A few things about that first church: it was dying, a financial disaster. The folks on the board were super mad to have been sent a kid, a girl, who kept repeating that her job was to preach, teach, witness, and provide pastoral care. There were old hurts, big families, absent pastors. There was the ongoing struggle for the basement.  That terrible basement. With its debt-incurring new boiler, its broken asbestos tiles, its penchant for flooding, its never-sold and ever-increasing rummage collection.

After a couple of years, most of the crabbiest people had taken their leave, burnt out by the burden of trying to bail out a sinking ship. All was not lost. Some folks who’d been there for awhile stepped forward, and over time a sense of grace and hospitality grew. A spirit of self-acceptance of who we were – small, creative, a little whacked out – replaced the shame of failure that had weighed on us and made for such a toxic environment.

We were extremely personality-driven.  The remarkable new administrative council chair, a librarian, writer, mother, and former bartender. The ninety year old accompanist who had her own evangelistic radio music broadcast back in the day. The little old ladies, the young professional family, the extended clan that served on committees and always helped for big events, but lived so far away they couldn’t come consistently.  The remarkable nursery-caregiver-turned-secretary-and-eventually-custodial-team-too, fighting cancer and raising her daughter and loving her husband and being the best damn thing that ever happened to that office.   And the former coach who had grown up in the town and returned in middle age to care for his elderly parents.  He was a powerhouse; so extremely outgoing. He knew everybody, and his good humor, his belief we could do anything, his willingness to cash in favors and good will made a world of difference. We were no longer depressed. We couldn’t complete a meeting agenda in under two and a half hours if our lives depended on it, so full of ideas was he, but he gave us the boost of energy we needed.

The church had never been the most respectable church in town, but the community was educated, affluent. They reflected stereotypical mainline decline, and after years of reaching out to the schizophrenic and recovering members, the blue collar folks and those with high school educations, preaching welcome, moving toward official inclusion of LGBT persons (they’d included folks for years before my arrival, but we finally made it mission-statement official), we were well on our way to being an actually, welcoming place.  Too weird, ultimately, to grow. But sweet and gospel-driven.

When the former leadership left – most moved, some huffed – they took with them their substantial tithes. For all their other failed strategies, they were faithful givers. We managed okay, but we needed renters. And not just the lady paying ten bucks a week to give violin lessons in the Sunday School room.  We needed real space-sharing opportunities. And then we found one. $36,000 annually straight into the budget. We were maybe going to be okay, especially once we sold the surprisingly valuable painting above the fireplace in the parlor and that charming rich lady died and left us a wonderful chunk of change.

We welcomed a school – a private school – and not even a Christian one, thank God! (UMCs, in my experience, build colleges and support public elementary, middle, and secondary schools). They were hippy-dippy, lefty-liberals who taught their kids – boys and girls – to sing and knit. They were perfect for us (except when they held recess on the parsonage front lawn and my dog nearly exploded with defensive anxiety… each and every day). They came to church! They supported the congregation!  Their little choir came and played recorders in worship.  It was totally random and just right.

Things were turning around.

We continued, though, despite all my (minor) efforts to follow our Discipline and build a healthy organizational structure, to be pretty personality driven by virtue of our small numbers.

Which is how I came to field a question from one of the teachers, Mr. Larry, one day, about a concern that there might be someone living in the building.  What!?! I stuttered. A bit of investigation revealed a pallet, some personal items… someone was clearly living in the church basement, behind the stage. And, as it happened, I knew him.

He wasn’t there at the time, but I recognized his stuff. A backpack. Some incense-looking paraphenalia.   

As the evidence mounted, I asked myself the first unanticipated basement-related question of my tenure there: is there someone living in our basement? Our terrible, ridiculous basement?

He’d participated in worship, a friend of Mr. Community Outreach; they’d met recently at a huge cultural event. He constantly smelled of booze and stale cigarette smoke; in the midst of splitting up with his ladyfriend, he found himself down on his luck as they duked it out over who got to keep the trailer.  So my dear servant-of-Christ parishioner offered to let him live in the church. Just till he got back on his feet.

Flabbergasted, I suggested he might have run this by the Trustees. Angrily, I wondered why, if they were such good friends, Chuck (not his real name, because, you know, confidentiality) couldn’t stay at his house.

My parishioner had just wanted to be hospitable.  I wavered.  But I just didn’t trust Chuck. He has to go. Tomorrow.  There are kids here — we can’t run a background check on Chuck — as we’ve done with all the other adults around during school hours.  It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. Everything we’ve worked toward in terms of financial stability is at stake. And we have to make sure the kids are safe!

Mr. Hospitality couldn’t understand what had gotten into me. I’m always preaching about taking risks for the Gospel.  I am proud to say that I didn’t whine, not insurance risks! Did I really value security over helping someone in need? What kind of new pastor was I? 

I was beyond frustrated. This is what I get for empowering my people to be hospitable, I lamented. My ridiculous, hopeful, lovingly naive people. I get a squatter in the basement, trying to play on my hegemonic Christian guilt. Why can I not welcome the stranger?  But why does it have to be this stranger?

Sometimes the Holy Spirit smells like lilies at Easter, sometimes like burnt ashes in Lent, or burning torches at Pentecost or on crisp fall nights. The next day, the Holy Spirit’s clarifying aroma reeked of marijuana.

I was in my office, the teachers were teaching; in the cool of an autumn day, the smell came up through the vent, carried by the power of that pricey boiler.  Chuck swore it was incense, ceremonial!  But the hippy-dippy lefty school parents knew, and so did I. My college roommate followed Phish; I can tell the difference between patchouli and pot.

Off he went.

Life in the small church is hard: Balancing radical hospitality and personality concerns is hard. Balancing risk and stability is hard. But knowing that pot smoking strangers cannot set up residence in the church school: that’s not so hard.

2 thoughts on “Wits-Ends-Days: When Radical Hospitality Goes Terribly Wrong

  1. Brilliant! Your writing was tender and laugh out loud funny. Thank you for sharing that experience. I’ll be thinking about the smell of the Holy Spirit well into the future.


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