Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
“I am called to welcome in every stranger who comes to the door as the face of the divine . . . everything that seems strange, foreign, or uncomfortable, is the place where God especially shimmers forth” —Christine Valters Paintner
On a recent trip to New York City, a dear friend insisted that we spend an afternoon walking through Central Park. We walked past several of the hotels, condos, and apartment buildings flanking the park across the street on our way there. The first building we approached was the famed Plaza Hotel. Guarded by security and saturated in the trappings of immeasurable wealth, it was exclusive and forbidding. We walked past buildings with door attendants, separate entrances for residents and servants, and double-parked luxury private cars with waiting chauffeurs out front. Where there was no physical sign telling us that these places were not for us, the symbols and messages were clear that we were outsiders to this world and neither invited nor welcomed here.
When we crossed the street to enter the park, it was as if we had been transported a world away within just a few yards. We merged seamlessly into a colorful congregation of people of every age, race, ethnicity, language, and socio-economic status. There was no cost to anyone’s admission. No forbidding guards or police gave hints that we were being watched or suspected of anything. No signs were posted, segmenting us according to any special status or identity. Joggers, tourists, artists, families, transients, panhandlers, bikers, executives, and people without homes strolled next to each other throughout the park, displaying neither fear nor insecurity about their place. We received the message that the park was ours to enjoy, and we did not feel like visitors or strangers.
Do visitors to the church feel the exclusive and forbidding entrance of the grand hotels and homes or the welcome and openness of the public park across the street? I know. There is a big difference between private property and a public park. And yet, even when the church intentionally removes the physical barriers to entrance, how often do our symbols and practices betray our intention to be open to all and display radical hospitality? I know our heart is willing to be open to a colorful congregation of diverse peoples of every background. And yet, we are a part of the institutional church shaped by social, cultural, and economic rules and boundaries that can make us look more like an exclusive hotel than a public park open to all. As we open our doors after nearly two years of COVID restrictions, I pray that we lean into our commitment to radical hospitality so that nobody feels like a visitor or a stranger. I hope all who come to our doors feel like we’ve been waiting for them to cross the street and come on in. May it be so.