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Last week we were walking through the new diocesan offices. That day was one of constant and chaotic activity. A reported fire near the Courthouse necessitated the closure of the surrounding streets. Delivery vans rerouted, construction crews moved through the buildings, public safety personnel directed traffic, and government workers stood outside waiting for instructions.
Amidst the clamor, in a sacred space of recognition, two women reminded me of the importance of the Church. The Church not only a building or a brief interlude on a Sunday morning. The Church, our Church as a home, a place of belonging, a locus for transcendence, a peaceful and meaningful resting stop on this holy pilgrimage called life. The Church as the living Body of Christ.
St. John’s Church is adjacent to the new diocesan offices and was closed in 2015. Two years ago, the diocese took a chance, and we unlocked the doors and reopened with an emphasis on outreach and engagement. Last December, we held our first Lady of Guadalupe celebration for the emerging Mexican community. The evening was filled with roses, song, food, and prayer. I was struck by the community being formed and their smiles. I sensed hope.
Last week, in the thick of the commotion, we walked into the Church (it is a stunning church) and made our way toward the parish hall. The Church was empty, but I noticed in the first pew, two women kneeling. Their heads were bowed down in prayer. I recognized them. No, I did not know them, but I recognized them. It wasn’t their features that told of their birth somewhere deep in Mexico. It was their faith. It was their prayers, petitions, and longing. I recognized them as my family in Christ. I thought - this is our Church.
Throughout the day, I reflected on these two women and the meaning of the Church. What struck me were the questions: what if the Church was closed? What if our hearts are closed? Where would they go? People in this world need God and are seeking God. We need one another.
We constantly bemoan the reports of a dwindling church, yet we, as followers of Christ, must take responsibility. There are numerous examples of the church doors being open, but in reality, the doors are locked. No longer do a majority of people attend the Church of their childhood. Many have never attended a church. Yet, those who are seeking always take a courageous chance. It takes great strength, faith, and a deep sense of longing to walk into a church for the first time. You are vulnerable, seeking something more, and you are hoping.
Are those entering greeted with a warm smile?
A soft “it is good that you are here?
“If I can help you in any way, I am here for you.”
Do we offer to explain the service?
Do we prepare an honored place at the banquet table?
Do we invite them to stay and eat?
De we speak to them at coffee hour or introduce them to others?
Do we offer our phone numbers or even ask if we will see them again?
Do we follow up on the offer?
(The list goes on)
Do we say: “Thank you for sharing your time with us, you have blessed us with your presence.
How disheartening to walk into a church and be ignored, isolated, made to feel invisible, or even rejected. What is worse, to enter into a church and immediately sense that you do not belong.
Locked doors are encountered daily. I cannot tell you how many times I have attempted to enter into a church, and the doors were locked. I look through the windows to glimpse the Kingdom only to find the Church is closed. Where will I go? To the restaurant down the street? The pub on the corner? Maybe Starbucks. Yes, I have heard the arguments that someone can come in and steal the sacred vessels; are they really ours?
What is the meaning of the Church. No, not a corporate institution, but a family who is enjoined as the Risen Body of Christ. Moving, growing, feeding, sheltering. A place where prayers are said, tears are shed, lives are bathed in baptism, vows are spoken in love, temporary goodbyes are sung for the lives of the departed with the knowledge that we will see them once again. Where we come together as beloved children of God. Where we are one.
Sisters and brothers will walk into our churches from all paths of life. The doors have to be open. People are seeking more than the world has to offer. They are seeking community and belonging. They are seeking Christ. They will look, speak, and dress differently. They may even look, speak, and dress just like us. It does not matter.
What is more, those that are seeking are watching. We can no longer simply play Church; we must be the Church. They are watching if we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, and embrace those who are invisible to the world. They are watching if we genuinely believe in what we say we believe. They are watching if we love in the same way that Christ loves us. They are watching if we create a place of belonging.
The test of discipleship is following Jesus Christ. No longer can the Church be a barrier to the growth of the Body of Christ. I know the hearts of the faithful. We are the keys to those locked doors. The question remains: will we have the courage to unlock the doors?
As I walked by, the two women, my two sisters, raised their heads from prayer, looked at me, and smiled. Maybe it was a recognition that I somehow resembled them in feature and color. Perhaps they smiled because they could pray in dignity. Maybe they smiled because being so far from home, they had found a home. Most likely, they smiled because they were speaking to Christ, and Christ was embracing them.
This moment could not happen if the doors were locked. Open the doors of the Church, open the doors of our hearts. Open to everyone because we believe that God is present, and Christ is Risen.
Oh, if the doors are opened, let us step out into the world and take our Church out into the streets. Who knows what miracles can occur.