Food for thought from last week’s Chronicle:
Dear Friends in Christ,
As far as I know, the Rev. Mark Ralls and I have never met. But he and I have two things in common. Both of us are United Methodist pastors who were trained for ministry at Duke Divinity School – in fact, we both graduated the same year – and both of us have been student interns in the rural South where hospitality is a way of life.
Dr. Ralls remembers the summer between his college graduation and his first semester at Duke as a time of particular loneliness. “In one week,” he says, “I had gone from being an undergraduate with a social life to a country preacher alone in a borrowed farmhouse. After one of my self-pitying walks through the tobacco fields, I heard a light tap on the screen door.”
It turns out Mrs. Mill, his neighbor across the street, had come to welcome the new “preacher” with a fried pie. (Think MacDonald’s only homemade and much better!) At the age of 94, she explained, she had “retired from baking.” But she still wanted to share a dessert with her new neighbor. Almost every evening for the rest of the summer, Mrs. Mills was back with something sweet: a pre-packaged snack cake, a handful of vanilla wafers, or a pair of powder-sugar donuts. At first their visits were a little awkward, Dr. Ralls now recalls. “But after a while I forgot the 74 years between us. I stopped seeing Mrs. Mills as some porcelain antiquity. She became flesh and blood, a friend.”
You have noticed, no doubt, that recent Sunday mornings have been bringing lots of new friends to our church’s doorstep and pews. Some newcomers worship with us just one Sunday before deciding they have found the “right” church. But many others sing with us, pray with us, and share Holy Communion with us for a few weeks or even a few months only to disappear. And, when that happens, I wonder if something was missing from my sermon or from the hospitality we offered them.
For the most part, newcomers to Sudbury UMC tell me that our congregation is very friendly – on the first Sunday – but as the weeks go by they sometimes find it challenging to connect with us in a friendly way. During coffee hour, for example, many of us tend to talk mostly to our own circle of friends and too few of us go out of our way to offer “flesh and blood” hospitality. Perhaps we’re concerned that our church’s younger guests might not “take” to us if we’re older. Or maybe we’re overly focused on “taking care of business.” We have a job to do at church and only one Sunday each week to do it.
Dr. Ralls remembers how surprised he was to learn that, at the final stage of her life, Mrs. Mills felt just as lonely and just as displaced in her own hometown as he did. In other words, a 94-year-old woman and a 20-year-old student had something in common. Both were hungry for companionship and connection. “How would it be,” she asked him by mid-summer, “if from now on you called me Granny?”
It takes a lot of courage for a newcomer to our church, or any church, to walk up the steps and claim an empty pew. To thank them for their interest in making a connection with God and with a community of flesh and blood companions, the least we can do is offer the gift of hospitality. The best way to do that might be by asking an open-ended question that feels safe and inviting, such as, “How do you like your coffee?” Whether the answer is “black” or “cream and sugar,” you’ve opened the door for a second question: “Would you be my guest at coffee hour?”
See you in church!