Wednesday, March 21, 2012

gracious hospitality

Leviticus 19:34

"You shall not oppress a resident alien [sojourner, stranger]; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens [strangers, sojourners] in the land of Egypt." Exodus 23:9

Back in A Former City, I'd tried to get involved in at least one local church where I mistakenly assumed someone with my background and experience would be excitedly welcomed and highly valued. Of course I've long had more than a clue about human behaviors, maybe especially in settings like churches and other organizations where a lot of the daily nitty-gritty gets done by volunteers, many of whom are willing but some of whose skills and abilities would be no more than marginally employable most places. Attendees at church in question basically were mostly Caucasian, sort of youngish through middling-aged through very old with a few young kids; they were more or less middle class and it belonged to a prominent denomination of the "liberal protestant mainline."

Amidst a long series of disappointing rejections and exclusions I still could document if I wanted to bother, a congregation of another well-known liberal protestant mainline denomination happened into my life and world. They needed a pianist to lead worship on the Sundays of the month their choir would sing, so why not me? But almost all these people were immigrants from the Pacific Island archipelago nation of Tonga! This was a self-consciously "ethnic church," in ways not dissimilar to some earlier Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic parishes in this country, many of which in this year 2012 still retain traces, even dreams of their founding identities in favorite potluck dishes, hymns, and *other* cultural markers.

The denomination the Tongan church belonged to even had a special judicatory representative to help with concerns of Tongan congregations in the vicinity. Their worship in the Tongan language included standard choral anthems the choir director translated into Tongan; after worship we all enjoyed a huge meal of ethnic specialties and then returned to the chapel for a testimony meeting. Some denominations practice "fast and testimony," believing a few hours without food enhances spiritual awareness and draws a person into considering the presence and action of the Holy One in their lives, but isn't "food and testimony" more enticing? "We have the gift of music and the gift of food," a choir member informed me. They also had the gift of hospitality, inviting me, very much a "resident alien" within their culture to weddings, to parties, to holiday picnics, and barbecues.

A few years ago in my formal faith journey I explained, "Both my experiences of inclusion in the community and those of exclusion from the community – especially the community of faith, but also in many places and spaces in the world outside of and beyond the gathered People of God – have been significant to my growth in faith." The way the people and pastor of the Tongan Church received me as a gift seemed so very natural, literally "within their nature," I believe Tongans are born with an active welcoming gene. For sure I had something they needed and had asked for, but I also had even more gifts and experiences that could have become powerful components of the ministry in the church I mentioned at the start of this post. I was a gift to the Tongan Church but they were gifts to me far beyond what I had to offer them.

"You shall not oppress a resident alien [sojourner, stranger]; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens [strangers, sojourners] in the land of Egypt." Exodus 23:9

Akin to studying cultural anthropology in the classroom and particularly to doing field work, the Tongan people's lives as non-native resident aliens in a high desert community of the intermountain west that was culturally, geographically, socially, and gastronomically worlds away from the Pacific islands probably heightened their awareness of the need and desires of others to be welcomed and included. Their own differentness probably had caused a few experiences of exclusion, too.

One of my favorites quotes is from C.S. Lewis' Dawn Treader: ...said the Lamb, "For you the door into Aslan's country is from your own world." ... "There is a way into my country from all the worlds," said the Lamb...and he was Aslan himself...

At the Tongan church I found an unforgettable place of welcome and a memorable time of belonging, signs of "Aslan's Country," of the Reign of Heaven on earth.

Thanks to Trisha for originally hosting this post on her [now sadly not there, as she unpublished or deleted a lot of online content] Your Moments of Grace blog.

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