Aunt Kathleen’s house has always felt like home to me. She is my godmother, and she and I have always shared a special bond. Sometimes my family would visit her family and spend time with them, cousins running around the backyard while the adults spent time catching up and solving the world’s problems. Other times, we’d pass through on the drive to Minnesota, crashing into beds and barely saying hello before hopping, bleary-eyed, into the car again for another several-hour stretch of road trip. But whether we were there to see them or to just use their house as a way station, she always made her home feel warm and inviting, and I can’t remember any time – as a child or as an adult – when I felt my presence wasn’t wanted or even needed. To her, I have never been inconvenient.
So much work has gone into making sure that her home is easy to navigate. It’s tidy and easy to keep clean, something I’ve never been able to accomplish at our own house (possibly because of our kids, but probably also because we’re just not that good at it). There’s a whole closet full of toys for any visiting children, and while it’s easy to make a mess, it’s also easy to put everything away. There’s never a moment when we feel like we’ve made so much of a disaster that we’re the slightest inconvenience – and if we ever have been, she has never shown it. My godmother always seems happy to have people there, and she is able to think of everything – making sure there’s food on hand, making sure spaces are easy to access, making sure there’s coffee in the morning so no one wants for their caffeine fix, making sure the towels and extra toilet paper are easy to find so no one has to yell down the hallway in a moment of desperation.
Only as an adult have I begun to realize that behind the scenes, there’s a monumental amount of work that goes into creating this welcoming atmosphere. Aunt Kathleen makes it look easy. And if I think back honestly, she always touches base ahead of an impending visit to ask what the kids like to eat right now, and whether there’s anything we might need that’s different from last time. To me, my aunt’s house is not a place where I’m just a welcome guest. My aunt’s house feels like home.
I look at my own untidy house and I understand that her welcome is not accidental. It is intentional.
I can easily contrast the welcome I have always felt at my aunt’s house with the times I’ve felt I was intruding on someone else’s space. One experience in particular sticks out: When I started seminary, three of us 20-somethings were assigned to share an apartment with someone who was more established in her life. That, in and of itself, wouldn’t have been a problem – I knit, I love to cook, I’m generally a pretty low-key person, and there were many of my more mature colleagues who I thought might have made good housemates. Before move-in, our more mature housemate called each of us and found out when we were planning to arrive, then made sure she got there first. When we arrived, she had already claimed the entire apartment as her own. Her furniture was already there, and already set up; she had already taken the biggest of four very differently-sized bedrooms; and we felt, on no uncertain terms, that we were unwelcome guests in her house. She would sigh meaningfully at us if we were cooking in her kitchen or sitting on one of her couches or armchairs in her living room. Even though she had decided that her pots and pans would occupy her kitchen, leaving no space for us to bring our own, she was clearly bothered when we actually cooked with them. We couldn’t use the communal spaces because they all belonged to her. We were barely-tolerated intruders.
It’s often subtle, but if you enter a space and don’t feel it’s yours, if you don’t know which areas are off limits, or worse, if it seems like every area is off limits, you know you are not really welcome. You might wonder where the towels are, or whether there’s more toilet paper, or whether there’s anywhere you can sit without getting a disapproving look. It gets uncomfortable. Often, it’s the unintentional, small, hard-to-describe things that make a person feel like they don’t belong.
Our intergenerational campus congregation has done a lot of work around creating an intentional welcome for our LGBTQIA+ siblings. We have done a lot of work to convey to the outside world through our signs, flags, and website that we enthusiastically affirm the gifts and identities of all of God’s children. We have also done a lot of work and are continuing to do the work of ensuring our language is inclusive and accessible, that the theology of the hymns we sing is always conveying that all-encompassing love of God for all of God’s children, and celebrating all of our unique gifts. Four out of seven council members are students, ensuring that students are setting the tone for the ministry. We also make sure that whenever we offer meals, that there are ways to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions so that no one is excluded, so that everyone can come together around the table. We do our level best to create an intentional welcome for the people we serve, whether we know them yet or not.
The ELCA has done a lot of work on authentic welcome on the national level. Of course, that work isn’t always exemplified in every congregation, but the fact that our national bishop clearly articulates the love of God for all of God’s children, no exceptions – and for our LGBTQIA+ siblings in particular– is certainly something to celebrate. It shows how far we’ve come.
But we are still a very white church. We haven’t done the work to make sure our spaces feel like home to our siblings of color. We are also an aging church. We haven’t done the work to make sure our spaces feel like home for young people, especially young adults.
We haven’t moved out the couch you can’t sit on. You know the one: It’s got the clear plastic covering, or it’s white, or it’s brand-new. We haven’t made sure people know that our spaces are their home, and not just a place to visit, not just a place to be tolerated. And if you’re going to go about the work of making a space accessible and beautiful, sometimes you have to move all the furniture out before you really understand the potential of the space.
When the Lutheran Student Club was started at the University of Michigan back in 1917, it was just that: A club for students who were already Lutheran. Later, its identity began to flesh out a little, and in the 1970s, Lord of Light Lutheran Church was formed, in part, to be a space of welcome for those whom the church had previously excluded because of their sexuality or gender identity. In 1987, Lord of Light became the fifth ELCA congregation to officially earn the designation of “Reconciling in Christ,” under threat of losing funding. Now, we have a real opportunity to explore all the ways we can extend God’s authentic welcome even further, bearing Jesus’ message of grace and welcome to all who are longing to hear it, to all who are accustomed to hearing a very different message.
Evangelism isn’t just about getting butts in the seats, but it is about making sure that people know our communities exist. For some who find us, it’s a genuine shock that it’s even possible for these welcoming, loving communities to exist, and so it’s imperative that we ensure that the community experienced by those who walk through our doors matches the way we promote ourselves outside. It’s not enough to say, “You’re more than welcome to come through our doors, check us out, and occupy our space for a time.” We need, desperately, to shift our focus to, “How can we make our space into your space?”
I believe the ELCA is rich with communities that are almost, but not quite, poised to extend an authentic welcome to all those who are seeking a place where they can grow in love, community, and faith. We all need to ask ourselves: “Will ours be a place of welcome? Will we be the ones to welcome those who are seeking a church home?” We need to ensure we’re not just saying, “You’re welcome to be in our space,” but we need to say, unequivocally, “This is your home, too.”
This is precisely what LuMin sites across our country do every day. In order to flourish, or even just to survive, campus ministries must constantly reassess how we can best make our spaces into homes for our students, even as they journey with us for just a few years or months before moving on to the next step in their lives. A campus ministry can’t function as an exclusive club for those who are already here, because our communities are constantly changing. Before we even get comfortable with the furniture set in place by today’s students, we’re already moving it out to make room for more.
Our LuMin sites have long since had to learn lessons that need to be learned by the whole church: That our mission is to welcome intentionally and fully, so that all God’s children have a place to grow, living fully into who God has made them to be. It’s not by accident that people feel at home in a church. It’s by intention. It means constantly reassessing the comfort and stability of those who have already found their home for the sake of those who are seeking a home.
The church will continue to grow and change, forged by the new rhythms found in the midst of the pandemic and the growing resistance to a consumption-driven culture. This change is certainly disorienting, but the church has been here before, furnishing a sense of community and togetherness in the midst of division and confusion. Providing an authentic home for all those who are seeking is at the heart of our Gospel call, and answering that call allows our communities to be the spiritual homes God wants them to be, for the sake of all of God’s children.