Just as our last service was beginning, a homeless man walked in to our gathering area. At first it seemed he was simply looking for a restroom. I recognized him from volunteering at the homeless shelter, called PADS, in our town. While he was in the bathroom, the ushers asked me what they should do. I felt like they were wondering if they needed to ask him to leave. I told them I recognized him from PADS. In my encounters with him during the morning shift, he is certainly not docile but he is not overly aggressive either. Most guests at the shelter fall somewhere in the middle. It is a hard and frustrating life. He also had never asked me for money. I told all this to the ushers and said to keep an eye on him.
For the next few minutes I worked around the building cleaning up from Rally Day. When I came back towards the Sanctuary, I saw one of the ushers sharing a worship bulletin with our homeless guest. They were following along with the service in the hallway. As the pastor in front began the liturgy for Holy Communion, the man (I later learned his name is Clark.) was watching intently. He was fixed on what was happening. At that point I stood next to him and gently asked if he recognized what was going on in the sanctuary. Did he ever go to church? He answered a cautious, “Yes.” As he was watching, I asked if he recognized that it was communion. He turned and looked me square in the eye. “Communion?” (pause) “You mean the Bread of Life?”
Whoa! That is not a phrase commonly used by people with little church experience. He had been paying attention. It seemed familiar to him. So in that moment I felt like the right thing for me to do was to ask him if he wanted to go forward and receive Communion.
Honestly, my intentions were not that welcoming when I first saw him in the building. Yes, we can let him use the restroom and then encourage him to move along. We have had our share of people come in on Sunday morning and ask for money. Our policy is that we don’t give out cash because there are many resources in our town that provide help for people. Many folks in their desperation get angry with that policy. I just figured we would refer him to one of the community resources, he would leave and then life would get back to normal.
*Gulp* I know! I can’t even believe those words are mine! Especially on a day when the whole focus of worship and the education hour was on launching a new initiative of evangelism. Our pastor preached about being open to those who are different and don’t know the story of Jesus. He emphasized the importance of accompanying and supporting people on their faith journey. We were celebrating (and maybe even congratulating ourselves a bit) on how great this new program was going to be for the people involved. And now I stood face-to-face with the reality of my pastor’s sermon.
In that “face-to-face” moment I knew my next thoughts and actions would be important. Would I be acting out the hypocrisy that those who are disillusioned with church believe about Christians? Would I turn him away so I could stay in my own comfort zone - even though moments before I was blessed as a leader for our new faith sharing initiative? Or would I remember why I love church so much. Would I remember the welcome I have always felt from others and the grace that God has shown me?
I know this situation could be handled in many ways that would reflect the radical hospitality Christians believe. Can it get complicated? Sure. Relationships are. When Jesus teaches us to feed the hungry, clothe the
naked and welcome the stranger, he is telling us to enter into relationship. Yes the food and clothing are important but they are not the point of the teaching. Radical Christian hospitality is about relationship. Do we see Christ in the other person? Can we get past the messy humanness and see the Divine? When Jesus’ teachings are reduced to bumper sticker theology, they lose the depth of relationship God wants for all creation. Clark could respond to our welcome by coming back. How will we feel about that? I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen next for Clark and for my church. I do know that we are meant to accompany each other in all our human complexity.
In the end, Clark said he would like to receive communion. I did what I felt was the gracious thing to do in that crossroads moment. So I walked forward with him and coached him on where to go and what to do. As we were kneeling at the communion rail, I could tell Clark was out of his comfort zone.
And yet…. maybe… our homeless guest was also home.