All Are Welcome

“All Are Welcome” is a well-known and well-loved Christian hymn written by prolific liturgical composer, Marty Haugen. I’ve sung it often as a member of the congregation and even led it as a cantor on a few occasions, but never did the song impact me in the way it did this past Sunday when visiting St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford, PA.

This was not my first visit to St. John Chrysostom. I wrote a piece several years ago, called “Welcoming the Visitor”. My family and I had attended a Mass at the church at Eastertime while visiting our oldest son at Swarthmore College. I was so overwhelmed with their intentional inclusion, I wrote a story and connected with the pastor, Fr. Hallinan by email.

More than a year after my son has graduated from Swarthmore, I found myself preparing to bring our youngest son to the school for an official visit on campus. I happily anticipated an opportunity to attend church once again at St. John Chrysostom…I was not disappointed.

The moment I walked in, about ten minutes before the start of Mass, I observed several people with various kinds of disabilities. Ushers and members of the congregation greeted everyone in a kind and gentle way, expressing their joy to see them. One young adult, who seemed to be non-verbal, shook hands very enthusiastically with the greeter, a huge smile on his face. It was obvious to me that he was a valued member of the congregation and everyone he encountered was as glad to see him as he was to see them.

A few more steps into the church and I noticed some signage; one an announcement about a Caregivers Support Group and another about an Autism help line. These notices were not buried among many on a full bulletin board, but prominently displayed and easy to read.

I finally found a seat in the pew and listened to the choir warm up (a folk group with guitars, bongos and several singers.)  Of the six vocalists, the soloist chosen to lead a prominent part of one of the songs was an elderly woman with an exceptionally quiet voice. She was singing in tune, but it struck me as particularly refreshing that she was the one chosen for the solo. Not the strongest or the youngest voice, but an important voice and another obvious way that this church embraces the gifts of every person.

I could go on but you probably get the idea. St. John Chrysostom is a vibrant congregation with a strong understanding of what it takes to be inclusive.

I waited a few minutes at the end of Mass so I could re-introduce myself to Fr. Hallinan and hopefully get a few minutes to talk. We ended up chatting for more than ten minutes about our shared passion for inclusion and concluded our time together with a photo (thank you for that, Fr. Hallinan!). I expressed how grateful I was for all that this church does to promote inclusion and headed out the door.

As I got back in my car to head back to the campus baseball field, one of the points from my conversation with Fr. Hallinan that resonated strongly with me kept running through my mind.  St. John Chrysostom, like many other faith communities around the country, holds a designated service especially for individuals and families affected by disability. The “Mass of Welcoming and Inclusion”, as it is called at St. John Chrysostom is celebrated the 1st Sunday of the month. (The Mass I attended, by the way, was not on the 1st Sunday of the month, it was a regular Mass without this distinction) Fr. Hallinan said that his goal is that eventually they would not need to have the Welcoming and Inclusion Mass, that all Masses would feel welcoming and inclusive! We both agreed that an inclusive service can really be a helpful stepping stone for congregations and is still important for some individual and families affected by disability.  I couldn’t help but think, however, as I left the church, that if any congregation was nearing the goal of letting go of this kind of stepping stone, it was this church.

“All Are Welcome” at St. John Chrysostom, that is for sure in both obvious and subtle ways. I am grateful for their efforts and appreciate the opportunity to be an occasional visitor. I also know that there are many Hampton Roads local faith communities doing equally awesome inclusion work and seeing great results. If you aren’t already connected with FIN, please do share with us what you are doing. Your efforts could really be an encouragement to someone else or another faith community.

God Bless.

Karen j.