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The welcome table

How the hospitality of progressive churches cultivates forgiveness and justice.
By John Buehrens
Summer 2010 5.15.10

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welcome mat

(Tetra Images/Corbis)

The sign said, “Everyone Welcome.” But this was the segregated South, sixty years ago. White folks were gathering to form a new, progressive church in Knoxville: academics, union leaders, professionals, activists, students. “Does that mean me, too?” asked the black man. “It sure does!” said the greeter. It wasn’t a very large congregation. But Jim Pearson became a member. Soon the music director was another black man, Calvin Dash. Leaders of the Knoxville black community joined, and a multiracial congregation was born. They helped to form an area Council on Human Relations that began to offer summer camps where black and white children could simply play together and get to know one another. Church members volunteered. Often they had to move the camp’s site because the Ku Klux Klan put bombs in mailboxes or left threats. After the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling in 1954, the church voted to take out a full-page ad in the local newspaper, urging citizens to support implementing school desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Many of the local sit-ins to desegregate public facilities were organized at the church. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed before the Poor People’s March on Washington could happen, the church organized meals for the protesters.

The congregation did not stop at issues of race. I served as their minister in the 1970s. When Knoxville gay and lesbian Christians formed a small Metropolitan Community Church, no one would provide them with worship space. So we did. They met Sunday afternoons. Then early one Sunday evening the front windows of the church building were shot out by young men in a pickup truck. They threw formaldehyde into the building. Our youth group was meeting in another room. We cleaned up, called the police, and calmed fears. But we didn’t call the media. Few people would have been sympathetic. We just focused on staying open and hospitable.

All this came back to me in August 2008. A man entered the sanctuary of my former congregation on a summer Sunday with a shotgun hidden in his guitar case. The diverse children of this welcoming congregation had been working on a musical together, Annie Junior. That Sunday morning they were presenting it.

He left a four-page letter in his vehicle saying that he was frustrated at not being able to get a job and that he blamed all the problems in his life and in the world on “liberals.” A truck driver with multiple drunken-driving convictions, he had been married and divorced five times. His fifth wife had taken out a restraining order on him before she divorced him. For a time, before she chose to leave Knoxville, she had attended this church, where the concerns of abused women are taken seriously. His goal, his note said, was to kill as many liberals as possible before police killed him. He had lots of shells. His apartment was full of right-wing literature blaming everything on liberals—books by Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Michael Savage.

When he came in, aiming his shotgun at a chancel full of children, the head usher, Greg McKendry, stepped into the line of fire. He took the shotgun blast to his own chest. The next shots killed a visiting UU, Linda Kraeger, and wounded six other adults. John Bohstedt, a history professor who was to play “Daddy Warbucks” in the children’s musical, joined another church member in wrestling the shooter to the ground. A week later, the minister, the Rev. Chris Buice, commented about the shooter, “He believed that liberals were soft on terror. He had a rude discovery!” They held him down until police and paramedics arrived. Meanwhile, the children were taken to safety at the Presbyterian church next door, where, the following evening, more than a thousand people gathered in solidarity with the hated so-called liberals.

I was there the next Sunday for the rededication of the sanctuary. A reporter asked Buice what he wanted from a day in court. “Justice,” he said. “What would justice look like?” “A community where our children are safe,” he replied. The man pleaded guilty as charged, saying it was “the honorable thing to do.” He was sentenced to life in prison, no parole. His victims and their loved ones accept that. They have little interest in state-sponsored murder as revenge. As Dr. King said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and soon we shall all be eyeless and toothless.”

(See UU World’s coverage of the Knoxville shootings.)

The outpouring of love the Knoxville church received from neighbors of all faiths and convictions has helped the healing. Their conviction that love is stronger than death and more powerful than hate is not weakened, but deepened. So the sign is still there. “Everyone Welcome.” And the church really means it: anyone who comes in peace is welcome.

That church is not alone. In countless places, progressive churches have welcomed new groups getting started to meet some unmet moral or spiritual need in the community: women’s groups, environmental groups, recovery groups. At the core of authentic religion is the spirit of hospitality. All three Abrahamic faiths recognize this. The tent of Abraham is open on all four sides to welcome the stranger from anywhere, say the rabbis. The infamous sin of ancient Sodom was not same-sex love, scholars say, but rather a brutal violation of strangers who should have been treated with hospitality.

There is much to forgive in this world. Those who have been hurt often know that best. But hospitality, rightly practiced, can be a powerful source of healing. The Rev. Patrick Thomas Aquinas O’Neill (I love that name!), now minister of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, tells this story from his own childhood: He was in first grade. One day that winter, some older boys pushed him, face first, into a snowbank. Outraged at the indignity, he sat crying on the front stoop of his house. A neighbor, Mrs. Boutellon, had seen everything. She came out, brushed the snow off his clothes, and took him to her kitchen table. She served him hot cocoa and told him, in her French accent, “Patrick, you are angry at those boys for what they did to you. And it is natural for you to feel that way. But now—you must let it go. This day has other things to give you.”

Patrick never forgot what she said. Years later, after both Mrs. Boutellon and her husband had died, he told his mother about it. “That sounds just like her,” said Mrs. O’Neill. “You know, don’t you, that the Boutellons were both survivors of the Nazi concentration camps?”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers to seek forgiveness and be reconciled to one another before they bring their gifts to the altar of God. This is a rigorous standard, but spiritually sound. Conrad Browne, who with his wife, Ora, and their children lived as part of the interracial Christian community called Koinonia, in southern Georgia in the early ’50s, says that it was a part of daily practice there. Before evening prayers, members were encouraged to ask forgiveness of anyone with whom they had tension during the day. It helped, especially when under pressure from the Klan and a boycott. “Be angry but do not sin,” Paul says in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.”

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others who trespass against us,” says the prayer Jesus taught. Some Christian theologies emphasize the experience of forgiveness through Jesus. Other, more radical and progressive theologies emphasize the subsequent challenge of also laying down any right to revenge. When a gunman entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse a few years ago and killed five young girls before killing himself, the response of Amish parents astonished many people. They attended the man’s funeral and even prayed for him. Their way of life may be quite different, but many progressive theologians understood. It is not the point of the Gospels to feel forgiven and then be free to hate or judge.

“We are in the early stages of a radical reassessment of Jesus,” writes progressive evangelical author Brian D. McLaren. Like many in more traditional mainline churches, he represents a growing number of Christians, including younger evangelicals and those in the “emerging church” movement, who are asking new questions. What, for example, should it mean for their faith today that Jesus so clearly juxtaposed his own radical hospitality with the conventional religiosity of his own time? Or that when Jesus preached about the kingdom of God as a discipleship of equals, he was so clearly challenging the domination system embodied in the pretensions of Rome to global imperial hegemony—pretensions that America seems to have in our own time?

“Why do we need to have singular and firm opinions on the protection of the unborn, but not about how to help poor people and how to avoid killing people labeled enemies who are already born?” McLaren asks. “Or why are we so concerned about the legitimacy of homosexual marriage but not about the legitimacy of fossil fuels or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (and in particular, our weapons as opposed to theirs)? Or why are so many [evangelicals] arguing about the origin of species but so few concerned about the extinction of species?”

McLaren understands Jesus’s message in the way progressive theology often has: not as being about “escaping this troubled world for heaven’s blissful shores, as is popularly assumed, but instead is about God’s will being done on this troubled earth as it is in heaven.” It is about having the faith that we can together feed the many who are hungry—because, just as Jesus is said to have fed five thousand with two fishes and a few loaves of bread, with plenty left over, we need to operate out of an awareness of abundance, not a model of scarcity. Jesus spread a welcome table for all people, and we are called to do the same.

We have for too long turned the market into our modern god. But it is an impotent idol when it comes to creating authentic justice and peace. The judgments of the unfettered market, as the recent global economic crisis has amply demonstrated, are not, as Psalm 19 describes God’s judgments, “true and righteous altogether.” That is mere free market fundamentalism. We forget that when markets emerged in human history, bringing peoples of different customs and laws together, the more universalizing forms of religion emerged to urge the powerful to remember to treat others as they themselves would want to be treated.

We are now in a time when even the prosperous among us are facing reduced expectations and economic anxieties. It may be a good time to face another challenging question that isn’t asked often enough: “How much do I (or we) deserve, anyway?” Recently I was asked to address a congregation exploring concerns about global hunger. The congregation had decided to raise money and consciousnesses simultaneously by holding a “hunger banquet.” Perhaps you have been to one. Since we live in a world of more than six billion people, where at least two billion live on the equivalent of $2 a day or less, a third of those present were served only small portions of plain rice. Others received rice and beans and a vegetable. Only about one out of ten people were served what most of us would call “a full meal,” including dessert. And only a few people out of a hundred got a “gourmet meal” that evening.

As I told the gathering, I had recently done some Christmas shopping at a glitzy mall nearby. I was laden down with my own purchases, tired, contemplating the competitive aspects of our culture’s great annual consumer potlatch, muttering to myself (“This is how we celebrate the birth of Christ in a stable?”), and pondering how even gift-giving now gets tainted with sneaky forms of competition and ego gratification. Just then I caught sight of a teenage boy, just bobbing along, listening to his iPod, nothing in hand, wearing a T-shirt with a memorable slogan: “Only you can prevent narcissism!” How refreshing, I thought, to see the key spiritual ailment of our culture named there in its very temple! Its message is embedded in every ad we hear or see: “What matters is you; what you feel, what you want, and above all, what you deserve.”

On the way home, I popped into the CD player in my car a gift that I had bought (from me to me, with love): a recording of those amazing women who call themselves Sweet Honey in the Rock. They were singing a Bernice Johnson Reagon song about how to talk about greed. “Greed is so sneaky,” they sang. “Hard to detect in myself; I see it so clearly in everybody else.” Immediately I thought of the passage in Matthew in which a rich young man asks Jesus what he must do to have life eternal. Jesus first asks, “Why do you call me good? There is only One who is good.” Then he tells him to keep the commandments. “Which ones?” Jesus says don’t murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness. Honor your father and mother. Love your neighbor as yourself. “But I do; what then do I still lack?” “Jesus said, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions.”

Like him, most of us don’t feel called to be perfect. But how can we denounce every public effort to help the poor and vulnerable of our society as an “entitlement” while simultaneously maintaining a culture that seems shot through with entitlement? The great sociologist Robert Bellah once observed:

[I]t is no accident . . . that the United States, with its high evaluation of the individual person, is nonetheless alone among North Atlantic societies in the percentage of our population who live in poverty. . . . Just when we are moving to an ever-greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. And this is in no small part due to the fact that our religious individualism is linked to an economic individualism which, though it makes no distinctions between persons except monetary ones, ultimately knows nothing of the sacredness of the individual. If the only standard is money, then all other distinctions are undermined.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, when the rich young man goes away, Jesus remarks that it will be as hard for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle as for a person laden with riches to enter into the spiritual commonwealth ruled by God. “Then how can anyone be saved?” ask his disciples. With God’s openness, all things are possible, Jesus replies. Then he tells a parable:

The owner of a vineyard goes out in the morning to hire laborers. He agrees to give them the usual daily wage. Seeing more people seeking work, and more to be done, he goes out later and tells those people he will pay them what is right as well. He does the same at noon, mid­afternoon, and just an hour before quitting time at sunset. When payment time comes, he orders that the last hired be the first to be paid, and that they receive a full day’s wage. Those who worked all day grumble out loud. But the owner of the vineyard replies, “Am I allowed to do what I choose with what is mine? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

So how much do we deserve? In a book with that title, Richard Gilbert suggests some religious principles for distributive justice. Among other things, Gilbert quotes what the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in a pastoral letter in 1986:

Basic justice . . . calls for the establishment of a floor of material well-being on which all can stand. This is a duty of the whole of society, and it creates particular obligations for those with greater resources. This duty calls into question extreme inequalities of income and consumption when so many lack basic necessities. Catholic social teaching does not maintain that a flat, arithmetical equality of income and wealth is a demand of justice, but it does challenge economic arrangements that leave large numbers of people impoverished. Further, it sees extreme inequality as a threat to the solidarity of the human community, for great disparities lead to deep social divisions and conflict.

When my congregation contemplates efforts to help the poor, whether through charity or through improved social arrangements, there are always those who wonder whether the help is going to the “deserving” poor. I have only one basic theological response to that. It’s a matter of sisterhood and brotherhood, of spiritual equality around the table that God has set before us. So when we are troubled by what some call the “internalized oppression” of the victimized and see self-defeating patterns of behavior in the poor, we might try maintaining empathy and solidarity the way psychologist Mary Pipher says a good marriage is kept together: Try looking in the mirror and then saying, “You know, you’re no prize either!”

Because there is no one around God’s welcome table who is entirely free of some self-defeating flaw. No, not one. Yet only you, and you, and you, and you, and I can together even begin to prevent narcissism. Or prevent a culture of narcissistic self-involvement and entitlement from sapping empathy and generosity from our very souls. Only then can we begin to talk around the table about greed—and learn to pass the potatoes more politely. And to discuss not an ideology, but a spirituality and theology that moves toward a welcome table of abundance for all God’s children. One aimed at reducing the violence and anger in the world by living more simply, so that others may simply live, by practicing responsible consumption, and by supporting something closer to a living wage (not a minimum wage) for more of our sisters and brothers.

Every spring my family gathers to celebrate Passover, the festival of liberation, around my sister-in-law’s table. As a progressive Jew, she calls us to a “freedom seder”: one focused on the hope that next year all God’s children shall dwell in the city of peace, where shalom is created by having a community in which all children are safe and have enough to eat. And often when I receive or cele­brate Christian Communion, I do so in the same spirit. It is a spirit of hoping that I have laid down enough bitterness and anger to be able to go away humming in my heart that old song that says, “We’re gonna sit at the welcome table, one of these days.” Of knowing that I have been welcomed already—and blessed, and spiritually fed, and sent forth to try to make it possible for more people in this world to see that we don’t really deserve anything. Everything we receive in this life is a gift—a gift to be shared around the welcome table with our hungry sisters and brothers.

Reprinted from A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, ©2010 by John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, by kind permission of Beacon Press. See “We are already in paradise” (Summer 2010, page 18) for an excerpt by Rebecca Parker.

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