I started my working life in a small charity in London that reached out to children and young people who’d been entirely let down.
Most were street homeless, getting by doing what they needed to do every day, to find something to eat and somewhere to sleep.
My job was, very simply, to build trust with children who had learned never to trust anyone again, to find them a place of relative safety. I failed more often than I succeeded.
The voices and faces of those children have stayed with me, and what they taught me has had a profound effect on all I have done since.
I think of Sam (not his real name), 15, street homeless, substance dependent and entirely alone, who would tell me over and over again no one would ever love and stick by him. What Sam needed most was a place to call home.
Twenty years on, I have the privilege of training national leaders from the police, schools, social care and health economy in restorative principles and values.
It helps to get beyond things that divide leaders from each other and, crucially, from the communities they serve.
It requires tough self-reflection about power and privilege, improves outcomes by giving equal voices to all.
A key principle is “seeking first to understand” someone who is different or “other.”
In other words, really putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and glimpsing the world from their perspective.
Could those principles help us in our Baptist community?
If you had a disability, physical or mental limitation, how easy would it be to join your local church community? What adjustments would the majority make in order to really welcome you?
If you were elderly or infirm, what adjustments would enable you to get to church, or church to come to you?
How much courage does it take to join a predominately white church from a black or minority ethnic heritage, carrying years, or more likely generations, of exclusion and mistreatment?
How hard is it to walk into a church if you’re gay or trans when what you see on the news is that the LGBTQI community is simply not welcome in church?
What if you’re going through a divorce, what if you’re a single parent or a young parent? Are you welcome?
What if you’re street homeless, living in poverty or you’re battling a form of addiction or substance misuse? Are you welcome?
What external signs and adaptations would welcome you?
These are a few examples of the differences in each other that we might observe, but they do not even begin to touch on the many things we simply can’t see.
Just for a moment, let’s think about Sam. If Sam walked into your church tomorrow, what would Sam see? And feel?
What would Sam worry about? How would you make Sam feel welcome? Who would sit beside Sam and convey an unconditional welcome? Would someone offer Sam something to drink or eat?
If we’re serious about really welcoming, really including, we have to find a way to communicate a welcome that reaches out to “others” who perhaps learned long ago they are not welcome.
We would do well to anticipate, and respond to, the very real fear that those on the edge of church community experience.
After all, we know the Baptist community has always flourished at the edges; it’s part of our heritage. We have the potential to include as well.
Irrespective of our individual theologies, comforts or preferences, we are called to work together as one body. One body whose foremost feature is profound love.
In his book, “God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for our Time,” Desmond Tutu writes, “In God’s family there are no outsiders. … Our maturity will be judged by how well we are able to agree to disagree and yet continue to love … and cherish one another and seek the greater good.”
We are simply incomplete when part of our body is missing or afforded less honor. This is the radical call for inclusion.
That each of us in our own local communities reaches out to the “other,” whoever they might be, and says very simply, “You are welcome here.”
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series. Part one is available here. A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine – a publication of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission.
Andrea King has worked in children’s services for almost twenty years, starting in the voluntary sector, working for central government and providing leadership in Local Authorities, Police and Health, most recently as Assistant Director for Safeguarding and Prevention. She is the Safeguarding Officer for Southern Counties Baptist Association in the U.K., a member of Windsor Baptist Church and is reading Theology at Regent’s Park, Oxford.