The signboard on the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, in New York City, said simply, “This is God’s house…all are welcome.” In a sermon one Sunday, I mentioned how much I loved that signboard and everyone in the congregation nodded their head in agreement. Then, I heard the Holy Spirit say through me, “My question is…do we mean it?” There was an “ummmm” that was audible in the congregation! I continued, “Are we really willing to welcome people into our congregation who are not dressed like us? Or, what if they don’t look like us…or think like us…or (in the case of the homeless people sleeping in our steps) they may not even smell like us!”
This sermon was the inspiration for our congregation getting involved with the homeless people who were sleeping on our steps. Before we reached out to the homeless people, we referred to them as “the homeless.” But, once we met them and started to get to know them, we realized that they have names…Joe, Cowboy, Karen, Lila, and Phil. We discovered that they were real people with hopes and dreams, failures and disappointments…just like us! We discovered that many of them had college degrees, some had law degrees and some were professional musicians. However, due to some challenging circumstance in their life, or a mental health issue, or an addiction, or a bad choice, they “got off the track,” and before they knew it, they were homeless.
The more I participated in our churches ministry with our homeless neighbors and friends, the more I realized that one of the obstacles that we had to overcome was FEAR! We were afraid of them and they were afraid of us! However…it was amazing that when we went out and introduced ourselves and told them our name first, then they were willing to tell us their name. Once we were willing to extend hospitality to them, then they were willing to extend hospitality to us. We found that becoming friends with them and building trust helped to overcome our fears. Then…the walls between “us and them” started to come down too…and we started to use the word, “we.” Frankly, I was surprised when Joe, Karen and Cowboy became our friends.
If we are honest on this Election Day, of 2016, many people in America fear a Hillary Clinton presidency or a Donald Trump presidency. Still others are afraid of talking about this election with family and friends because of our fear of conflict. Amid all of this, there are fears about violence on the streets of America and the lack of understanding between Caucasians and African Americans. Some are afraid of the police, while others fear young adults who walk around in “hoodies.” America is a house divided. We are afraid of “the other.” We “stereotype” people who don’t look like “us” or think like “us.” We have misconceptions about how other people will behave or react in situations. As author, Henri Nouwen wrote, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” In other words, in order to live in community, we have to face our fears of each other.
Not long ago, I was sitting in a meeting approaching a possible donor for a contribution to Macedonian Ministry. I took four of our Macedonian Ministry pastors from Birmingham, AL with me: two were African American and two were Caucasian. The person who was interviewing us, who we were asking for the grant, expressed delighted that the members of our group got along so well despite our racial differences. He was lamenting the lack of racial understanding and reconciliation in America. One of our African American pastors spoke up at this point, “The key to racial understanding is getting to know one another and building trust before there is a crisis! Before this Macedonian Ministry group, I knew a few Caucasian people as acquaintances…now I know them as my friends in Christ!” He continued, “ When my mother died, not long ago, these Caucasian and African American pastors, in my Macedonian Ministry group, showed up to comfort our family in our loss. I can call on any of them, at a moment’s notice, if there is a crisis in my life or in our city. The problem is that people of different races often don’t know one another. So…after a shooting, like the ones in Dallas or Ferguson, we try to get to know one another then. But it is hard to become friends in a crisis. Macedonian Ministry allowed me the opportunity to get to know my Caucasian brothers first, and then, when a crisis comes, we have our friendship to draw on to help us communicate with each other.”
What a profound thought: friendship is the antidote to fear and stereotypes! And when we become friends, with someone who “seems different,” our stereotypes dissolve. And, we are surprised to discover that we have more in common with people who “seem different” than we could have imagined! Friendship does not mean that we always agree; it just means that we can disagree without being disagreeable. It means that we can look at a situation from another point of view, out of our respect for each other.
So…it’s easy to put up a sign, “This is God’s house, all are welcome.” It is quite another matter to mean it when people who are not like “us” walk through the door! But, watch out…when we welcome others, as Christ has welcomed us, then the biggest surprise of all is that we start to see in their faces… the face of Jesus!