The other day I walked out of church. Don’t get me wrong. It’s something I have thought about doing before but never did. I love communities of faith too much. Did I mention I’m an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament?
Had I shown up sans coffee, I would have been immediately welcomed right in
by lora burge
The other day I walked out of church.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s something I have thought about doing before but never did. I love communities of faith too much. Did I mention I’m an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament?
I work as a hospital chaplain. Currently, in a few hospitals and mostly working nights and weekend shifts. I got off one morning early and as it was a Sunday morning I thought I might catch an early service to wind up my night before heading home. My night is long and even on a light evening they are hard hours to work.
I did as I have done before – stopped for coffee. If hospital chaplains had professional endorsements, they would be for coffee shops.
Myself and my cup of coffee-to-go made my way to church as I have done before. Coffee and God seemed like a great way to end my night and start my day.
I was on my way into the sanctuary. One of the perky morning ushers handed me a bulletin and welcomed me. The other, in a crisp suit and business as usual attitude, let me know that I couldn't take my coffee into the sanctuary. He backpedaled and tried to tell me I had plenty of time to finish it off before the services started. Then he added in some pragmatic explanation as I started walking out with my coffee. I could've chugged my coffee I supposed, but too late. Moment ruined. God and coffee was not meant to be. I was deeply disappointed.
I told the man, "I'm a minister. I get it. I get that I am not welcome here as a tired night chaplain, coffee in hand, ragged on the edges. But I was deeply hoping for welcome and even a momentary connection with God and others." He seemed appreciative of my understanding though I'm not sure at that point that we were having the same conversation. On a different day, maybe I should've stayed. Maybe I should've engaged and challenged him more. But I was tired and wanted my coffee to complete my meager, post-shift breakfast. And now I felt unwelcome at worship.
Those words made clear to me that who I was, at that exact moment in time, was not welcome. I was a tired overnight chaplain who wanted to be in communion with the saints for a short time and also finish off my coffee to keep me going a little longer.
I understand his practical concern. Sure, we don't want spills everywhere. But can't those be wiped up? Isn't a messy sanctuary full of beautiful people worth infinitely more than an immaculately kept, yet empty one? And is the ultimate priority in the community the people or the pews?
Those words made clear to me that who I was, at that exact moment in time, was not welcome
Friends, readers, others of you who are in your journey, and colleagues in ministry, lest this very crucial point continue to be lost on us as a community, let me put this into painfully clear terms - had I shown up sans coffee, I would have been immediately welcomed right in.
But's that not where I was at that moment. The rules, written and unwritten, said that I was not appropriate as I was that morning to enter into the house of God and worship.
Coffee is a small token, I admit. I do not want to gloss over all of the more permanent personal attributes that have caused people to be hurtfully and wrongfully excluded from churches and faith communities. Coffee is nothing in comparison to gender, sexual identity, race, politics, culture and place of origin to name a few.
But if you can’t welcome me tired and with coffee, what if I show up with tears streaming down my face and cry through the entire service? Can you sit with me in grief?
What if I hit a deep depression again when it’s hard to even get out of the house much less appear put together and I show up in my comfy sweatpants and messy hair? Can you welcome my gloom?
Even if my words and conversation challenge you and my hopes for a future different from the present scare you, can you welcome me?
If the answer is no to little things like my coffee then I’m much less likely to feel welcome. Wholly welcome. To bring all of the parts of me all the time. Even the messy parts. Because people are messy and beautiful creatures. But I always find the journey with other people to be well worth it.
And if anyone is still worried about the pews and the floor, I volunteer to stand ready with the carpet cleaner and paper towels. Spills are a small price to pay for welcome and hospitality.
ABOUT THE ESSAYIST
lora burge is a writer and
poet from the Pacific Northwest
Photos by Noah Dobin-Bernstein, David Goodwin and Hieu Le