In October we hosted the second annual Symposia: An Intersection of Conversation & Innovation, a forum in which alumni of The Seattle School presented the ongoing work they are pursuing at the intersection of text, soul, and culture. Integrative education does not end at graduation, and our alumni are proof of that. Symposia highlights the ways that Seattle School alumni are continuing to wrestle with big questions and big dreams in theology, psychology, and culture.
This week, we’re featuring a presentation by Rebecca Joy Sumner (MDiv, ‘08), “All Means All: The Exquisite Beauty and Excruciating Cost of Living and Leading God’s Welcome of All People.” After a year that has put division and conflict at the cultural foreground, Rebecca’s story is a reminder of the radical welcome that is at the heart of the Gospel—and a reminder that true welcome does not come without a cost.
“I’ll say I want to welcome everyone, but sometimes I don’t want to welcome everyone.”
Rebecca shares the story of her church start in Everett, WA, that has at least half its congregation made up of people who live outside. She opens her presentation by reading the spacious and inclusive welcome they read at the beginning of every church service, an invitation to people from all backgrounds and life circumstances to be welcomed, to welcome each other, and to welcome the Spirit of God. She reads from the parable of the banquet in Luke 14, when the host says “Go out to the roads and the lanes, and compel people to come in so that my house may be filled.”
“No one wants to go to the banquet described in that passage—no one. […] The people we want to go to dinner with are well-traveled, well-read, people with good taste in music and food, people with really good friends.”
Rebecca admits that her original dream for starting a church involved exposed brick buildings, dim lighting, original music written for the service, lilting liturgy, preaching that’s more like an opening poem, and a congregation made up of “the over-educated urban poor, as we used to call them at the hip church I went to in Boston. Only, we were only sort of poor; we were student poor.”
“I imagined we’d leave and know how to be better neighbors. And I would have never admitted it, but those neighbors I hoped we’d be better to were not in my picture of our worshiping community.”
Eventually, Rebecca and her church community started offering hospitality to neighbors who were experiencing houselessness, addiction, and mental unhealth. “We gave them coffee, and friendship, and a place to be.” Rebecca realized that these neighbors were taking her at her word when she said they are welcome, so she began to wonder about the barriers to welcome.
“Who’s welcome at Jesus’ table? All are welcome at Jesus’ table.”
“So much of what I dreamed of and studied and experimented in these halls had to go in order to make way for the community that the divine Other, in her divine wisdom, was weaving together among us. And it’s hard, and it’s beautiful, and it’s hard.”
As Rebecca shares snapshots of members of their community, her words are both an inspiration and a challenge, forcing us to confront our own barriers to welcoming those who, in so many ways and so many places, are more familiar with being unwelcome.