How should you respond to someone who doesn’t look like you that wanders into your church?
I’m not just talking about people who look like they stand outside of your normal social circle, I’m talking about the obvious ones: the homeless, the disabled, and those who quite literally walk in with everything they’ve got.
It’s been a question popping up in my circles lately and I wanted to give my ten cents.
The Disabled and the Church
11 Alive News shared a story about a woman who was going blind. There was a church not too far from her home that she wanted to begin attending, but having a service dog to help her get around, she called ahead to make sure it wouldn’t be an issue for her dog to be with her in the sanctuary on Sunday morning.
But a few minutes before the service started, she was aggressively approached by a group of deacons who told her she needed to move to a pew in the back of the sanctuary… because of her service animal. They were afraid it would get agitated during the worship service and cause a distraction.
“‘It was discrimination. I had never in my life been discriminated against. Never. And to be discriminated against for the first time, as a disabled person in a church is disgusting,’ she said.” You can read the article here.
The Homeless and the Church
There is a church in Atlanta with a lot of homeless people who wander on and off its building’s property throughout the week. The church itself does a lot of outreach with the homeless, which is in and of itself commendable. They recognize the embedded dignity of every human being and try to utilize its resources to serve those in need.
Kind of ironic that the sign on the building says, “Welcome” and “Sanctuary this way,” but the signs on the benches next to it communicate a message targeted to a certain demographic: “You can’t stay,” and “you’re not really welcome here.”
(Apparently, outraged older members of the congregation ripped the signs off and put them in the trash — haha!)
Don’t Play Favorites
What should we do about those who aren’t like us who find their way into our churches on Sunday morning, whether handicapped, homeless, mentally ill, or poor?
It turns out that James has a lot to say about it: “As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism,” he writes (James 2:1).
Pretty clear, eh?
“Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but you say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2:2-4).
One could write it this way:
Suppose a man comes into your meeting looking like a normal person, someone you’d be comfortable approaching, and then a blind woman with a service animal or a bedraggled, smelly homeless man mumbling under his breath walks in. If you show special attention to the “normal person” and say, “Welcome! We’re so glad to have you,” but you say to the woman with the dog or the homeless man, “Helllloooooo…” and then ask your deacons to “keep an eye on them and ask them to leave if they become a distraction,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
James goes on to say, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you have insulted the poor” (2:5-6).
How the Church Should Treat the Stranger
As Christians, if we claim to be a people who stand in the tradition of justice and Jesus, then everybody is welcome at the table – everybody is welcome in our communities of faith.
Jesus never said to the stranger, “Go get some counseling, go get a job, go take a shower, and then come back.”
He stood with people in their mess and loved them regardless of all that other junk.
When we don’t invite the most broken, downtrodden, marginalized people to the table simply for the sake of inviting them to become a part of our faith community with their warts, scars, hurts, fears, smells, ill-bents, and what-have-yous, when we attach conditions to the table, we don’t just shun and shame those individuals, we shun and shame Jesus (Matthew 25:35).
If our sanctuaries are not places of refuge, hospitality, and unconditional love, then they’re not sanctuaries; they’re clubhouses for the religious elite who missed the plot.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going to stand in the tradition of Jesus, of love, of grace, and mercy.