There’s an underground mall down the street from us that is quite lovely to work in.
There’s starbucks, goodlife, timothys, a couple banks, and a print three. A little gift shop and a drugstore.
I love the big windows, the courtyard and the little waterfall, the couches and the comfy chairs that line the windowed courtyard.
But one thing continually confuses me about this space. I don’t tend to think of myself as a reckless or ignorant person but by the way I’ve been (un)welcomed there I start to wonder about my self awareness!: )For one thing, every time I go there with the stroller I have to wait at a locked elevator to get into the subway. The button never works the first time so I have to call security to have them to flip a switch for it to work. Odd to me, considering the amount of wheelchairs and strollers passing through there by the hour? Why not leave the elevator accessible?
But then there are all my interactions with the building staff.
See, I used to take my laptop and books there when I was studying, until one day I was accused of stealing power from the company that owns this building. Confusing, because there are so many companies represented and obviously public sitting areas with outlets..
Another time I was sitting on a chair one leg crossed under the other. A staff came up and reprimanded me to: “Get [my] feet off of the furniture. Would [I] disrespect [my] furniture at home? Of course not .. So why did [I think] it was OK here?!”
Just a few weeks back, when it was blustery snowy out, I had gone there to work out at the goodlife. It was dark and late and i was dreading the treck back home. I sat on a chair for a few minutes assembling my bag, putting my mitts and scarf on and taking a breath before I faced the snow. A security guard came up to me and told me, “It was time to leave. I couldn’t loiter any longer.”
(Not one of my finer moments, I snapped back “Well I wasn’t planning on sleeping here…”)
Now, this morning I was doing some work and went to use the washroom. There was a cleaning cart outside so I popped my head in and asked if it was OK to use the washroom. One of my “favourite” staff whirled around and told me to “Get out”. I quickly explained that I saw the cart and didn’t know if she was in there or in the men’s room and that’s why I was checking.
She told me sarcastically that I should learn to read and look at the sign next time. Kind of shocked, I closed the door and noticed a small piece of paper ripped and taped to the door.
“Don’t come in” was scrawled on it.
It just seems every time I interact with someone that works at this building, I am told that I am doing things wrong and basically being a pest.
Their demeanor says, “we don’t trust you,… and well, we don’t think we like you very much so find somewhere else to be”.
Maybe its because I hang out mostly in churches, but these kinds of inhospitable interactions take me by surprise every time.
Thankfully, my church experiences have given me rosier glasses on the world.
Of course I am wanted! Of course it is OK to stay awhile, and even have a tea. I am kind of messy, immature, and in process? That’s OK. This is just the place.
However, unfortunately I know this isn’t the case for everyone in our churches. Too many people experience church to be what I experience that underground mall to be.
Let’s be honest, as a stable adult with a job I generally fit into the church box pretty naturally. The church says to me, you seem predictable and safe to bring in. But I can’t help but think that there still is usually a very distinct box, and a lot of people don’t fit in very easily. We aren’t quite sure what to do with kids half of the time, and we’re really not sure what to do with kids that we have a hard time communicating with (whether due to language of physical difficulties).
I was working with our toddlers on Sunday morning and the bother of one of our toddlers wanted to come in and hang out. Because of some language difficulties in the moment I invited him and the grandma to stay for the morning. We struggled to understand each other at different points throughout the morning, but one thing came out clear. This boy didn’t want to go to his grade 3 class because he didn’t understand the lesson. He felt more comfortable just playing. After we had cleaned up, another mom popped by with her daughter. Her daughter has special needs and finds the coffee lounge way too over stimulated. So each Sunday after the worship gathering, they come to the toddler room for refuge. Make yourself at home I told them.
Taking note of these kids who are very much on the fringe of friendships and of the wider group reminded me of a story that a friend confided in me a few years ago. It was one of those stories that was shared quietly and shamefully. And it has been burned on my conscience ever since.
At her church was a little boy named Ryan*. Ryan’s mom and sister lived in the neighbourhood of the church and got mildly involved when he was quite small. He was developmentally disabled and had some high needs. At that time, a cluster of dear elderly ladies took him under their wing and made sure he always had a place to sit, a snack, and had a warm welcomed time. However, over the years Ryan’s mom and sister stopped coming to the church. It didn’t stop Ryan though, he walked down the street and showed up faithfully every Sunday. This went on for quite a few years. However, the ladies that cared for him each week were getting older and eventually each of them passed away.
Without these care givers, the church had to sit down and say, “what are we going to do with Ryan?” Who is going to take care of him, who is going to make sure he is included and welcomed into the Body of Christ? However, when no one stepped forward, they felt that the only way Ryan could continue coming was if his single mother accompanied him. They decided that unsupervised, Ryan wouldn’t be allowed to participate. It is unclear at this point how the church communicated with Ryan’s mother or if she understood the expectations. But apparently this was communicated to the family.
The next Sunday Ryan showed up on his own again though, no mother to be seen.
Overwhelmed and frazzled, the church again said, “What are we going to do about Ryan?” Apparently his mother isn’t coming with him…
They decided that the next time Ryan showed up on his own, they would lock the doors and pretend that they weren’t there until he went away.
And again Ryan showed up the next week without his mother.
This time he tried the glass doors but they wouldn’t open.
He peered through, but no one seemed to be in sight (Strange, as there were cars in the parking lot…)
He tried the bell, but no one came.
My friend told me at this point in the situation, she peered out from behind one of the doors. All she could see was Ryan crumpled over on the steps crying in his lap.
She never saw him return to the church again.
Whenever I think of this story, I shudder.
There are few images that are so “anti-church” and so contrary to the person of Christ in our culture than this one. My heart breaks for Ryan. I can’t imagine the damage done to the human soul when the Body of Christ tells you, ‘there’s no room you, you are too much”.
Now, I do deeply sympathize with this small congregation with limited resources and limited experience… They were honestly ill equipped to know how to express their needs and expectations. They were ill equipped to brainstorm creative solutions. And I also hurt for that mom who was likely burnt out and overwhelmed in the background.
But at the end of the day, I have to question why this situation need ever to happen in our North American church. It is so unnecessary.
If we are not here for Ryan, than who Are we here for?
Did not Christ come for the least of these?
Couldn’t there have been another way? Like coming up with a plan for a community effort to support? Even hiring a respite worker to assist the community with specific challenges?
Couldn’t someone at least walked the road home with him and apologized to him and to his mother that they didn’t have the capacity to provide care, but they wanted to partner with them to find a way to move forward in relationship?!
-But Locking out. Hiding. Pretending. ?
This isn’t the way of Christ.
As we process Inclusion and Accessibility within the CBOQ I think of this church and kids like Ryan.
A lot of us are limited in resources or even in capacity. We want to exercise hospitality to the ‘least of these’ but we don’t know how to give when we already feel so stretched.
We don’t have all the answers, but I think this process begins with the stature of our hearts. If we feel it is important, we will find a way. If we truly believe that our God is the God of the children, the lepers, the women and the outcast- We will find away to live those beliefs out in our churches today. Sometimes this doesn’t mean started a new mid week program with puppets and games geared to kinesthetic learners.. sometimes its the simplicity of an elderly lady coming alongside of a child and making sure they get a cookie too.
The world is full of exclusivity. Places where we are accused of stealing power by plugging in our laptops, of being messy with the furniture, or not getting with the program.
But our churches aren’t those places. We aren’t that place. Gratefully, I have never experienced my church family in this way.
It is my prayer that those on our fringes, that they would experience our church family with the same warmth.
May we approach this conversation and say,
we don’t know how to be together… But we want to be.
You are so precious to the Kingdom of God, so lets find a way.