Keep the Faith: Rev. Paula J. Toland
I had a heart-warming experience a couple of weeks ago. I was walking down Main Street in Oxford, on my way from the church to get a cold drink. Most days when I am in Oxford I look like a priest. I wear my clerical collar because most days I am in town are days we “have church.” The black shirt and white collar get lots of attention. I have been known to say that it is a little bit like wearing a billboard. People see it. They are curious. They ask questions. They offer opinions. It says something.
Anyway, on this day, I was casually walking the couple of blocks to the convenience store. A man I’d never met, and haven’t run into since, stopped me and said, “Hey, Pastor! You’re the new pastor at the stone church, right?” I said I was and, before I could ask him his name or say “hello” or anything else, he said, “So is it true? Is what it says true?” Is it really true?”
I’ll admit it took me a second or two to realize that he was talking about the sign in front of the church. We have one of those signs in which the message can be changed. For much of the time since I arrived in March, it has said, “Come meet Rev. Paula” followed by a message that is there almost always, “All are welcome … Especially you.”
I realized that this man was curious, wanted to know — I’d venture to say he needed to know — these words are more than words. My guess is that he needed to know that he would be welcome, though I did not have the chance to ask him because he said, “Good!” and went on his way after I said, “It is true. We welcome everyone. We’d love for you to come.”
I wish I had more time to talk to him. I hope and pray I see him again, at church or on the street. I’m curious about what caused him to stop me as he did, to ask the question he did. I’d like to know if the answer I gave him was enough and if there is anything else he’d like to know. But mostly, and in a big way, I’d like him to know that the invitation stands, that he is welcome to come to Grace, whenever he wants, as often or as infrequently as he wants. He is welcome to come out of curiosity or need, to be fed or to feed.
Those words on the sign are more than just words. They are a huge part of the mission and ministry of Grace Episcopal Church.
Welcoming God’s children, whether they are confident in claiming that identity or are seeking answers about what it means, is at the center of who we are and what we do. It is something we do, not out of a sense of politeness or because we are nice people (though we are!), but because this is how we understand what it means to be followers of Jesus, Christians in the Episcopal tradition.
We take to heart and we do our best, always seeking to do it even better, the call to love one another, to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger. We are so grateful for the radical love and hospitality that Jesus offered and offers us that we really and truly want to share it with others.
We want others to know that there is a place for them, a place where they can pray and worship, a place where they can connect with other people, a place where they can ask questions and perhaps find answers, a place where they can offer their unique gifts and receive the gifts of others. All are welcome always, whether for a visit or a lifetime.
It is not a perfect place. It is real and it is honest, always seeking to move deeper into the heart of God. It is a faith-filled and welcoming community of people from all walks of life, at different places on the faith journey.
Grace Church is a place in which we come together to meet God, to share in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, and to be enlivened and emboldened by the Holy Spirit to do what we can to make the world a better place. Grace Church is a place where all are Welcome … Especially you!
The Rev. Paula J. Toland is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Oxford. Keep the Faith is a weekly column written by area religious leaders. Coming next week: Rev. Milad Selim.