Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Last week I attended an Episcopal conference Lay in Huston, Diocese of Texas.
Sponsored by the Episcopal Church Ethnic Ministries Offices, the New Community Clergy and Lay Conference is a gathering of Asian, Black, Latino/Hispanic and Native American clergy and lay leaders that will provide a safe place to explore mission in ethnic ministries, share resources, best practices, hopes and dreams, needs and concerns, suffering and joy in the context of being the New Community.
The theme of this year’s New Community gathering was, “Affirming Life, Liberty and Justice.” In light of current issues such as the deportation of undocumented immigrants, the banning of refugees based on religion, the Standing Rock Reservation and the Dakota Access Pipeline, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration and human trafficking, I found this conference to be timely and relevant to our work as people of faith.
The Conference agenda included plenary sessions and workshops addressing current issues as well as ethnic-specific meetings, inter-ethnic and cross cultural conversations, and multicultural worship. This was only the second time that I have attended New Community, and – as it was before – this gathering was a time of deep listening and significant sharing, within a community reflective of the diversity of our church that rarely has opportunities to come together.
For me, New Community is an experience of belonging, acceptance, and fellowship that comes from a deeply shared historical experience in life – namely, everyone in attendance shares a common narrative of navigating issues of race and identity within dominant cultural, including dominant Church culture. So, when those who find themselves on the margins and/or in the minority come together, the sudden experience of looking around a large room filled with animated “brown, black, yellow and red faces” is really very thrilling. It feels like coming home. It feels like acceptance and suspension of judgement. It feels like joy. It feels like heaven.
Our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, and I were the only two representatives from our diocese, and I would like to work on getting more of our indigenous, Latino/a, black and Asian folks from our diocese to New Community next year. Bishop Rickel attended because of interest to be supportive to multicultural ministries, and I went….well, I went to shamelessly revel in being reunited with the multinational reality that is indigenous ministries in The Episcopal Church. As someone who is best defined as an “urban Indian” due to not living within the community of an Indian Reservation, connecting with other Native peoples in the church is tremendously important and helpful to me. If you want to see joy, just watch indigenous Episcopalians from all the Provinces of The Episcopal Church greet one another after spending months and years apart.
On the third morning of New Community, the gathering broke into groups by area of ethnic ministries (as overseen by the ethnic missioners of the Presiding Bishop’s office in New York City). Our indigenous missioner, The Rev. Dr. Bradley Hauff, called over to him all the indigenous Episcopalians at the gathering for a group photo opportunity. All the other groups did the same, taking group photos with their respective missioners.
During the group photo shoot, Bishop Rickel entered the meeting hall, describing his unexpected experience this way:
“That the day started for me with an excellent experience which I rarely have to encounter. I walked into the large meeting room to find groups in all corners very apparently posing for pictures. [It was a] the joyous scene.
I looked all around and began to ask myself questions, What are the groups? Are they based on race? Province? Role? Finally, I asked myself, where is my place? I did not have an answer. So I sat and watched and took [a] video… I said this was a good experience and I believe that. I walked into this room and had that experience in this small but important place. But those who have witnessed to me, here, in these days must soon walk into a world, and I have to say it, a Church, where they experience it every day.”
I think that Trinity Episcopal in Everett is a community of sincere and friendly people, committed to practicing their faith yet often feeling overwhelmed or tired out by busy schedules, many personal worries, and all the demands placed upon their time and energy. For some people, the current realities challenging our country right now are draining whatever emotional reserves they may have had. Some are discovering that racism and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation have always been a part of our history and identity as a nation, even as racism and discrimination blatantly shape and inform current legislation today on both state and national levels.
Unfortunately, in the face of political efforts to reverse decades of progress in civil and equal rights, being a “sincere and friendly” faith community is not – in itself – sufficient to address issues of racism as they are playing out in our country today. I believe that we need to step up and speak out in very clear and public ways with the message that not only are we welcoming of all peoples to this place where we worship but that we are willing to go outside of our doors to be a living sanctuary in our work places, in our schools, on buses, in our neighborhoods and across our country for those who are vulnerable and in need of justice.
I believe that if The Episcopal Church were a Super Hero, diversity is our Super Power – though it takes all of us together to activate that Super Power. When we listen to the realities each group faces, our own understanding grows. If we listen very carefully, the solution to issues also resides within those realities and the role we might be invited to play in changing those realities for the betterment of all. However, every change in the world must begin with changes in us – in our minds (through learning about the issues significant within each community) and in our hearts (through evaluating how much our parish and church culture may ask others to conform to meet our needs and comfort zones).
Finally, my friends, if hospitality is indeed the hallmark of welcoming those we do not yet know, then we may benefit from a much need communal self-reflection regarding how we provide hospitality through everything we do – ranging from our coffee hour on Sunday mornings to acting on local and regional issues/initiatives that require our attention and energy as a community of faith committed to social justice and the dignity of every human being.
I am proud that we are becoming increasingly engaged in the concerns of our area and diocese. However, I’m fairly certain that we really aren’t as prepared as we need to be to actually welcome the “all” in All Are Welcome on Sunday mornings. Hopefully, before September, we can identify ways together of better supporting what is often referred to as the “Eight Sacrament” of coffee hour – a simple but mighty act of hospitality to the stranger seeking friendship and belonging.
In Christ’s Peace,
Pastor Rachel +
The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, Rector