What Matters to You
What did people do to make you feel welcome?
Have you known a time when it was tough
When did your church especially demonstrate
What Matters to Us
"Jesus didn't turn people away, neither do we." When you're gutsy enough to make such a claim, it's not always easy to make good on it. Following Jesus' lead, the United Church of Christ strives to keep doors open to all. By God's grace—in the past and today—we do what needs to be done to be bold people of God's welcome.
Jesus lived and breathed gracious hospitality. Even though there were powerful people who opposed Jesus' extravagant welcome, he still embraced those who were often shunned. In the reign of God that Jesus spoke of, he declared there is room for all—children (Luke 18:15-17) and those who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, ill, poor, grieving, persecuted, and in prison (Matthew 25: 31-46 and Luke 6:20-26). Jesus put faith and hospitality together: "Whoever receives one whom I send receives me" and those who received Jesus, embraced God (John 13:20).
This kind of hospitality is characteristic of both God's faithfulness and, at our best, our faithfulness. God welcomes, and also feeds the hungry, forgives sins, stands with those who are poor and oppressed, comforts the suffering, and becomes home for those who wander. In gratitude, faithful people welcome strangers. A surprise in the Bible is the way you welcome a stranger expresses how you embrace the very presence of God (Genesis 18:1-8 and Luke 23:28-35).
The church, since its beginning, continues to "extend hospitality to strangers (Roman 12:13)." The church, after all, is a blessed company of strangers held together by the grace of God.
UCC churches express God's extravagant welcome in a variety of ways. Our welcome embraces both those we invite to participate in our congregations, as well as those outside the church, with whom we work for God's justice and compassion. That is our prayer, our hope.
Who is welcome? Our churches are among those whose doors are open to God's children of different cultures, races, genders, ages, sexual orientations, abilities, economic situations, and theological traditions. It isn't always easy to be so open. Each UCC congregation prayerfully discerns and expresses how wide their doors and arms are open. Some state it this way, "We are a multicultural and multiracial, open and affirming, accessible to all, and just peace church." Wow, that's a mouthful, but check out the links to those words to discover the meaning, heart, and history behind the terms.
Once one enters the door, it's not a matter of "sit back, be quiet, speak only as we do." You, your heart's questions and your gifts, are vital to the congregation. Both we and you grow together in faith and witness. Your distinct story of faith joins with centuries of stories that make up the Church, and specifically the United Church of Christ. In God's grace, you change: we change. We make a holy difference in each other's lives, and, together, in the world.
In gratitude, because God welcomes us, we are called to make bold stands. In behalf of and along with those who remain oppressed, suffering, alienated, and poor in God's world, we speak and act . "It's not an extravagant welcome to an 'anything-goes' religion, a comfortable form of Christianity, but to a costly form of discipleship," says John Thomas, current president and general minister of the UCC. Thomas calls this kind of discipleship "evangelical courage." It's the other side of the "extravagant welcome" coin. You see this risky faith expressed throughout our history that at times has been hidden. Inspired by God's gift of hospitality, we work for God's welcoming world of love and justice.
Who do you pray might walk through your church's door?
If they entered, what difference might it make
What is God calling your church and you
What Matters to UCC Congregations
Believe the Time Has Come
Church of the Open Arms United Church of Christ, Oklahoma City, OK
What are the gifts and challenges of congregations with much diversity?
How does the Church of Open Arms express or inspire your own congregation?
What's your prayer for Church of the Open Arms?
Gathered around a large communion table, a diverse group of often despised folk sing: "Believe the time has come…." Even though it's almost too good to believe, the time has come, and they are God's community of faith. Such good news inspired Conna Wilkinson, songwriter and member, to write the song in the first place.
In 1997, Church of the Open Arms selected their name out of a long list of names to best match the vision they discerned for the church. Their vision claimed they would "follow in the justice-seeking way of Jesus." Then they set about, by God's grace, living a faith and witness exemplifying it.
Open Arms includes persons from many races, all ages, straight and gay. Persons who are recovering from addictions, and some who aren't recovering, are there. There are former prisoners and a few are still in jail. Persons with disabilities are present. It is a place where those who are poor find home; and those with mental illness discover a place. It's a place of indeed, extravagant welcome.
"Perhaps some would call us a scandalous place that is socially active," says pastor Kathy McCallie. "By never backing down on our commitment to welcome, it's tough at times. It's impossible to come away without being challenged in some way. Church isn't business as usual," says pastor, Kathy McCallie. She speaks the words with a lilt of holy joy and hope that lightens any challenge of living with such diversity: "The United Church of Christ is a God-send."
Both a vibrant spiritual life and justice commitment are God's gifts that come with such a welcoming heart. McCallie points out "We have had to wrestle with our faith. So, now, we have real faith in the Living God. It is exciting and adventurous." They live that faith through ministries that include prison ministry, a food pantry that serves 80 families each week, a HIV/AIDS care team, an annual mission trip to Nicaragua, as well as an exciting children's' ministry. "We've got the best children's drama group around." They provide free space for Amnesty International, PFLAG Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Narcotics Anonymous, Oklahoma Gay Natives, Manos Juntas (medical mission organization), Oklahoma Veterans for Peace, and the Peace House.
God's done good things at Church of the Open Arms. God's arms are open. The church opens its arms. The time has come.
When you are rejected or ignored, where or how do you gain strength?
How does Virginia inspire you?
How is God speaking to you through Virginia?
What is your prayer for Virginia?
What do you imagine Virginia's prayer might be for you and for your congregation?
When Virginia Kreyer talks about growing up with Cerebral Palsy, a condition that disorders body, muscle, and speech coordination, she is especially grateful to her mother. Without her mother, she says, "I would not have been able to be the woman I have become." The woman who Virginia has become is a rare human being whose faith and witness has inspired the UCC to extend an extravagant welcome. Her welcome embraces all people, but especially those with disabilities of any kind.
Virginia's parents loved her and encouraged her to learn, and she did. Through difficulty, she walked, spoke, interacted with others, and excelled at school. After graduating from college with honors, she felt the call to ministry and went to seminary. Her faith in God inspired her as well. She once said, "those who have accepted their handicaps and triumphed over them are those who have learned to look beyond themselves for help and learned of the ways of the spiritual world."
Ordained in 1952, Reverend Kreyer has served as a chaplain inspiring and caring for others with Cerebral Palsy. She also has made bold moves in behalf of those with disabilities in both the UCC and society. For so long she saw little support by the church for persons with disabilities. In 1976, however, she spoke out at a New York UCC Conference meeting when a kind visitor from Japan observed that he hadn't seen one person with disabilities. Virginia went to the nearest microphone and called for a resolution to the next UCC national Synod that would recognize and encourage pastoral care for persons with disabilities.
At the following Synod worship in the Washington National Cathedral, persons with disabilities led a parade with banners. Virginia and her friend, Harold Wilke, spoke and it resulted in Synod action calling for work with persons with disabilities becoming a priority for the UCC God embraced Virginia. Virginia continues to welcome others as God has welcomed her.
What do you find compelling in these stories?
In what ways does our history shape our ability to welcome others today?
In light of these stories, what might God be saying to you and your church?
Aloha, Who's Welcoming Who?
Malo, Native Hawaiian artist, pastor, prophet
Perhaps one would think a group of Congregational missionaries headed for Hawaii in 1819 were going to extend Christ's welcome to Native Hawaiians. Perhaps the adventure wasn't extending Christ's welcome as much as New England culture. James Michener's popular novel Hawaii, as well as a movie based on the book, depicts this tension.
On the other hand, perhaps it was the "Aloha" of Native Hawaiians which welcomed the New England strangers. One of the Hawaiians was Malo. He was highly regarded by the people of the island for his intimate knowledge and love of traditions and legends, and as a master of the hula.
When he moved to Maui in 1823, he welcomed the missionary William Richard and learned how to read and write English. He converted, was baptized, and took the name "David." Malo extended Christ's welcome to his own people by translating the gospel of Matthew into Hawaiian. Yet, in time, Malo grew discouraged and spoke out against conditions that "tended to diminish the people of the islands." He saw many of these conditions as fall-out of U.S. culture: disease, inept leadership, and weakness in traditional Hawaiian culture (LTH , Vol 5, 229-234).
Malo became involved in a larger struggle with U.S. interests when they confiscated his land for commercial use. He joined other Hawaiians in protesting such action. David Malo's life expressed extravagant welcome to the missionaries, yet a welcome that was expressed more powerfully in extending God's aloha—love, justice and peace—to those who were victims of injustice.
Four-year Old Lee, Finally Welcomed
Cameron Armstrong's sculpture Underground Railroad Monument, Oberlin College, Oberlin OH, recalls passage of those who were enslaved to a place where they were welcomed in freedom.
When four-year-old Lee Howard Dobbins died, 2000 people came to his funeral. This was amazing. Little Lee had a hard life. It was 1853, his mother had been a slave and his father owned her. Lee had been carried for days and nights by other slaves who sought freedom. They escaped to the North along the "underground railroad," a network of people working to assist fugitive slaves. The four-year-old and those who assisted him were being chased by the boy's father who intended to keep him as a slave.
The journey for Lee was difficult and he became too sick to travel. The people of Oberlin, Ohio, welcomed the child and cared for him during his last days of life.
The doors of First Congregational in Oberlin were opened for his funeral and the place was filled—an incredible outpouring of grief for the child. At the funeral, the pastor stirred the congregation with the words:
Erect a monument to the memory of the little slave boy,
bearing the inscription,
"Resurgam [Rise again]":
and believe that as certainly as this little one shall rise again,
so surely it is written on the institution of slavery,
"it shall fall."
While you meditate, give thanks
that our ancestors in the faith stood firmly
against the false claims of culture
and acted out the Gospel through defiant deeds of love.
Pray for the strength to do the same today…
and do not be afraid to weep.
And the congregations sang:
Lone little wanderer, now no more
mid stranger hearts to seek for love
Thou'st gained thy home, thy native shore
And boundless love thy bliss will prove.
Prayerfully explore the blessings called "Beatitudes" found in Matthew 5:1-11 or Luke 6:20-23. In these passages Jesus' teaching points to a strength of faith that is not known in ways often regarded as strength or success as wealth, power, full bellies, and robust health. Rather, Jesus reverses the traditional understanding and calls those "blessed" and "happy" who live the lives of reversal—as those who are poor, peace makers, persecuted, hungry, and who mourn.
How might your congregation be a place that nurtures people of the Beatitudes; seeks people of the Beatitudes; welcomes people of the Beatitudes; and learns form people of the Beatitudes?
Jesus spoke these words not in the congregation, but outside on the mountain and the plain. People of the Beatitudes are often outside the church, welcome them in.
What do you pray about? For whom do you pray? Prayer, itself, is a form of "extravagant welcome." Most often when we pray, it is family, friends, and those we know who come to mind. However prayer of the extravagant welcome, of true intercessory prayer, opens us to all God's children and the world around us.
Spend time in prayer by first opening yourself to God, then asking God to draw to heart and mind those who God would have you pray for. Whose faces and what situations come to mind? Who in our world longs for your prayers? Be open to the rich diversity of people whom God embraces and their life situations. Hold them before God.
With these persons in your heart before God, what might God be calling from you? Tilden Edwards in his book Living in the Presence suggests, "Accepting the invitation to intercessory prayer helps us to see and accept the invitation into intercessory action in other forms." God may move us from hearts open in prayer to actions of extravagant welcome.
When do you move from being a visitor in worship to being the one who welcomes the visitor? Take the bold step. Welcome one another in Christ. It's never too early to extend the hospitality of Christ to another. For the most part, we all feel a bit awkward going up to someone we don't know. Hey, but we are one in Christ. Be courageous. God is present in our worship and brings us all together for this holy time. If you are open to God's leading, no matter where you are on life's journey, God may lead you to another who needs a kind welcome and care.
God's World Matters
"Extravagant welcome" is not only a matter of opening the doors of your congregation. It is a commitment to make the world a more hospitable place for all God's children. Explore both the current global plight of refugees and that of immigrants into the United States. Check out the range of possible actions from advocating immigration reform to hosting evacuees from crises such as Hurricane Katrina.
What Matters is written by Sidney D. Fowler. Designed by Duy-Khuong Van (risingflare.com)
Copyright © 2005 - 2008 Congregational Vitality in the United Church of Christ.