How Warm is Our Welcome?
Welcoming the stranger: being a good Inn-keeper this Christmas
If you could choose one role for your child, your grandchild, niece or nephew in the school nativity, which one would it be? It is their first public performance, so think carefully. A speaking role like Mary, Joseph or Gabriel makes them a star, but could so easily go wrong. They could fluff their lines. Stardom is high-risk. Perhaps it would be safer to opt for one of those non-speaking but still prominent roles like one of the Kings? The role that no one would choose is the Innkeeper: the door-slamming worst-hotel-receptionist-ever who turned away Joseph and Mary before they became the Holy Family. Any other role is better than that one. Even the back-end of the donkey is better than the mean Innkeeper of Bethlehem. This role is the “baddy” in the story, but it’s not even a satisfyingly evil baddy like in the pantomimes, this one is just mean. Some poor little soul has to do it as best they can. If only we could change the story!
If Joseph had gone through the census before, he would have known to book ahead, he would have known how busy Bethlehem got at census time. But it was his first time and he was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. He was a stranger. He did not know that it would all get booked up and he was probably ignorant of other things not mentioned. That is what being a stranger means: not being known is part of it, but not knowing is the rest.
This Christmas we can all do better than the Inn Keeper who shut the door. There will be many people coming to Salisbury for the Christmas celebrations to stay with family and friends. Some will be thinking about whether to attend church or not. For the regular Mass-goers, who are strangers in our church but not to Mass, it will seem routine. Others, who may not have been Mass since last year, or for many years, or never before, it will be strange and new. How warmly will we welcome them inside?
Catholics who go to church only on Christmas and Easter will carry with them the reasons they usually do not make it to Mass. So they are going to need more than a nod of welcome. They may come out of a feeling of duty to someone else: their mother, their spouse, their friends. They may be avoiding church for any of a number of reasons: the abuse crisis, childhood experiences or just the over-whelming business of life.
The people who have not been to Mass for years, or have never been in any church before, are going to need a lot more help from us. Their experience will hinge on feeling welcomed or not. We all know this from our own experience of going somewhere for the first time: other churches, new work places or just a pub or hotel that we have not visited before. People return to churches because they are welcomed, not because the church got everything else right. Simple things like a welcoming smile, making room on the pew, introducing yourself and asking where they are from, noticing when someone has lost their place in the service; they all demonstrate the welcome that we should extend to everyone at Christmas. We can rewrite the moment at the inn. Christmas is the chance to welcome the stranger; to be the good innkeeper and not the bad one. David Blake
Dear regular Mass-goers: Try not to sit at the end of the pew.
What scares us about sitting in the centre? The wooden pew is just as hard, the view is much the same and we won’t suddenly hear an improvement in the music by sitting on the aisle. Perhaps it is because we know we should be at Mass but are unwilling to really commit. We want to be close to an exit so we can make a quick getaway. Or perhaps we are just more comfortable sitting on the end.
Do we forget that we are at Mass because it is here the community gathers? It is here that we become the people of God, drawn to each other by the work of the Spirit. And yet we try to sit where we can have as little contact with other people as possible.
New people can arrive hungry for a community to call home. Is this parish for them? Is this pew for them? They maybe Returning Catholics, from other denominations, or vistors and from other parishes. If they cannot find an easy place to sit, they may not come back.
Now, this might not apply to families with children. But if we singles and couples chose to scoot over and occupy the middle we would create a welcoming space for the newcomers.
Can you imagine arriving at Mass and choosing to sit in the exact middle of a pew? If you sit there, you boldly state that you are expecting more people to join you. There is room on your right; there is room on your left. You sit in the middle because you are welcoming. You are ready to make that first offer to strangers, the offer of space, of community. You help them begin a first step towards a life with Christ.
This year we have gone to extra efforts to invite people to join us. The welcome that visitors receive may well be a key factor in whether they choose to return and this depends on each and every one of us. Please look out for any ‘unfamiliar’ faces at Mass over the festive season and make a special effort to welcome them. We have put up a ‘Welcome Back’ page on our website to encourage and inform anyone considering returning to church this Christmas: Please click on Welcome Back.