What Do We Mean When We Say, “All Are Welcome”?

I’ve driven by that church—you know, the one with the giant banner that says, “All Are Welcome.” I often ask myself, “If I walked through the doors, would I be embraced?” I’m an educated, queer, Black, Progressive, Transgender Christian. Would I, with all that I bring, be welcomed in that space?”

When we claim that “all are welcome,” it comes from a genuine place of wanting to widen our tables and expand our community circles to more closely resemble the beloved community of God. But when we open ourselves to the beautiful tapestry of humanity that is the Body of Christ, are we prepared to receive the folks who show up? Perhaps a better question is, how are we prepared to receive the folks who show up?

When we extend the welcome to LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) folks, are we aware of the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation? Do we know how the experiences of Transgender folks vary from the experiences of Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay folks? Do we understand that these different experiences may demand different types of accommodation? Even within the LGBTQ community itself, differing historical experiences of—and shifting power dynamics between—women and men, people of color and white people, old and young, transgender and cisgender, and rich and poor influence how each person within those categories shows up in life and shows up in community.

When we open ourselves to the beautiful tapestry of humanity that is the Body of Christ, are we prepared to receive the folks who show up?

When we extend the welcome to people of different racial and ethnic groups, are we prepared to meet them as they are? Can we embrace their painful histories while seeking to know them as individuals with dreams and experiences apart from the dominant narratives we may have heard about their particular cultural groups? Can we recognize that being Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer isn’t the sum of the identity of a woman who may also be a mother, an activist, a spouse, a tech designer, or a fourth-grade science teacher who moved to Minnesota from central Ohio? Can we see that she already is all of that—and that she continues to become who she is in community?

When we extend the welcome to Millennials and families with younger children, how do we engage busy schedules, parents with very little down time, and people who don’t necessarily share our attachment to the ancient stories and sacred rituals that undergird our institutional structures? With the advancement of technology, we have much more at our disposal. As a result, younger generations respond to diverse stimuli, active engagement, ready information and new skill sets that sometimes seem foreign, different, or irrelevant to older generations who find other modes of learning and engagement more familiar and “natural.”

When we extend the welcome to people with differing physical or mental abilities, how equipped are we to make the sacred tangible for them, too? Wheel chair ramps, elevators, large print bulletins, quiet rooms, and decluttered common areas represent genuine, concrete steps toward inclusion. And efforts to understand and promote the emotional and spiritual development of people with differing abilities may result in our needing to engage unfamiliar concepts and formulate fresh ways of expressing a collective faith in a new vernacular.

When we extend the welcome to people who have been marginalized by the church, or by society, how are we prepared to meet and embrace their pain? How are we prepared to walk alongside them as they heal and pursue their dreams?

In addition to putting up the welcome banner, we can be intentional about whom we invite to the table by learning about the people we seek to be with in community. What stories and experiences shape the individuals in our midst? Doing life with people who are different from us, or who have had experiences different from our own, takes courage. It requires us to take into account the social dynamics that inform what each person brings to the table of our common life together. Similarly, it is also the case that each church and community, like each person, is shaped by its own character, history, and unique qualities. In our efforts to expand our circles and our understanding, we must not exclude those who are already at the table.

Doing life with people who are different from us, or who have had experiences different from our own, takes courage.

Jesus prepared the welcome table with the bread of unity and the cup of liberation, and he invited all to join him. Those called to be hosts at this table must extend the same hospitality that Christ extends to us. Our Holy communion. When we invite someone to move in with us, we are also helping them to unpack. We each bring something to the table. What’s in your baggage? What’s in the baggage being carried by your neighbor?

Jesus commanded us to love; and we know that God is Love. As we widen our shared community tables and expand our circles of welcome, we must live boldly into our call to transform and be transformed by the same Spirit that unites us all through that Love. Genuine hospitality—true welcome to the table—involves more than inviting people into to our space. It requires that we all are open to transformation together. We do not offer full hospitality when we embrace those who are “new” or “different” by bringing them into a community that is marked by a fixed, rigid, unchanging identity. A truly hospitable community is marked by its willingness to change in response to the newcomer.

When we say, “All are Welcome,” we aren’t merely announcing that anyone is welcome to become one of us. Instead, we are proclaiming that we want others to come in and help all of us change—to help all of us grow in love, acceptance, and community.

To whom do you truly open your doors and your hearts? Through whom will you invite God to continue the sacred work of transformation in community?

Lawrence Richardson

The Rev. Lawrence T. Richardson is a United Church of Christ pastor, writer, and digital evangelist. He uses multiple online platforms to advocate for social justice, express relevant content, and communicate inspired information. When he is not blogging and ministering, Lawrence spends his time enjoying nature, practicing yoga, and being an active presence in both the Transgender and Progressive Christian communities. You can find Lawrence online at www.LTRichardson.com and on Twitter @Larry2_0.

Image credits:

Cover – Transguyjay, “All Are Welcome …,” May 26, 2006. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0.

Inside – Andy, “Consolation,” December 1, 2006. Via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0 / Cropped and desaturated.