When I first joined St. Paul the Apostle (my old parish in New York City) I didn’t know a soul. I would occasionally go their Campus Ministry mass with my old college roommate who was the Resident Director of the Fordham dorm at Lincoln Center. I worked Sundays and Fordham’s 8PM mass was the last mass in town.
But time went on and work schedules changed. I could now make a 5:15PM mass or even a 10AM mass. So I did. A bunch of young people would attend the 5:15PM and often I’d find a college friend who lived in the city and would have a companion to sit with.
But at the 10AM Mass, I knew nobody. I wandered down the center aisle that first day, looking for an empty seat at the packed mass.
Then I heard a voice, “Excuse me…”
I turned and found a silver haired women in her 50s sitting with a bunch of people. I can’t remember her name, but she was a Godsend.
“If you’re looking for someone to sit with you can sit with us!”
So I did. I met her friends, some of whom are still friends today. I was touched by her hospitality and I have to say, it was one of the things that made me come back to St Paul’s often.
But it was really a test.
Because community beckons us to welcome all strangers, not just those who we might want to sit with.
I came again to the 10AM Mass and by this time, I was brazen enough to sit towards the front of the church. I was alone and I wanted to find some pre-mass quiet to pray. When I finished kneeling and praying, I reclined back and that was when I heard him.
He was loud and he was huge and he had to talk to everyone!
“WELL OOOOOOOOOOO-KAY! SO LET’S SEE…WHERE SHALL I SIT TODAY?”
And running through my mind was “Please not next to me, Please not next to me, Please not next to me.”
And just as I thought it, he stopped right at my pew and says, “WELL HOW ABOUT HERE? HOW ARE YA, YOUNG FELLA, I’M JOE! MIGHT I SQUEEZE IN HERE.”
So much for silence. But you know, he was and still is a nice guy. He was a big part of the parish and would do anything for you if you asked him too–or even if you didn’t ask. And yeah, he was a bit eccentric and loud as can be, but that doesn’t mean that I should run him out of my pew.
Henri Nouwen once said, “Community is where the person you love least lives.”
Ain’t that the truth?
So today let’s ask ourselves if we are able to love those who we don’t much feel like loving, those who we’d rather ignore? Can we place them in our hearts and give them just a small amount of our time and our friendship?
The interesting thing about this story is that Joe could have sat anywhere, but instead he chose me. A newbie. He knew I was not a familiar face and he chose it upon himself to greet me with his larger than life personality.
He welcomed me, when I could not welcome him while he searched for a seat. Welcomed twice in one week in the same church and I could not do the same favor for another.
That’s what we call a sin.
So I’m sorry, Joe. Forgive me. And I’m glad we became friends anyway.
We’ve softened the role of ushers to collection gatherers and even those who are greeters at the door we give “jobs” to like handing out worship aides. But can each one of us simply find a stranger in our church, someone we don’t know, and introduce ourselves to them and more importantly, invite them to sit with us?
“Welcome the stranger as if they were Christ himself,” the Benedictines tell us. Can we do it? Can we open our church to the hungry, the homeless, the elderly, the dying those who will stretch us beyond our comfort zone and who might make our lives just that much more uncomfortable?
If we can, it gets contagious. Before you know it you’ll be making sure the strangers find a place at the table.
And who knows what happens after that?