Building a Welcoming Community

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Helping to build more inclusive communities

Christians are not just called to be welcoming within their congregations but also within their private lives and in how they act as part of the wider community.

‘The command to love your neighbour extends to everybody who lives near you and everybody you meet in the six days between attending church. … We should avoid thinking of ‘church’ as simply a ‘church’ building and instead think of ourselves as the active, committed people of God.’

Welcoming Angels, Dublin 2005, p. 40.

‘People deprived of familiar rootedness in family, culture, tradition and geography deserve the next best thing, which is welcome, hospitality and compassionate concern in their new environment.’

Paul Surlis, ‘Exile’, The Furrow, April 2000, (reproduced in Inter-Cultural Insights).

Extracts from some suggestions by Rt Rev. Dr Ken Newell, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland on the subject of racism:

Refocus on the life God calls you to live in your community: ‘live a life of love’.

Assess your emotional involvement with the issue: ‘Before Hlaleleni from Zimbabwe described the hell of racist abuse she had been put through in an estate in East Belfast, I felt emotionally detached from the problem of racism. After hearing her story of windows smashed, doors kicked in and dog’s dirt shovelled in piles on her doorstep, I changed.’

Change your lifestyle: ‘Become more socially inclusive. If you rarely have people from a different ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds to your home for a meal, why not adopt a different approach? Open your heart and your home. … There is nothing more powerful than your neighbours seeing you enjoy the friendship of people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.’

Open up the issue in your church: ‘Compile a dossier of racial attacks in your area. Share this material with your friends in church. Present it to your minister and church leaders. Ask them to discuss it and initiate a positive response in your area. … Would Jesus be passive if he lived in your neighbourhood? He does!’

From lion & lamb: racism and religious liberty, Autumn 2004.

Some of the strangers we welcome will eventually go home and, depending on the welcome they receive from us, will become involved in the life of the churches in their own home areas. … But some of those strangers will stay on in Ireland, and will contribute greatly to the social, cultural, political, economic and religious life of this island, their children will marry our children, and their grandchildren will be our grandchildren. In welcoming strangers we will soon discover we are bringing angels into our churches and into our families.

Patrick Comerford, Embracing Difference: the Church of Ireland in a Plural Society, p.80.


‘The heart of Christianity is hospitality’
Jean Varnier in ‘Something Understood’, BBC Radio 4, Palm Sunday, 2009

In helping to build a welcoming community it is important not just to provide a welcome for newcomers but also to help existing populations to adjust to change. Culture shock is acute for people who have left their home country, but the arrival of numbers of people who are different can also cause a range of emotions from unease and fear to hostility and aggression in local people. It is part of Christian leadership to acknowledge all these emotions and needs, and to find ways of creating mutual understanding and fellowship.

See also
EMBRACE Resources
EMBRACE Toolkit for Churches
Contemporary Christianity p.s. blog No More Them and Us
Contemporary Christianity p.s. blog Racism and the Church in Ireland
Contemporary Christianity p.s. blog Come with Me: A Way of Welcome 

Reflections on what the Bible says

Repentance, humility, inclusion and advocacy: At the EMBRACE Annual General Meeting in 2004 Sr Brighde Vallely (then EMBRACE Vice-Chairperson) reflected how, in John’s Gospel, while Peter warmed himself by a charcoal fire, in the in-group, Jesus was in the outgroup, among the demonised. After the resurrection, it was Jesus who cooked breakfast on a charcoal fire for the disciples, and Peter, following his earlier denials of Christ, had the opportunity to make his threefold response to Jesus’ question: “Do you love me?”
Brighde then asked ‘So what must we do?’ and answered:

  • Repent of sectarianism, racism and prejudice
  • Wash the feet of others
  • Churches and church communities should be communities of the inclusive charcoal fire
  • Be informed and learn to ask the right questions, of churches, politicians and policymakers

Embracing the Stranger

God is portrayed in the scriptures as identifying with fallen and broken humanity. God revealed Himself as the God of the outsider when He intervened in the lives of the Israelites in Egypt. His liberation of His people from their oppression displayed His commitment to the marginalized and the vulnerable. And it is this concern, compassion and commitment that God holds up as a blueprint for His followers.

The Israelites themselves are portrayed as sojourners or tenants on the land that God has given them and their tenancy is linked to their obedience to God. Indeed, the way in which the stranger, together with the widow and the orphan, is treated, is an indicator of the Israelites’ obedience to the law of God and it is this commitment to justice and the defence of the weak that the prophets highlight repeatedly. God doesn’t want lip service; He desires obedience. He requires us to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with Him. (Micah 6:8) The stranger provides the opportunity for the Israelite to reciprocate the heart of God for the downtrodden and the oppressed…

Jesus takes this a step further when he tells his disciples that what they do to the stranger, they do to Him. He is in the guise of the stranger, the poor and the weak and His call is to treat all people as we would treat Him. In the incarnation Jesus comes as a stranger into this world. … Jesus understands those who seek refuge and asylum and identifies with them. As the stranger on the road to Emmaus, He draws alongside and supports the weak. His great call is to hospitality, a central theme of scripture. Jesus epitomised hospitality in his welcome and treatment of those on the fringes of society. But it was more than a welcome. His hospitality was about reconciliation and the transformation from stranger to guest and from guest to friend.

Part of an article by EMBRACE chairperson, Richard Kerr, in Lion & Lamb: racism and religious liberty, Autumn 2004.

Other sources:

(Policy on Asylum Seekers and Refugees; a report by the Race Relations Committee to the 2003 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.pdf Presbyterian Church in Ireland, p. 15.)

Resources for discussion, study and response

Irish Churches recognised the biblical imperative to practice hospitality, inclusiveness, advocacy, and the importance of promoting intercultural dialogue when they endorsed the Irish Churches Affirmations on Migration, Diversity and Interculturalism in 2009. Individual churches are to report back in 2010.
Hard copies can be obtained from the EMBRACE office, the Inter-Church Centre, or the Parish Integration Project.

What the Bible says About the Stranger: Biblical Perspectives on Racism, Migration, Asylum  and Cross-Community Issues Second Revised and Expanded Edition, Kieran J. O’Mahony OSA, 2009

There are some Biblical Reflections in Inter-Cultural Insights: A series of Christian Reflections on Racism, Hospitality and Identity from the Island of Ireland. All-Ireland Churches’ Consultative Meeting on Racism/ Irish Inter-Church Meeting, 2006

The Dublin-based Parish Integration Project Unity and Diversity in our Churches, 2008, compiled by Adrian Cristea, along with Alan Martin, Robert Cochran and Tony Walsh, contains some Bible studies.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Racial Justice Resources
include theological and practical considerations about asylum and immigration.