Sermon: Who’s Got a Place at the Welcome Table?

This is the first sermon in our Back to the Basics series entitled “Who’s Got a Place at the Welcome Table?” The image is “The Trinity” or “The Hospitality of Abraham,” an icon created by Russian painter Andrei Rublev in the 15th century.

So many people contributed to the ideas in this sermon: Many of them are named, but some of them aren’t – so I want to also thank Joanna Shenk, Pat Plude and planning committee member Ben Bolaños as additional contributors to the ideas in this sermon.

Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson is one of our sibling congregations in Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Becca Cordes, whom some of you know, is now an active member there, and Tina Schlabach, their co-pastor, did a trauma training here a few years back. I also work closely with their other co-pastor, Carol Rose, on the Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery Coalition. Shalom fascinates me because, recently, in the space of about one year, they went from being a largely middle-class white Mennonite congregation to being a multi-class, multicultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual church.

It all started when Georgette and Raymond, Mennonite refugees from the Congo, were placed in Tucson and went looking for a Mennonite church. Shalom was the only Menno game in town, so they started attending. They brought another Congolese refugee family with them, and they both began inviting their friends. Within weeks, about 1/4 of the congregation was made up Congolese refugees, and almost all of the children and youth attending the congregation were Congolese. (Shalom is currently 40% immigrant folks.)

Tina began visiting these families regularly. On her second visit with them, they asked if they could have a choir. Tina and Carol said, “Yes!” Since then, each week Shalom has received the blessing of new songs with joy and rhythm that challenge them to move.  Several weeks in, they realized they needed interpretation during worship because they couldn’t understand each other. Soon after, there were also more Spanish-language speakers who didn’t know English attending. So, Shalom hired a Swahili interpreter and got volunteers to do Spanish interpretation. They also began to incorporate more Spanish and Swahili into their services. Sermons needed to get shorter.  There were fewer English songs.  And worship, needless to say, started going longer. They began to ask the Congolese newcomers to preach, even though there were some very interesting theological moments, as Carol said, since the theology of the Congolese folks differed quite a lot from most of the white folks in the church. The church has given quite a lot of money from their Sharing Fund to these new immigrant families, who have also been incredibly generous among themselves. Carol recounts that when another Congolese refugee, Joyce, began coming to the church, Raymond and Georgette took her a big bag of rice and beans. Carol told me: “Raymond and Georgette basically shot their monthly SNAP card on that purchase.”

Two years ago, a Spanish-only-speaking Bolivian woman was elected to the Elders, and all of the meetings began happening in English and Spanish. In addition, church documents were translated into Spanish. At the same time, one of the Congolese men who doesn’t know a lot of English was elected Deacon, so the Deacons’ documents and meetings make much use of Google Translate.  Needless to say, this all took a lot of work.

Tina and Carol are both very aware that they have basically slotted Congolese and Spanish-speaking folks into an existing church administrative and worship structure, and that those structures will eventually need to change to reflect not just “white Mennonite” ways of doing things. Carol said: “I”m not sure how many of the white folks in the church understand this yet.”

The children’s and youth education programs have been especially challenging. Suddenly, there were Sunday School classes with one or two white teachers and nine or 10 Congolese kids who “didn’t speak English and had lots of energy.” The youth group kids did speak English and, as Carol put it, they have a theology that was not formed by the Shalom congregation. Specifically, that theology is not LGBTQ-friendly. Carol and Tina  had been very clear with the new folks that their welcome statement is inclusive of everyone — including LGBTQ people — but there are still attitudes or theologies expressed by some folks in the congregation that aren’t in line with that welcome policy. Carol and several other folks at Shalom identify as LGBTQ.  Carol believes that they don’t have the luxury of working on only one oppression at a time. They have to work at all of the oppressions at the same time, she said — white supremacy, class and poverty, immigration, issues around gender and sexual orientation, and the environmental crisis.

Now, I will confess that when Carol told me the story of this incredible transition, I thought to myself:  I can’t quite imagine this happening here. Would we extend such a welcome table as Shalom has? I’m not sure. I think that’s partly because of the centrality of our LGBGT-friendly identity. I can’t quite imagine having a space where you, our LGBTQ folks, would hear things that might be triggering of past religious trauma for you. And yet, I am also challenged by Carol’s statement that we don’t have the luxury of working on only one oppression at a time. (I’m also aware that I am a straight, cisgender woman saying that.)  Yet I, too, have this sense that we have to break down all of the barriers that divide us at the same time; I have a sense that the fate of our planet may depend on this.

And, LGBTQ-friendly identity aside, I also wonder if there are even more core reasons why I can’t quite imagine us doing what Shalom has done. I wonder if some of those reasons have to do with the issue of cultural supremacy or exclusivity. Let me explain what I mean by those terms. As I said in a sermon from July, every group has a culture, which you can define as “People like us do things like this.” Countries have cultures; workplaces have culture; families have cultures; and we have a culture here at the church.  There’s nothing wrong with culture and having one. 

But the problem comes when that culture becomes exclusive — when it keeps people from feeling welcome at the table. When it becomes a barrier to even taking a seat at the table. Who walks into our congregation and instantly feels welcome and is invited to take a seat? Who stands around the edges and isn’t sure they’ve heard a clear invitation? Who doesn’t intuitively understand the way we do things at the table and has to do the work of figuring it out and fitting in? Who sits at the center of the table, and who gets relegated to the children’s table? If a new person with different traditions around food and table manners sits down at our table, are we open to learning from them and even changing our own table culture? Or do we hold onto “this is just the way we do things” because we really believe “this is the best way to do things?” Because we believe that the way we believe (theologically or politically), the way we sing, the way we conduct meetings, the way we do service and social justice is the best way?

Another way to talk about this is: Who gets to be comfortable right away when they enter our community? Who is not? Whose voices of discomfort do we listen to and whose voices do we not hear, either because we just don’t hear them or because folks don’t feel comfortable voicing their discomfort? As Jonathan Hershberger said, “As a gay person in this congregation, I feel very comfortable going to anyone in leadership and saying, ‘This happened and I’m very uncomfortable,’ but who doesn’t feel like they have that power?” 

I’m aware that a number of folks of color have come into our congregation over the years, and a good number of them are no longer here. As one person in our church observed to me, they’ve noticed that many — certainly not all, but many — of the people of color who stick around tend to have strong Mennonite connections or are married to white people. Now, this wasn’t a statistical survey; it was an observation. But if true:  What’s that about?  And this cultural exclusivity or supremacy is not centered just around whiteness. A white, middle-class young adult in our congregation who didn’t grow up Mennonite told me that she felt she could very quickly establish a rapport here, but that she also understood that Peace Church spaces could be pretty “cliquey” and that she would have to work to integrate herself into a friendship group. “I felt very welcomed,” she said, “but I also assumed that to be fully included, I would have to put in the time. There are churches that are built to cater to newcomers in a way that we have not had to because we’ve relied on ‘the Mennonite Game’ to effortlessly integrate those who hold a Mennonite cultural identity. So First Mennonite feels like family, which is both why I love it and also a challenge. It’s a blessing and a curse.” She also said that there are some people in our church who have a real gift for welcoming new folks to the table, regardless of their racial or cultural or religious identity. I would love to see more of us develop and use this gift.

In our Scripture passage for today, Abraham extends lavish welcome to three people who suddenly show up at his home. We know the three people are angels, but Abraham doesn’t know that. After the angels enjoy the welcome table, they bring a blessing to Abraham and Sarah — a blessing they have been craving their entire lives. They tell them that Sarah — though she is very old — is going to get pregnant and bear a child. It was a most unexpected blessing.

What sort of unexpected blessing might we receive if we would extend lavish welcome to the “stranger” who comes to our home? Could we, in fact, experience a new birth among us? Carol would want us to know that Shalom didn’t extend their welcome table perfectly. She would want us to know that it’s been hard and still is. But I know from talking to her and Tina and Becca that there have been many unexpected blessings and births from sitting at the table together. I think of these blessings when I hear Jennifer Adams talk about her Mennonite church in Waco, Texas, which was also a multi-class, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual church — mostly white middle-class and undocumented Latinx folks. She says: “Our undocumented folks living their lives unafraid was such a testament to living with God’s providence. I hope that our congregation can be a place that sees people who might be more conservative, but are in a different class from us, as teachers. I hope we can have people feel more of an equal connection to that person, rather than ‘I’m the person who has the resources and it’s part of my job to help the people who don’t.’ And I want us to see those people as having resources that we don’t have.” People who have blessings to offer us, just as we have blessings to give in return.

To get to that place of mutual blessing, the discomfort will have to be more equitably shared. Those of us in the church with easy access to the table are going to have to be willing to sometimes feel uncomfortable — and not see that discomfort as a sign that we now “need” to step away from the table. We’re going have to learn to eat different foods and learn new table manners. And some of us who don’t feel as invited, who feel that our plate is emptier, are going to need to courageously speak up and say, “I’m here at the table, too, and I’m not getting what I need.” 

It’s no stretch to say we experienced an apocalyptic moment in the past week as the sky turned orange and the sun did not shine. Apocalypse means “unveiling.” What is being unveiled in our world? In this time of unveiling, what must be unveiled among us so that we can be more faithful to our calling of offering a welcome table, of becoming the Beloved Community? May we trust that the Spirit is at work and that we are joining the Spirit in this great work of blessing and new birth. Like new birth, it is not always easy. But like new birth, it is always a blessing. Amen.