Welcoming the man in the seat by the aisle

Canon Chris Harris brings to our attention this post, originally published during Advent on the progressive Episcopalian blog “Friends of Jake”. Written by a member of St Paul’s, the essay was also featured in the newsletter for the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York

Last Sunday, I was sitting in the side section on the right side of the church (as the congregation sees it).  I normally don’t sit on the side pews, but I am a sometime church photographer and there was an Event I was asked to capture during the announcements.  But before that, I just watched, with my observer’s eye.

In our church, as in many, the Gospel reading is from the center aisle.  There are two torches and a thurifer, and a verger, as well as the Gospeller.  Over 350 people turned to face the Book.

The Gospel was Luke 3:7-18:  John the Baptist and the vipers.”Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

Where I was, on the side,  I noticed a man who was on the opposite side of the side aisle, a row or two behind me.  He was a bit shabby, but not ragged, and I didn’t recognize him. He was  intensely moved by the line I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals“.  He sank to his seat and put his face in his hands and his shoulders heaved for a moment, but in a moment he was back on his feet.  The people around him didn’t notice, as they were facing the Gospel party in the center aisle, and had their backs to the man.

As I told BP, if I were a real photographer, I’d have shot that image of the seated, sobbing man against the background of standing folk, turned away.  But I couldn’t intrude on him that way.

At the  Peace, as is typical, folks shake hands nearby, and then go search for people they know.  The person standing next to the man I’d seen weeping shook his hand, and then looked elsewhere.  I saw others on my side of the aisle look for friends.  I made a point of walking to the man, touching his shoulder, and shaking his hand.

“Peace be with you,” I said. 

But I feel bad. I should have asked him to be sure to stay, that he was welcome.  Because later  I realized that he had left the church before Communion. I’m not sure he heard the sub-Dean’s words of welcome at the announcements…. “There is no such thing as a visitor to St Paul’s;  if you are here, you are a member of this holy family at this holy time.”

 I suspect that many people are relieved that “difficult” people don’t stay:  the poor, the emotional, those in pain, the demanding, the disturbed, the ill.  It’s easy to write a check, to be remote.  It’s harder to shake hands, and to listen, and take that risk of being sucked in, that responsibility, when all you want is something safely anonymous that assuages your guilt so you can go do the weekend chores, unencumbered.

My challenge, then, is for each of us to step out of our comfort zone with the strangers who will come to church this season, especially folks who “scare” us. 

Peace be with you.  You are welcome here.

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