We’ve been welcoming new members into the life of our church twice a year for nearly forty years. But this time was different. Not only were we welcoming those who looked familiar in present society, we were also welcoming those who had come from 10,000 miles away, across a journey of twenty years, who had landed in America as today’s modern refugees – a group from Africa. A group who had been displaced from their homelands in countries like Rwanda and the Congo as a result of civil conflict. They were a people who had incredible stories of hardship and survival; the kind of stories that make our American hardships sound pale by comparison. Yet they were a people filled with faith and hope.
At that part of the morning service, we invited our new members – both those who were born in America and elsewhere – to come forward. Pastor Nene, one of our African pastors then repeated the invite in Swahili. A few trickled forward, then some more, then they kept coming. Eventually the new members filled the width of our platform three deep. Before I, as the pastor, could say anything, our entire congregation stood in applause. What moved them to do that? What did they see?
The apostle Paul painted a picture for the Corinthian Church of what the Body of Christ would look like. He said, “But now God has set the members, each one of them, into the body just as He pleased…And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor…And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it…Now you are the body of Christ and members individually.’
We naturally think of membership as something we choose. But what if we saw it the way Paul speaks of it? What if we saw it as God is the one who sets us into Christ’s body, and He does it in a way that pleases him?
As I began welcoming all our new members, I realized what we were seeing was a ‘prophetic picture’ of what our society and what the church could look like. Our society is fractured not only along political lines but also fractured ethnically and racially. The first century church wrestled with similar ethnic divide. One of their greatest challenges was the coming together of Jew and Gentile into one Body of Christ. And yet did not Jesus tell his disciples to pray ‘Thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven?’ God’s kingdom is made up of every race, ethnicity, and nationality.
A number of years ago as we first learned of a need of one new refugee family we did a simple act of kindness. We had no master design or plan. We did not know how to navigate the language and cultural differences. But we offered hospitality and kindness. That singular act opened up our hearts some more. I know our new members were blessed as we welcomed them in, but I am certain that our church as a whole is even more blessed.