|Rev. Clare Chance|
Jacksonville, Fla. — Lots of churches claim to be welcoming. At Avondale United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, the people really mean it. The process of becoming inclusive of all kinds of people (different ethnicities, economic strengths, sexual orientations and gender identities) began years ago as the church came to embrace that loving our neighbors was not a two thousand-year-old suggestion from Jesus—it was a commandment. And Jesus himself explained that our neighbors would often be the ostracized, the powerless or the poor. (See the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 for more information!)
But, change is hard. And the old ways of doing things are comfortable. So how does change come about? In Avondale’s case, change has come about partly through a new focus on how members hold one another accountable. Instead of trying to change people’s minds about others who are different from them, the church has attempted to change the congregation’s behaviors.
This definitely doesn’t mean that everyone at our church thinks the same way—especially about controversial issues. There are still members at Avondale who don’t like other members’ lifestyles. There are even people who don’t feel completely at ease with people whose skin is a different color. And there are still folks who, deep down, prefer their “own kind,” whatever that may be. But the people who are Avondale UMC have agreed not to hold one another accountable for how they each think. Instead, they hold each other accountable for how they behave towards others. That makes a big difference in how welcome people feel as visitors and as long-time members.
Michael Macklin, a new member who lives with physical disabilities, says that he is a person first at Avondale. “From the beginning, it was the openness, the welcome, that drew me in.” At Avondale, Mike is recognized for what he can do in worshiping God and serving others in this community, not for what he is unable to do. “It makes religion fun, for the first time in my life,” Macklin adds. Similarly, people who are LGBTQ at Avondale clearly come to this church to worship and serve Jesus Christ as disciples, no different from any other member of the church family.
I always tell our members and guests that they can think whatever they want about people who are different from them—but we will all be committed to acting like Christians! That means that the pierced teenager with blue hair and high heels on his size-13 feet should be welcomed just as warmly as the classically good-looking wealthy widow. Nobody changes seats to avoid sitting with someone who is different from them. The people of Avondale UMC are in this whole Christian community thing together, for better or worse.
And a funny thing happens when people start simply being kind and welcoming to one another. They get to know each other. They gradually come to understand that the one who is different from them also loves Jesus and is doing the best that they can with what they have. The differences begin to recede from the foreground. Meaningful connections are found. And, sometimes, even people’s minds are changed. Don’t worry if that seems unfathomable to you. The people who are Avondale UMC won’t hold you responsible for your thoughts…only for acting like a Christian to everybody.