‘You’re welcome!’ said the elderly lady at the door as I went into a church at the top of my street in Govanhill which I hadn’t attended before. It wasn’t just that she spoke the words but she held out a hand and gave me a firm handshake which only served to reinforce that I was indeed welcome. The other lady standing in the foyer was tasked with taking me in to the church, and helpfully informed me ‘You can sit anywhere’.
I took the one empty chair on the corner of the back row, and the lady beside me took no time before welcoming me as well, and starting a little chat. After the prayers and before the sermon, I was also included in the distribution list for the sweets being passed along the back row.
The welcome at the entrance took me back many years to West Kirk Presbyterian church in Belfast. On the door Sunday by Sunday, Jack Fairfield (literally!) faithfully offered a welcome and a firm handshake to those who entered. The fact that I was a young person made no difference, I was welcomed as eagerly and faithfully as any. Jack F to this day epitomises for me the importance of a welcome into church. The fact that some thirty-five years later I still remember his welcome, and his faithfulness, bears witness to the affirmation I felt through him, and the sense of belonging I felt in the church.
I often hear people speak with genuine concern about the lack of young people in church (quite apart from the rest of the population as well!). When hearing this I am reminded of just how important it is to make sure children and young people (and adults as well) experience an affirming welcome when they are present, and for however short a time they are there.
It would be my hope that their experience is such that no matter where they go and what age they reach, every time they pass a church door (open or closed), they will remember their own ‘Jack F’, know themselves affirmed and feel comfortable about (and maybe even encouraged into!) returning someday.
Should they do so, may they find a welcome and a handshake at the entrance, like I did today; and, maybe even a sweet passed along the back row.
A moment of grace; thanks be to God!
Lord, have mercy.