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Be a presence to those you might consider a stranger

8 Habits of Evangelism author says when it comes to church, radical welcome is ‘my mantra’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard preached at the February 20, 2019 chapel service at the Presbyterian Center’s celebration of Black History Month. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — When it comes to church, the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider looking in. But Leonard also knows what it’s like to sit in a place of welcome and inclusion.

It’s one of the primary reasons that Leonard, associate for Gender & Racial Justice in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), chose to write about radical welcome in the new 8 Habits of Evangelism resource produced by Theology, Formation & Evangelism (TFE).

“Radical welcome is really my mantra, of both my personal and professional work,” Leonard told an online audience Wednesday, gathered for the second of eight weekly webinars featuring each of the authors of the eight identified habits of evangelism.

Leonard talked about why radical welcome is so important for the church and the joy they felt when Heather came to the church Leonard pastored in Pittsburgh. The 19-year-old transgender woman was struggling to understand if — and how — God could love her.

“She was about to give up her connection to God, to church, to religion,” Leonard said.

Heather was even suicidal about the notion that God had turned God’s back on her, especially given her religious upbringing. Leonard invited her to a conference the church was hosting the following weekend.

Here’s part of what Leonard wrote (click here, then click on illustration) in their lesson on radical welcome:

“Heather eventually became a member of the church and was even active in our outreach to other trans college students. She became an integral part of my ministry. Heather and I are still in contact. She is no longer suicidal. She has a restored relationship with God and is thriving in her authentic self. I truly believe that God worked through the radical welcome we extended as a church to help this young lady blossom in her sense of faith, sense of call and sense of self identity.”

“I’m so glad she found God and connections there,” Leonard said. “And that she was able to listen to the concerns of other LGBTQIA+ folks in the church.”

According to Leonard, the PC(USA) finds itself in “a unique dichotomy,” with words available for what radical welcome looks like — but not living into that reality.

Recently, they heard of a church fight over putting in a ramp to aid people with handicaps.

“You can’t have radical welcome if you can’t get in the door,” Leonard said. “I don’t understand that.”

“How do we continually encourage the totality of what Christ is doing with the Holy Spirit to make sure we are not left behind with our doors closed because we were too stubborn to follow God,” Leonard said. “We need to take the church from a social club place to the place Christ calls us, to be a body for all people.”

Leonard would love for the Church to get to a place where it didn’t need the phrase “radical welcome,” because radical welcome suggests something above and beyond what a church would normally do.

“What if the narrative shifts in our churches and it’s just plain ‘welcome?’ Where we reimagine what it means to be community,” Leonard said.

Stressing how crucial it is to understand that the future of the church has to be radically welcoming, Leonard said churches need to have a diversity of people. That includes everyone comprising the people of God.

Radical welcome is important to the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard because they know what it’s like to sit in a place of welcome and inclusion, but also to feel like an outsider looking in when it comes to church. (Photo by Judah Fellowship Christian Church)

For Leonard, if radical welcome is just on paper in a mission statement or it’s just talked about, this generation and the one’s coming behind it will see through it.

“They’re looking for the love of Christ to show up in your community in ways that are tangible and real,” Leonard said. “One of those ways that is tangible is how you welcome what may be a stranger in your context.  So do your work, show up in your community, be a presence to those you might consider a stranger.”

In Leonard’s lesson on radical welcome are habits (access by clicking here, then clicking on the “habits for radical welcome” tab) that help leaders shift the narrative in their congregations to create openness that reflects a racially welcoming identity.

“Keep an internal log of your leadership, your worship, and your media [websites, social media],” Leonard said. “If I can’t see myself, you only want me as a consumer, not a contributor.”

Leonard will host an online workshop on gender and inclusion at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on October 19. Read about the workshop and then register here.

You can watch each of the weekly webinars live here. Recordings of each will be available soon on the 8 Habits of Evangelism website, where you can also view each of the writings of the diverse authors on each habit, along with scriptural references, illustrations and questions about each practice. 

The next webinar will be on September 29 with the Rev. Aisha Brooks-Johnson, who will talk about the habit of Sacraments.

Each of the 8 Habits authors will be featured at the REvangelism Conference from Montreat Conference Center Nov. 1-3. Take a deeper journey into the lives of others and the hope and wonder of God at this digital conference by registering here.

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