built this family feeling over years of fellowship, endless committee meetings and sausage suppers and Lenten pageants. We’ve poured our money, our time, our hearts into this sanctuary, baking casseroles we could have fed our own families, doing yard work here while the weeds at home outgrew the daisies. Who are they to waltz in and demand a church home ready-made?

I was all the angrier because belonging had been a private struggle. If truth be told, I chafe at committees and casseroles, and my first year in any formal group is usually a running internal argument about whether I fit or not, whether my freedom is being unduly restricted, my self molded into conformity with values I don’t quite share. Then I grow up, and relax. I admit I hate baking casseroles and beg for a different assignment. I grow fondest of the parishioners I once found the most irritating. People nod and smile and know my name, and time itself, sheer hours logged in that pew, gives me that magical sense of belonging.

They wanted to belong instantly! Without paying any dues whatsoever -- maybe a token fee to the celebrant of their sacrament, but certainly no casseroles. And they seemed to feel right at home, kneeling and standing and shaking hands all smiley, telling their stories to the greeters who, deputized to hospitality, duly approached them after Mass. How dare they, I thought, kneeling stiffly alongside the newcomers.

Then one day I wrote a little profile of one of the longtime parishioners for the church newsletter. Mabel had been a member for 50 years, and I sat scribbling her recollections, fascinated by the changes she’d seen.

As she talked, it became obvious: Those changes depressed her. Oh, it had been reassuring to watch the ups and downs, the swells and droughts in membership, and how the church always somehow found what it needed to continue. But the liturgy had changed, the words of certain hymns had been sanitized (she still knew the original versions by heart) and the people had changed. Nobody knew each other so well these days, the old core group that used to socialize together was half dead, there were all these newcomers …

I realized she meant me. I’d been there seven years, which to me was a long, long time, but to her I was a newcomer, someone who’d showed up after all the real church-building was over. We’d never made casseroles side by side.

That afternoon, my attitude made a convenient 180-degree turn. Churches should welcome everyone, especially the newcomers, I thought, mentally branding her nostalgia a little mean-spirited. Why should we be so rigid, seeing strangers as interlopers, when the very definition of Christianity was an open-doored community of believers? So what if somebody showed up just because they were going through a rough time and needed a quick infusion of support? Hasn’t the secular world designed “the support group” to have just that kind of accordion flexibility, welcoming anyone who needs the help, and cheering them when they feel able to move on?

A social club is a danger to the spirit. I thought about those dreadful sanctions convents used to place on “particular friendships” -- maybe the goal wasn’t to guard against homoeroticism after all; maybe it was to prevent exclusion. But real friendship ought to open people to others, and real community ought to make a group strong enough to welcome anyone into its midst.

We can’t all flit in and out of churches, though, I thought worriedly. There would be no communities to flit in and out of, if nobody stuck around to build them. Besides, there is a wonderful glow that comes when you know the arc of another parishioner’s life. You celebrate the milestones with her, abide in her joys and sorrows, pray for her and with her, learn the feel of her bony shoulder blades each week at the kiss of peace, smile at the high-C she invariably hits off key. Churches have lore and foibles and inside jokes, and it feels good to know them, to feel yourself a part of the mesh this group has woven.

But does it have to be so clubbish? Why did I need to raise my guard against anyone else who wanted to make the same journey, or at least land in our safety net for a while? Maybe exclusivity made all the effort feel worthwhile. Maybe I was just smug, like that reading response that says, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” winking the implication that God’s not talking to anybody else. Or maybe I was still chafing, deep down, and wishing I had the same freedom to come and go at will. It would be nice, to be able to enter someone else’s community whenever I felt like it, and count on a fresh and sincere welcome each time I needed their blessing.

Yet when you stay, the blessings run deeper. The rush of tenderness as you watch the familiar faces; the deep sense of comfort and belonging; the chances for insight, because you know the personalities and the histories; the countless points in your own memory that are touched and reconnected by each new happening or exchange.

In a familiar church, I am brought to tears by the baptism of a stranger’s infant, simply because I know this place and this rite and what it means to all of us.

Why wouldn’t I want to share that?

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is Jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 19, 2001