by S.M. Chen | 25 January 2024 |
We had planned to get together for some time—a Norwegian friend and I, someone I’d known since college days—which goes back decades. He’d expressed interest in meeting the Ukrainian couple I have been sponsoring in my home since September.
My Norwegian friend has a female friend, a woman close to 40, active in Norwegian events and a devout Christian. She also expressed a desire to meet my guests. I decided to meet them at a Norwegian Protestant church about an hour north of where I live with my refugees. I set the GPS on my cell phone and got behind the wheel.
(GPS is a marvelous invention, only occasionally leading me astray. I rely on it to get to places with which I am unfamiliar or inadequately acquainted.)
About an hour later we reached the church.
This particular church has some interesting history. It’s close to the waterfront of a major port, where women would welcome their men home from sea. Husbands, sons, boyfriends. Men who had been at sea and were happy to be home again for a while on terra firma. And what better place to commemorate their return than a church? It was almost like a synagogue being erected at the spot where the Prodigal Son returned.
Over the years the church flourished. People came and went but the church remained, a testament to the staying power of the family and communal bond. A bulwark against all things inimical to that bond.
We pulled up outside the building, parked, and tried to peer inside through the small windows in the foyer. I tried the front doors.
Not only were they shut—they appeared to be locked. There was no sign indicating how one was to get in.
The locked door
I called my Norwegian friend. He picked up immediately. (I thought he was inside the church, but he wasn’t—his female friend was.) “You need to ring the bell,” he said. “I didn’t see a sign,” I said. “Why is it locked?” “To keep the bums out,” he said
Looking more closely, I saw a small, unmarked bell. I rang it. Soon my friend’s friend appeared. We greeted each other and I introduced her to my guests.
We sat near the back of the smallish church, where the pianist was holding forth with song and sermon. Virtually everything was in Norwegian, a language with which neither my guests nor I was familiar. Fortunately, words were projected onto the front white wall so all could join in certain songs. Afterward, some of us gathered in a great room for gingersnap cookies and a delicious white cake, whose complex flavors belied its appearance of a simple white cake. Coffee was served. Although attendees were few, the conversation was warm and friendly. My guests and I were made to feel welcome.
But the thought stuck in my head: why had the front door of the church been shut?—not only shut, but locked? Had I not known better and had I not thought to call my friend, I might have turned around and left, thinking I was in the wrong place.
I remembered the words of my friend (who, it turned out, wasn’t there at all). His answer to my query about why the door was locked had been “To keep the bums out.”
Over the years, I know not when, the neighborhood had fallen on hard times. Or maybe the times had never been anything else but hard. Admittedly, the environs were less than salutary. I had no idea what went on when darkness fell and the moon was less than full. To me that wasn’t the issue. I could understand the church being locked when it wasn’t being used, when no one was in it. (Although it seems that is rarely the case; I discovered the pianist lives upstairs.) Nor am I privy to the politics of the church, and I don’t wish to know.
But this I think I do know: a church should be open to all.
Is the church open?
I am not singling out this church for opprobrium. There are probably thousands like it scattered around the globe. I mention it because I think it is illustrative of a problem.
The Master Himself said the church is for sinners, not saints. Some of the so-called saints may attend services but they should also welcome those they perceive to be so-called sinners.
I have little doubt this congregation’s intentions are good, but we are told the road to perdition is paved with those. They welcome strangers who manage to make it past the door. But why lock their doors, particularly in broad daylight when services are being conducted? It made no sense to me. What kind of message was that sending to the community? Was it a message of exclusivity rather than inclusivity? Belong to our club and you’ll be welcome; don’t belong to our club and be considered an outcast?
I remembered the words of the comedian Groucho Marx who, when resigning from the Friar’s Club, said: “I refuse to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”
The Master said that, after the Almighty Himself, the duty of man was to love his neighbor. And just who was his neighbor? In reply the Master told the parable of the Good Samaritan.
If the same question were asked today—“Who is my neighbor?,” what might the answer be? People around the church might say, “I was hungry, but the door was locked.” Others might say, “I was thirsty, but the door was locked.” Still others might say, “I was depressed. I wanted to hear words of good cheer, but the door was locked. We couldn’t get in.”
Locking the front door sent a message which I interpreted this way: things are more important than people. We value the contents of this edifice more than the people who might frequent it.
American poet Edgar Guest had this to say: “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.”
Is it any wonder the Master has not returned? His people, or those who might consider themselves His people, aren’t ready to receive everyone the Master would welcome.
S.M. Chen writes from Southern California.