The chime resounded through the room.
This was the beginning of worship, the beginning of the processional, the beginning of the liturgy. The tone ringing in our ears called us to gather, to settle in our pews, and to prepare for what was about to take place.
I hadn’t set foot in a church in a few years. There’s something about baggage that can keep you from returning to the place you picked up the bags in the first place. I have a history with church, specifically evangelical churches. Evangelical churches are where I grew up, where I came into adulthood, and where I served.
Evangelical churches were also where I was deeply wounded and wounded people deeply.
So, as I stepped into St Gabriel’s on this Sunday morning, there was a lot of emotions. Anxiety at not knowing what to expect. Fear at having another church hurt me. The excitement of doing something new. A longing for spiritual things.
The longing is what drove me to find a church, a spiritual home. This longing for spiritual things let me reexamine myself and decide if the risk of a church was worth connecting with heaven and a community of god.
I wasn’t back in an evangelical church. I knew the liturgy of those churches well: song, welcome, songs, offering, sermon, song, announcements, finish with one last song. I was familiar with this rhythm. But on this Sunday morning, the longing for the spiritual led me to an Episcopal church.
I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Episcopal worship services. Growing up, I had attended an Episcopal school, St. Peters, and the chapel services familiarized me with the basic elements of the service. Perhaps this slight familiarity is what nudged me to find a local Episcopal church when I felt that spiritual pull, that hunger, in my soul. Maybe it was something more divine. Maybe that familiarity was divine in itself.
The chime rang, echoing through the sanctuary marking the beginning of what could either be the fulfillment of my spiritual hunger or another disappointment. I attempted the opening hymn, singing with trepidation.
I don’t remember the procession. I don’t remember what hymns were sung. I don’t remember the lessons; the passages of scripture read to the congregation. All I remember of the sermon is one phrase, “And when the Holy Spirit is kicking up her heels…” The morning was rather bland, uneventful, unmemorable.
Except for the Eucharist.
Truth be told, this is why I had come to this church building on this Sunday morning. I came for the body and blood. I came because the spiritual longing I had was more than an existential crisis. It was more than searching for meaning and matter. It was a driving force, a primal urge in my soul. What brought me to church on this Sunday was nothing short of a hunger.
I remember my eagerness to take part, to receive. When it came time to come to the altar and receive the bread and wine, I skipped all the normal social cues. Typically, the ushers signify when it’s your pew row’s turn to go up. I jumped the line. I didn’t mean to; I didn’t know the customs of the Episcopal church, and I was used to a “come forward as you are led” attitude from the evangelical churches where I grew up.
I rushed out of my pew, stood at the front, and realized my mistake. I realized I had jumped the line, infringed on propriety, and hadn’t waited for the right cues. I was a bit embarrassed, to be honest. Here I was, the visitor who was doing things wrong.
I remember looking at the priest, unsure of what to expect. She simply beckoned me, welcoming me to the alter no matter how I got there. It was a simple nod and an extension of the hands, but it meant that I was welcome at the Great Thanksgiving, the Table, the Eucharist.
I eagerly stepped forward, kneeling before the priest and receiving the bread, the body of Christ. Next came the cup, the blood of the Lamb of god that takes away the sins of the world. As I ingested the bread and the wine, something happened that was nothing short of miraculous to me.
Hand on my heart, before heaven and earth, I declare that I felt spiritually fed. The hole I felt in my heart, that spiritual longing, that hunger ceased to be. I was full spiritually as if I had been physically famished and had been given a meal.
Indeed, I was given a meal. I was fed with spiritual food, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. There was something that happened on that Sunday morning that hadn’t happened to me before. Maybe it was the psychology of being in a ritual. Maybe it was the words spoken over the bread and the cup, invoking a real presence of Christ over, under, and in the meal. Maybe it was a flat-out miracle.
Whatever it was, it left me with a powerful memory in the middle of an unmemorable Sunday morning. I had been filled. I had been nourished. Something happened at the Eucharist that I couldn’t explain but that I embraced, holding it as holy in my heart.
When I got to All Saints, I didn’t know what to expect.
I knew to expect the Episcopalian liturgy, but I didn’t know what to expect from the people or the priest. My last experience at an Episcopal church had been pleasant. St. Gabriel’s had made me feel welcomed by the Episcopal tradition. I felt like I might be able to find a home in this stream.
I decided to try a church that was a bit more easily accessible to me. I found All saints just a two-block walk from the train. That works for me.
The first thing I noticed when walking up to the church was the size. It was small. Immediately I tensed up and began to second guess my self. It was intimidating to walk into a small congregation. I knew I would stick out being a new face and all.
I braced my nerves and continued to walk towards the building. I wondered where the door was. Apparently, I had come up on the backside of All Saints, and I needed to go around front. Alright, so it wasn’t going as smoothly as I would have liked. I panicked a bit, worried about finding the door, about looking stupid walking in, about having to make small talk. My palms got a bit clammy, and my throat tightened up. But I had come here because I was spiritually hungry and I wanted to be fed from the Table, fed the bread and wine, the body and blood. I needed that this Sunday morning.
I found the door finally and walked in, not to the narthex but the parish hall. I quickly found a side door that led into the sanctuary. The front left of the sanctuary to be exact.
There I stood for a moment, realizing my blunder. Were all eyes on me? Was everyone wondering who this was that just came in the side door instead of the main doors? My anxiety disorder did not need this. But I was here. I had entered the church.
I quickly took a spot on the outside aisle seat of an empty pew. There, I realized I didn’t have a bulletin. It wouldn’t have been a problem except the bulletin contains one thing I (especially as a visitor) needed.
The order of service.
The little insert that tells you the prayers, readings, responses, and parts of the service. In the Episcopal church, you need an order of service — that is unless you’ve been attending Episcopal churches for years and know the liturgy and it’s variations inside and out, which I did not — found either in the Book of Common Prayer or in the insert in the bulletin, the bulletin I didn’t have because I came in the side door.
Gathering my courage, I made my way to the door at the back of the sanctuary, opened it, and stepped the wrong way into the narthex. I may have surprised the priest and the acolytes, but they didn’t show it. I quickly explained that I needed an order of service because I came in the wrong door.
“You know what,” the priest said with a smile. “It’s a good door to come in.”
That was it. No admonition to do it differently next time. No awkward greeting or small talk. Simply a statement of welcome — a statement that told me it didn’t matter how I got here as long as I was present.
Welcome is what greets us, what first embraces us, what first invokes our presence in this place, just as much as it invokes god.
The two different churches I found myself doing the wrong things in both welcomed me without hesitation, condition, or reservation. I was new in both places — unfamiliar and foreign to the ecosystem of the congregation. I could have easily been a bit of a nuisance. But that’s not how I was treated.
I was welcomed to the Table with a nod and welcomed to the congregation with a word of acceptance. Table and word: both accepting me, both welcoming me.
And they didn’t care how I got there. Whether it was skipping the propriety of the Eucharist line or coming in the side door, it didn’t matter how I got to the Table and the word. What mattered was that I was there. I was present.
This is the kind of welcome we should give: unabashed, unbiased, uncaring of how you got here, just glad you are here. In the liturgy, we bless god: Father, Son, and Spirit, calling happiness on god’s kingdom now and forever. Then, we are welcomed with a collect for purity, not a call to be worthy to be here amongst the saints. Rather it is a prayer to gather us, to collect our thoughts and intentions, to bring us together before god and know that we need to be purified, cleansed, for a reason.
We are welcomed, collected, purified that “we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.” Saying this collect, praying this prayer, puts us all on equal ground — not that we weren’t already, but we all have a tendency to put “us” and “them” into strata and categories to separate the “good” from the “bad,” the rich from the poor, the acceptable from the unclean. We pray to understand that before god all, and we mean all, hearts are open, and no secrets are hidden.
We’re all naked when we gather, laid bare by divinity’s all-seeing heart. We are all exposed as emperors who have no clothes, and who need this breathing of the Holy Ghost to cleanse the thoughts in our hearts, in our innermost selves; breath so that we may love and magnify the divine perfectly and worthily.
Welcoming each other is more than a nice thing to do to a newcomer. It’s more than saying “hey” to people you haven’t seen since last Sunday morning. It’s more than small talk, handshakes, and hugs. Welcoming each other is a holy acknowledgment that we are equal, we are the same, we are all naked, bare, and exposed in this place.
No matter how we got here, the important thing is we are here. Open the side doors and beckon forth the line jumpers; we welcome you to this church, this place, to this god.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and grabbed a small snack. After the worship, the priest (who greets everyone on the way out) asked if I was staying for coffee hour. I felt welcome, felt wanted, felt worthy, and so I decided to say yes.
I knew no one in this building. Several people had said hi to me during the passing of the peace — what a better extension of our welcome than to pray peace over those who are just as exposed and vulnerable as you are — but I didn’t remember any names. I’m horrible like that. Tell me your name, and I’ll forget it five minutes later. I’ll remember your face, but your name, forget it.
I took my coffee and snack and sat down at a table near the back, out of the way of the main flow of traffic. I might have been brave enough to go to a new church, but I am still an introvert.
As people came in, got drinks and food, and settled into their chairs, several people intentionally came over to me, introduced themselves — again, no recollection of their names, and I apologize forever for that — and asked about myself. Did I live in the area? What brought me to All Saints. What did I do for a living? All small talk, although it was very genuine.
The thing is, I’m not good at small talk. I’m awkward, don’t know how to reciprocate it, and generally feel extremely uncomfortable shooting the shit with people I don’t know. Even though my introverted awkwardness came out and I felt on the spot and singled out, uncomfortable and exposed — then again, aren’t we all — I didn’t feel unwelcome or out of place. People came to me, asked me questions, said they were glad I was there, and they hoped to see me again. I felt embraced.
Then Everett came and sat down beside me. He had been the preacher that morning, so I recognized his face, complete with long, white beard. We chatted for a moment — again with the small talk — then he asked me about my tattoo.
On my right forearm, I have a Celtic cross inked with the words under it “This is love.” It’s a sacred tattoo, signifying so much about me, about my theology, about my heart. It’s the starting place for my beliefs, the way I navigate my beliefs, and the summation of my beliefs.
I sat in silence for a moment after Everett asked me about my tattoo. I pondered how to answer. He offered me a way out, suggesting it was too personal of a question. “No,” I said. “I’m just thinking about how to answer.” Then I word vomited about 1 John 4.10, Philippians 2, and Jesus summation of the law and the prophets.
Everett gave an approving nod and said something about me being in seminary, to which I replied no. Then we exchanged phone numbers and began a friendship.
I don’t really fit in at All Saints. The majority of the congregation is in their white hair years, having grown children (some my age or older) and long lives. The few families that are there are about a decade older than me. And no one looks like me. When I first showed up, I had shaved the sides and back of my hair with the top a bit longer swooped to the side. Not that it matters, except there was no one like me there. No one with whom I (at first glance) could go out with and have a drink. There was no representation of myself anywhere in the congregation. I didn’t see myself.
I belong at All Saints. I’m slowly finding my place in the life of the congregation. Rev. Karen even convinced me to preach one Sunday, something I hadn’t done in years. And she wants me to do it again. Miracles of miracles! I feel deeply connected to this congregation of people that aren’t like me. I believe the reason I care and feel a place to belong here is because of the unabashed welcome I received that first Sunday.
The work of welcome at coffee hour is as holy as the work of welcoming people to worship. In both instances, we are enacting incarnation, butting flesh to the divine. In this case, it is the divine welcome. We welcome others as we are welcomed by divinity.
Maybe we could think about this the other way around: we will only welcome people to the limit we believe we are divinely welcomed. If we believe god to be stingy, distant, or begrudgingly letting us into the kingdom of heaven, we are going to treat others that way. But, if the story of the prodigal son is true, then maybe god looks for us, runs to us, and throws us a party to welcome us to the kingdom.
Would you celebrate a new face at church this way? What about a new neighbor? Someone new at work, at school, a new person in your life?
Welcome is a holy thing, not only done at worship and the coffee hour. Welcome is a posture of living, a method of interacting with people, a belief that people matter, and they themselves are in the image of a holy god — indeed are holy themselves. We welcome the divine, invoking glory as we welcome people into our lives, asking about what matters to them, giving them our phone numbers, and making friendships.
No matter how we get there, whether jumping the line or coming in the side door, we are welcomed into the people of god, welcome to partake of the word and the Table. That welcome should drive us to welcome others in a deep, true way. It’s a little thing that means so much: opening out arms, hearts, and lives to other people and (like the good Samaritan) being their neighbor.
Originally published at https://culturalsavage.com on May 22, 2020.