Written by John H. Thomas
St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church in Cleveland gathers a richly diverse congregation around the Eucharist. Father McNulty signs the liturgy for deaf persons, the lessons are read using Braille, songs are sung in English and Spanish, developmentally disabled youth and adults join the congregation, and there is even the occasional guide dog. The church, which hosts a feeding program each day, includes both middle class families and the very poor. St. Augustine's incarnates the vision of a church that is multiracial, multicultural and accessible to all far more profoundly than most of our congregations, yet when members of a neighboring UCC church visit St. Augustine's they cannot be officially welcomed to the sacramental table, and their pastor, a woman, cannot be invited to preside. All Christians know that God's welcome is extravagant, yet every church struggles with the implications of what that welcome requires of our own hospitality.
This summer in Kansas City, we will meet with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) under the theme, "Gather at the Welcome Table." As ecumenical partners, our agenda will include important decisions about how we can be more effective signs of the welcome table God prepares for all. One of those decisions involves our participation in the next stage of the ecumenical journey of the Consultation on Church Union, a 40-year process involving nine churches seeking to be one in faith, sacraments, ministry, and mission. "Churches Uniting in Christ," when inaugurated in 2002, will commit our churches to the removal of two barriers to our mutual welcome, one growing from differing understandings of how ministry is ordered and episcopal leadership is expressed, the second caused by racism. Churches Uniting in Christ challenges us to see both barriers as contradictions of the welcome God offers through the Christ we meet at the Table.
We have much to learn from St. Augustine's welcome table unlimited by race or language, class or ability. St. Augustine's also has much to learn from those of us who seek to prepare a welcome table unlimited by things like gender or theological orientation. Together we may learn from other churches that have found ways to express God's welcome in ways even more profound than our own. As we gather at the welcome table with our Disciple partners this summer, as we commit ourselves to Churches Uniting in Christ, may our churches increasingly become signs of that welcome table to which God invites the whole of creation, where God's abundance is available to all, where our responsibility is not determining who shall be invited, but how we shall respond. Gather at the welcome table!
John H. Thomas is General Minister and President of the UCC.