Welcoming the stranger

‘You hypocrites, you’re in here saying your prayers and I’m out there struggling to survive’.

 A few Sundays ago I was in my parish church pondering a homily I had just heard on welcoming the stranger when a woman I hadn’t seen before walked in and up to the front of the nave while the congregation recited the Creed.

She looked up at the screen for a moment, then sat briefly on the projectionist’s seat. Then she walked towards the door again and, facing the altar, she shouted something like, ‘You hypocrites, you’re in here saying your prayers and I’m out there struggling to survive’. She may well have used some less palatable expletive but my memory fails me on this point.
More expletives came as our priest, Fr Kevin Connors, began the Eucharistic Prayer. In his gentle way he acknowledged her and asked God to help her in her troubles and to help us to be truly a welcoming community.

Meanwhile, after one parishioner had shouted that it was her own fault she was homeless, lay pastoral leader, Karen Holland, went out to the foyer where the woman was standing and, with a third parishioner, stood with the woman. Apparently she was too angry to accept the offer of a cup of tea.

I learnt later that the woman had been attacked while she slept in one of the alcoves behind the church, having asked Karen’s permission to rest there. Truly she had a serious grievance, wronged by society while on church property.
This profoundly moving experience set me thinking about this church of ours and how we do welcome the stranger. This is the challenge that Jesus time and again presents to us in the gospels.

The people in Jesus’ life were not just the lepers and other outcasts but also those termed sinners in the parlance of the day—Zaccheus the tax collector who spent his days ripping off his own people. Jesus’ friends severely criticised him for dining in Zaccheus’ house.

In some way we are all strangers. Our ancestors came to Aotearoa New Zealand from faraway lands—Hawaiki (according to some historians), Europe and the United Kingdom initially and, more recently, the Pacific, Asia and Africa.
Almost without exception they were looking for a better life for their families. For some it had become impossible to live in their country of origin because of war and/or famine or for ethnic reasons—they were simply no longer accepted in that society.

Women are constantly reminded in our church that we are second-best. As biblical scholar Dr Barbara Reid OP said in her talks in Wellington last month, ‘in a church where 80 percent of the lay ministers are women and where 90 percent of those parishes that do not have a resident priest as pastor are led by women—women … have no opportunity to test their vocations to presbyteral ministry and … are barred from preaching at Eucharistic celebrations.’

Yes, there are times when I as a woman feel excluded in this church. Just as the visitor in that Newtown parish church felt left out and uncared for, there are many who feel themselves to be marginalised by attitudes promoted by unjust laws.

 As we approach Lent and its theme of responsibility for others, let us try to focus on what it really means to have responsibility for ‘the other’ among us and to be more welcoming and inclusive and less judgmental, as Jesus was.