‘Have you put the leaf in the table of your faith community?’

Holiday dinners set the table for message on radical welcome at REvangelism Conference

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard literally set a holiday table during their message about radical welcome for the REvangelism Conference. (Screenshot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — As the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard began to talk about radical welcome from Montreat Conference Center, they put on an apron and began to reflect on childhood holidays.

Before the thrill of having cousins over to play, there was the work of getting ready and setting the table, which usually meant a big task that would signal a special day.

“My brother would stand on one side, my dad was standing on the other side, and they would pull apart the table, and it was my job to put that extra piece in the middle,” Leonard recalled. “Those were special days. We put the leaf in the table. That meant that we had to broaden the table where we sat. We had to open it up because more people were coming in. We had to make sure we had room for everybody.”

Leonard was speaking Tuesday morning about radical welcome on the second day of the REvangelism Conference, a three-day event based on the 8 Habits of Evangelism resource.

The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins of Columbia Theological Seminary opened the morning with a reflection on Acts 6:1-7, which tells the story of the first seven chosen to serve as deacons. Watkins steered into the story of Shirley Chisholm, a civil rights activist who in 1968 became the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Chisholm said, and Watkins reflected on the importance of Chisholm and others demanding their place “at the table” and how it reverberated to his very own mother, who ran for city council in their Florida hometown and won.

The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins (Contributed photo)

“My mother pulled up a chair because Shirley Chisholm pulled up a chair,” Watkins said. “The table began to look different.”

The thing about Chisholm’s quote that bothered Watkins is that she had to bring a folding chair, while others had chairs reserved for them. And that, he said, is the point of welcoming in church: Who is at the table, and more importantly, who is not at the table, and how do we make a place for them?

“Can we set the table together and make room for people like Shirley Chisholm and so many others?” Watkins asked.

That was the appetizer for Leonard’s talk amidst the setting of a holiday dinner table, which they pointed out, is not designed to make people feel like guests.

“We wanted people to feel welcome, and not just welcome, but at home, so they wouldn’t feel like they were missing out on anything by being at our table,” said Leonard, Coordinator  for Gender & Racial Justice in the Presbyterian Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries. “There’s something about radical welcome that makes people feel like more than guests, but family.”

This brought Leonard back to a recurring theme in their ministry: the difference between multicultural and intercultural communities or, as Leonard has discussed in Gender and Inclusion workshops, diversity and inclusion. Multicultural, Leonard said, is where a lot of churches are at, in that they welcome a diversity of people and celebrate the appropriate occasions and days.

“When we become intercultural, that means that your days are not just celebrated or your identities are not celebrated one day a year,” Leonard said. “Who you are, and the fullness of your humanity is incorporated into the life of the church, or the faith community. So, there are people who look like you in leadership. There are songs that reflect your culture in our liturgy and in our music. Your heritage is a part of the ethos of who we are, not just something that is lifted up at one particular time of the year, and whether that’s about making sure there are ramps in the church for those who are disabled, or it’s about making sure that there’s sign language available for those who are hearing impaired or deaf, or it can be about how Pride shows up in your sermons, in your illustrations, in your Bible studies.

“That’s what it means to take something that’s culturally on the sideboard and bring it into the main table, or the main part of your faith community.”

As Leonard noted, we are at a prime time to make changes to be more intercultural, and not just because we are heading into the holiday season when we put an additional leaf in our table. While no one denies or celebrates the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shutting down and subsequent reopening of in-person worship presents faith communities with opportunities to rethink what they are doing and how they are doing it.

“God has given us a unique opportunity to look at, to reevaluate how we do church in this moment, and we cannot revert back to a mindset that is old,” Leonard said. “’Behold, I’ll do a new thing in you. Shall you not receive it?’ (Isaiah 43:19) And this is the time to receive it.”

For many, that may be easier said than done, Leonard and Watkins acknowledged. Inside the church, becoming more inclusive and intercultural may necessitate looking for the ways the church may give the appearance of not being welcoming, from websites to in-person experiences, and possibly changing longtime practices and traditions. And it can require going out beyond the church walls to engage with new communities. It can be awkward and uncomfortable. Those moments of discomfort, Watkins said, are where God does transformative work.

It can be long, hard work, but Leonard advised, “It’s not fake it ‘til you make it. It’s be uncomfortable until you are comfortable, until it’s regular, ‘til it’s just how it is, not something that’s out of the ordinary.”

Leonard concluded the talk returning to the expansive metaphor they opened with.

“Have you put the leaf in the table of your faith community?” Leonard asked. “Have you put the leaf in the table of your heart and really dealt with opening space for others to come in? Have you put the leaf out so that people know that this is a welcoming space where all can come and sup and have peace and be welcomed?”

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