As a child growing up in the south, attending a Calvary Baptist church one memory remains clearly embedded in my mind. It is the memory of how if you were new to the church everyone made sure to greet you and welcome you. I think that welcoming spirit is a trademark among Baptist churches.
My Memoma would take us to visit relatives and we would attend services with them. No matter what church we went to the welcome was the same. I know, some of you may be thinking "they were trying to save your soul." Yes, that is probably true. Yet, what I think is wonderful is that no matter who you were they made sure you knew you were welcomed.
Where am I going with this? Yes, I am Catholic today but that same mentality sticks with me. I try my best to ensure new parishioners feel welcomed. I want them to know there is a place for them in our parish and that if they volunteer I will definitely put them to use. There is nothing worse than being new to an area, finding the only Catholic Church around, only to discover not a single person takes a moment to say hello or introduce him or herself.
Having moved all over the world as a child with military parents and as a military spouse, I’m sad to say I know that feeling. One parish we went offered three weekend services. This parish had a beautiful, modern church. It had stained glass windows, was spread out and was perfect. Well, except it lacked a vital part a parish should offer-- an atmosphere of hospitality.
We attended this church for seven months without a single person greeting us or offering an introduction. Since everyone in our family had been extremely active in all of our other parishes it was only natural to sign up for several ministries. Combine all of our ministries and we’ve done just about everything except be the priest.
We registered the first weekend we were there. After volunteering I waited patiently to hear from the church. A week went by, then another. Finally I received some correspondence from the parish…no, not a welcome letter, tithing envelopes. I didn’t like that too much because I have always felt a welcome and introductions come before money requests. I let it go and still waited to hear from someone.
One Sunday we had a ministry Sunday where everyone was handed out forms to volunteer for the various ministries. A plea was made for volunteers. My family filled them out. They were seeking individuals to serve in every capacity. Perfect. I volunteered to serve on the parish council and school board as I have been the president, secretary and treasurer of different parish councils and president of the Catholic Women of the Chapel.
The next week it was time to vote on the parish council and school board. We were handed a sheet with five people on it. Each person listed had a picture and a little bio. I just about went through the roof. Why did I volunteer? I hadn’t even been contacted to see if I had the qualifications required to serve in these capacities, much less did I find my name listed among those who volunteered. Needless to say I wondered what the point of last weeks’ volunteer sheet and profession that volunteers were needed was for. I didn’t vote for anyone, instead I put a note that said, "If you are going to ask for volunteers to serve, you should at least contact them."
Soon after that I went to our Catholic school PTA meeting. Again it was election time. Four individuals and the president stood up. The president introduced the individuals and voted them in. There wasn’t any competition, or any nominations. They were voted in with the announcement that the new vice president would serve as the president the following year. I guess I had a stupefied look upon my face because the lady next to me whispered, "It isn’t a democracy here, you’re either in or you aren’t." Were we in high school or what? I didn’t take any of this at all.
Finally, after being there for six months without a word from the church or ministry leaders (other than a new set of tithing envelopes) I went in to see the priest. You guessed it. One of the first questions he asked me was if we volunteered for any ministries. I told him yes, that I was waiting to hear from the church. And that was the end of it.
I walked away from that church feeling like the only good I was to them was the money I donated to pay for their 1.5 billion dollar church. A church that was full of people who were as cold and unwelcoming as the beautiful marble that lay upon the floor. I felt they were a church that asked for volunteers with no intent of utilizing their talents.
The last weekend I was there I laughed to myself as I read the parish bulletin. It was a long speech about giving of your time and talent. I’m still at a loss for words. It doesn’t do any good to talk the talk but not walk the walk.
As a DRE and parish coordinator, even when I was a ministry leader, I put forth a great deal of effort to try to ensure no one ever feels that way at our parish. I know it hurts when you offer everything you have to your church because you love God and your Catholic faith, only to find the only thing they really want from you is in your wallet. I know paying for the church is important but what good is a big, beautiful building that lacks God’s true presence among its leaders and followers?
I’m sad to say as a Catholic I understand the bad rap we get. I’ve had newcomers to our Catholic faith or those inquiring state they felt rejected before they were even Catholic. They felt this because they’ve sat in the pew for weeks and months without anyone noticing they were new. Newcomers to our faith often comment on feeling they have to jump through hoops to get in. My hope is that we can learn a little lesson from our Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ.
I never let go of the welcoming feeling I had as a child entering an unfamiliar Baptist church and even as an adult returning home…it was a warm feeling of God’s presence. God wants us to welcome others. God wants our mission to be to save others and to bring them to Christ. Jesus shared God’s word with others in many different places. I believe you can find God in a big, beautiful building but it begins with the people not the bank note.
Please take the time to welcome others to your parish and when someone volunteers, accept their offer. You never know what wonderful gifts they long to share. There is nothing worse than feeling rejected in God’s house. I believe we all know that is not what Jesus would want. Jesus gathered those around him that all others left to the way side.
One Sunday we were in Alaska on vacation. As we were preparing to take our seats the priest came up to us and greeted us. He asked where we were from. We joked about looking like tourists and he said something I will never forget. Something that says the message best and applies to us all, "Every good shepherd knows his flock."
Copyright 2010 Lorrie Lane Dyer
About the Author
Lorrie Lane Dyer is a facilitator for the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation with the University of Dayton as well as religious education and parish coordinator. She is working on her Masters of Leadership Development, with a focus in Military Chapel programs at St. Mary of the Woods College. Her faith provides her with inspiration for many of her poetry collections, columns and short stories.