What It Means to advertise “All Are Welcome, No Exceptions”
One of the main reasons my wife Rita and I have found a spiritual home here at St. Bart’s is expressed in our banner – “All Are Welcome - No Exceptions!” Moving here from New York, we weren’t sure if we would ever find a church that had such a bold vision of radical hospitality and inclusive welcome. As life-long Episcopalians, we know firsthand that not all the churches share that vision, and so what a relief it was to find St. Bart’s!
We are realistic enough to know that such a bold vision is never really finished. Like the Reign of God, it’s something we are always working toward because as Jesus showed us over and over, there is always someone on the outside; someone left behind. As good Christians of course, we never do that on purpose. The problem is that our own personal experience, limited as it is, can leave us blind to the outsider.
I first had my eyes opened to one such group in 1981 while visiting Denmark and Sweden. I was 18 years old and it was my first big venture away from home. Both countries were extremely friendly and accommodating. People greeted me and my companions with warm welcomes, much more so than we were used to.
Along the way, I came across many subtle differences in culture. I remember several restaurants in Copenhagen that did not have a women’s room or a men’s room, rather they had non-gendered restrooms, used by both men and women – apparently the most natural thing in the world. For an 18-year old this was just an oddity.
Fast forward to 1989, my wife Rita and I are living in Orlando, Florida. Our older son, the first of three children is born. One thing becomes clear to me very quickly, nobody thought about a father needing to change his child’s diaper. Women’s rooms at the time frequently had diaper changing stations, men’s rooms did not. Facilities of that era did not account for the realities of the modern family.
In 1993 son number two arrived. By all accounts a healthy boy born at Florida Hospital Altamonte. He was a healthy, happy, adjusted child. His childcare teachers called him the “little ambassador” because of his always welcoming smile and demeanor. With his arrival, being closer to grandparents was important to us. As a result, we moved back to Western New York where both boys started elementary school. We managed to stay in the same school district until both graduated with their high school diploma and went off to college. Eight years after our second child we had our daughter, who still lives with us. All children attended Sunday school in the Episcopal parish we joined after moving back to New York.
While in high school, our younger son became increasingly aware that he was “different” and started questioning his gender assignment. At first, as parents, we were unaware of this. He confided in teachers and the school nurse. He was uncomfortable being in the boy’s locker room, the boy’s bathroom. The nurse invited him to use the bathroom in the nurse’s office, which he made exclusive use of from that point forward, usually having to cross the large high school campus just to go to the bathroom.
Eventually, we were told about this and a long journey started for us as parents. A journey that he had started much earlier without us. We thought of ourselves as parents of two boys and a girl, but God had other plans for us. We apparently had one boy and two girls. We received a referral to a psychologist that specialized in gender dysphoria. He was to see our child regularly, sometimes with us, most of the time alone. Our child stopped attending church because “nobody understands” – we certainly didn’t – how could our fellow parishioners understand?
We understood physical disabilities – my mom spent over 20 years in a wheelchair, both of us went to college at Rochester Institute of Technology – home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and a large hearing-impaired community. We understood the changing needs of folks during the aging process, but we did not understand what happened to our child on her journey from being born as a male to come to the realization that she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body.
While we struggled along with her through her journey, TV and newspapers were reporting that the legislator in North Carolina, at the urging of “Christian” groups, was mandating that transgender people had to use the bathrooms of the gender they had at birth. The topic of trans people started coming into the national focus, but in a weird and twisted way. Our child, and people like her, were not portrayed as God’s children, but as something else; perverted, sick, someone to be afraid of.
It cast Christ and his followers as uninviting, judgmental, not understanding. It was certainly not the Christ we had come to know: “Let the children come to me”. The Christ that accepted tax collectors, prostitutes, and Pharisees. The Christ that asked, “let them throw the first stone”. The Christ who said “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure, you use it will be.” Judged for something they ARE not something they DO.
Sadly, you have to wonder how many transgender people stay away from churches as a result? How many of them never know the love of Christ for fear of being judged by Christ’s followers?
So while having a transgendered child may not be your experience, I wonder how many of us when we were young, were blind to the reality of how hard it is for older folks to traverse 40 stairs to get on campus? Now we get it! And so we build a ramp or an elevator. Or what about the hearing-impaired person? It isn’t a passing thought to a teenager, but now we know what a blessing an induction loop system can be for ourselves or an aging parent. We take those steps when our eyes become open to someone who’s been left out – often because of our own personal experience. Should we not extend that same level of hospitality to modern day parents that take care of their opposite gender children, or to someone like my child who needs to feel welcome, and not singled out as different by convention or culture?
I encountered radical hospitality in Denmark 37 years ago. As an 18-year old, I didn’t understand it. There was one set of restrooms for everyone, that was all I knew. Maybe it’s time to consider this same radical hospitality to everyone setting foot on our campus? Can we recognize that “all are welcome” means we meet them where they are, not expecting “them” to meet us on our terms?
When we do that, “all are welcome” truly becomes ALL.