Growing up, I had a sense of belonging and love, long before I knew what it really was. My parents raised me in the church my mother grew up in. I had numerous parents and grandparents from that experience who shaped what welcome means for me and my ministry.
My sisters and I could be a force all our own. in fact, we were most of our young lives. There were many Sundays during the children’s message that my youngest sister would run down the center isle of the church and slide into the chancel steps like she was stealing home plate in the world series. We would run around with abandon, even when told to be cautious, and would ultimately wind up with skinned knees and asking those same adults who warned us for Band-Aids and care.
We had a sense that we owned the place, like it was our second home. It was a place where we knew we were safe. It was a place where the adults took an interest in asking us about our week and what we were learning in school. These people were the embodiment of love and welcome.
One such lady was Mrs. Lukie. She was an older woman who had an oxygen tank that she named Chilly. She loved the rowdy Alsup girls and would often invite us to sit with her in worship. When we would sit with her, she would help us follow along with the order of worship, show us the ways to find hymns in the hymnal, and make sure that we were taking notes and listening to the sermon. It was always a treat when you got to sit with Mrs. Lukie because that meant we were not sitting with our parents. And while that seemed a big motivator at the time, looking back I appreciate how much Mrs. Lukie and Chilly were embodying love and welcome for the Alsup girls. She took time to invest in us and invited us to join her in her faith journey, helping to shape our journey as well.
Another big influence in our childhood was Mrs. Sally and Mr. Sam. These two people were grandparents of sorts. They would check in with us weekly, asking about school and life and anything we would talk about. They would always offer up a smile and a “that’s good, dear,” when we would share good news with them. They too would welcome the Alsup girls into their worship experience and teach us what faith and welcome looked like for them. When Mr. Sam died, it was a great loss for us. Our mom had us write letters to him and Mrs. Sally to let her know just how much he meant to us. Mrs. Sally continued to be in our lives until she died. And it never failed that she would ask us each week how we were and what we were up to and offer us a hug or two.
I could spend hours thinking back on my childhood church and all the influential people who made that congregation feel like a home. And the one thing that made it that way was the love of the people. The love they offered to us, the love of God they embodied, taught us what it meant to be a church family.
Years have gone by. The Alsup sisters are grown up. And I carry countless memories and church family members with me in my ministry. For they were the ones to teach me about love, to show me ways that the church can and should invest in young people. They made me realize the importance of faith journeys and doing them together in community – young and old, youth and adult, child and grandparent – together. For when we travel through life together, we learn from one another and welcome one another into a deeper meaning of community life and love.
It is one thing for a church to tell children and youth that they are welcome, but it is another thing to actually live into that invitation. To welcome someone into your life and journey and to do so without judgment is key. To have them join you in your journey and join them on theirs is a gift that opens you to a greater understanding of belonging and welcome. This is what I learned from Mrs. Lukie and Mrs. Sally and Mr. Sam. It is something I carry with me to this day in my ministry. This is the true gift of the church, to embody God’s love and welcome so that all children of God feel like they belong.