June 01, 2018
By The Rev. Steven Ford, Assistant at St. Mark’s, Mesa
The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona
"Radical hospitality" has, of late, become an almost mandatory buzz-phrase in American liberal Christian denominational statements of identity and purpose. It has rapidly spread to the judicatory and congregational level. This is particularly true in The Episcopal Church and in first-world Anglicanism generally.
For us, it's often tied to our Benedictine heritage. Our roots are deep in the singing of the daily offices, and this is reflected in our classic church architecture, which has generally included a monastic-style choir for their public celebration. The tradition of Benedictine monasteries, priories and convents, of course, is that no one is ever turned away. Everyone is welcome for worship and prayer and simply for quiet time, the hungry are fed and those without shelter are housed.
Retirement Road Trip
In early May, I celebrated my retirement from active ministry by taking a week-long road trip through several southwestern U.S. states, leisurely returning home through northern Mexico. I made it a point, in both rural and urban U.S. areas through which I passed, to find and stop at every Episcopal church that I could. I found and stopped at many. Almost invariably, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" sign was prominently displayed. A few were new, but some were so old and rusted that the parish name and service times were no longer readable. One was attached to a chain link fence with razor wire crowning the top. Another had a "No Trespassing" sign nailed up directly beside it. But what really broke this priest's heart was that, without exception, every single "welcoming" Episcopal church at which he stopped was locked up as tightly as a jail. A few even had locked prison bar-like gates preventing entry even to the grounds. "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," said the signs, but the locks and gates and rust clearly shouted, "You're not welcome here. Go away." Not surprisingly, most people do stay away.
I'm enough of a sociologist of religion who has spent time in more than 190 countries engaging in what social anthropologists used to call "participant observation" to be convinced by Emile Durkheim's observation that a group's conception of God is the sum total of that group's beliefs and values (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912). Mainstream Americans, whatever we choose to espouse, do not comprise a particularly welcoming or trusting culture. This is evidenced by the widespread popular support of various attempts at a "Muslim ban" and the mass deportation of mostly Christian Hispanics who are U.S. residents by choice. On my trip, for instance, I was welcomed into Mexico by a female border guard who noticed the wedding band on my right hand instead of my left (it changed hands when I was widowed in December), and asked if I was a priest or a religious brother. "A priest," said I, not wanting to get into the ins-and-outs of Anglicanism). "Welcome to Mexico, Father," she said. "Have a great time." And off I went.
Interestingly, not a single Mexican Roman Catholic church at which I stopped was locked, and none was being looted or ransacked. Returning to the U.S., however, I had to prove my citizenship at the border, and after that I went through two freeway checkpoints set up to make certain I didn't look Hispanic. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You." Sure.
About a month before my retirement from active ministry, it occurred to me that I should probably use up my accrued vacation time (which came to about two weeks). So off I went to Bangladesh. The plane was late in arriving -- 2:00 a.m. instead of 10:00 p.m. -- and everything was shut down at the airport. I'd reserved a car, but the rental desk was closed. I finally found an envelope with my name and a license plate number on it, and after an hour of searching the parking lot with a key chain light, I was off. But who knew where? No streetlights, no posted street names, nothing. I found a mosque, door open and lights on, so I stopped and went in. Two devout men inside interrupted their prayers, and when they finally figured out I was totally lost directed to a nearby police station. The only officer on duty, who spoke remarkably fine English, explained that the office was "Central Booking," and that if I waited, a patrol car would "bring in a customer" and he'd have him lead me to the hotel in which I had a reservation. We joked, we laughed, he made me coffee and a sandwich. Sure enough, after about an hour, a patrol car pulled up, and the duty officer chatted with the patrolman. Within minutes I was being led (flashing lights flashing so he didn't lose me) through alleys and swamps and mud holes to precisely where I wanted to be. "The Islamic People's Republic of Bangladesh Welcomes You." "The Sunni Mosque Welcomes You" (even at 2:00 a.m.). Indeed!
What this priest learned was simple. First, many people against whom we Americans discriminate pointlessly seen to know instinctually (or else through personal experience) that no political regime lasts for very long. Second, most governments don't represent the will of their citizens, at least for the long haul. Finally, our American Anglican mantra, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You," has a Mexican border guard, two Sunni late-night faithful and two Sunni police officers who can teach us a whole lot about "welcome."
Although, as a sociologist of religion, I remain convinced by Durkheim's observation that a group's conception of God is the sum total of that group's beliefs and values, my eons as a priest leave open to the possibility that The Episcopal Church (and liberal Christianity generally) might become a catalyst for change in our society's "collective conscience" and thus actually make it more welcoming than appears to be now
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