Monday, April 4, 2011

Making Welcome Work

Carlsbad church emerges stronger from media tempest -

Six years ago, a young man arrived for worship seeming eager to learn. He came several weeks in a row--then asked for an appointment to see me. That visit was unlike any I'd ever had. He shared his story with me: a story that included a criminal conviction for inappropriate sexual contact with a minor. He told me about time he'd just completed in a correctional institution for sexual offenders. And he asked if he'd be welcome to worship among us and build a new foundation for his life.

I remember pausing to process everything he was saying. And I remember asking him for some time to think it over with church leaders. In my experience, his was an unprecedented request. It seemed important we explore it as a community.

So within days, I brought this remarkable request to our Church Vision Team, a spirited and thoughtful group of leaders that meets monthly. They were as surprised and as perplexed as I. That first conversation--and several following--were raw and open and theological in the very best way. We talked about grace, about forgiveness, about God's extravagant welcome, about mistakes. And we talked about children and safety and transparency and honesty. We asked what Jesus would do--in a similar situation. And we grappled with the particularity of our own setting: a multi-generational church committed to the most radical Christian hospitality possible. There was weeping. There was anger. There was negotiation. There was prayer.

In the end, we developed a covenant with our new friend. That covenant made it very clear that he was welcome and cherished as part of our church family. A small group of us committed to meeting with him every week, exploring his journey of recovery and monitoring his compliance with the terms of our agreement. Those terms included absolutely no contact with church children and constant accompaniment while he was on our campus. I believe that the spirit with which we prayed over this and the love with which we communicated our decisions made all the difference. He stayed with us, came to church just about every week and did some very important spiritual work.

A year and a half later, when a better job in San Diego turned up, our friend moved south and sought out another United Church of Christ congregation. We sent him off with gifts, with prayer and with the same promise we share with others. "We will always count you as a brother among us." His experience in the new church (Carlsbad, CA) was more difficult and more divisive. This is not to judge them in any way. They had their own process to pursue and their own internal dynamics to negotiate. It was a painful experience all around--but they seem to have emerged strong and wise and committed. I had just one conversation with the pastor; but it was clear he was grounded in deep faith and willing to risk.

The op-ed above gives a bit of an update on where that church has been. In reflection, I think my own congregation needs to once again appreciate the gift we were given. We learned something profound through our own experience: something about the cost of the gospel, something about the risks of extravagant welcome. Something about what's possible.

Wherever he is now, I trust that he knows that our promise still stands.  We count him as a brother--a broken and healing brother among all the rest who worship together every week.