Today we were running a workshop on Places of Welcome – the network we are helping to develop of places across the city that offer conversation, hospitality and basic information for a couple of hours of week.One of the participants mentioned that the place she worked was a ‘Place of Change’ and she wanted to see how that connected with a ‘Place of Welcome.’
I found the connection really interesting. In a way we aim to be places of change too in that those who arrive feeling isolated, lonely and unable to contribute find themselves connected, accepted and able to participate. One of our principles is to keep the lines between guest and host very blurred and to encourage all who visit a place of welcome to make some sort of contribution to its running whether that is helping with the washing-up, baking a cake or opening up conversation with newcomers.
The place of change our workshop member was talking about was much more specific and purposeful. It was a place where young people were found routes into employment, training and independent living. But I wondered if that sort of change can happen without being welcomed, without being known and appreciated before being ‘sorted.’ Or if we are too welcomed, if we belong too much and we are too secure, does the incentive to change disappear. I sometimes think I am least ‘changed’ when I am with my parents and in-laws – I seem to stay stuck as I was 20 years ago!
I think the Christian theologian Miroslav Volf’s idea of a ‘Catholic Personality’ sheds some light on this. In his fascinating book ‘Exclusion and Embrace‘ he describes the catholic personality as being enriched by others and reflecting multiple others in a particular way. He says that being born of the Spirit creates a fissure between the Christian and their own culture through which they ‘other’ can come in . ‘The Spirit unlocks the doors of my heart saying: “You are not only you, others belong to you too.”‘
So when we can distance ourselves from our identity, perhaps our family ties and our comfort zone we make room for the ‘other’ to enrich and change us. This seems to make sense of some of the difficult passages in scripture when Jesus seems to dismiss his earthly family to make room for the new ‘others’ that have become his disciples.Or the bits that tell us we cannot be a disciple without hating our parents.
Preaching on the Holy Spirit this week I was struck that the gift of tongues given to the disciples in Acts had a very practical purpose. It meant that people from different cultures and ethnicities could understand each other and speak the truth to each other. Our churches could become places of welcome and change if they help us to make space for the stranger or the ‘other’ and welcome them so deeply that our very character and personality is changed.
Maya Angelou seemed to be thinking of something similar when she wrote her poem – Touched by an Angel. Its how I concluded my sermon and I’ll give her the last word here too.
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.