Finding a church home can be an exciting process for many Christians.
As a recent transplant to a new city, I believed it was important for me to find a church that embraced all of my values as a Christian. I believe churches that are inclusive of everyone most clearly reflect the life and work of Jesus Christ, and I was seeking a community that would accomplish this.
In my search, I came across St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in New Orleans.
When I stepped into the entryway of St. Mark’s, I saw a small gathering of unhoused people enjoying the warm summer morning and smiled at them before stepping inside the building.
In a moment of surprise, I looked around the room and realized that many of the congregants themselves appeared to be experiencing homelessness.
Some of them had brought garbage bags filled with their belongings into the sanctuary. Others seemed to be murmuring to invisible beings, likely the manifestation of whichever mental illness had led to their unfortunate financial situation.
Admittedly, I had a feeling of surprise as I realized this was the first time I had seen so many poor people sitting in the pews on a Sunday morning. Despite seeing the small gathering outside the church doors, I hadn’t expected to find people with such impoverished backgrounds coming to worship.
Based on the spectrum of races, genders, ages and socioeconomic statuses of the people around me, I could clearly see there is no such thing as the odd one out at St. Mark’s. This is a true conglomeration of everything it means to be a human being, uniquely and wonderfully made.
Suddenly, it was as if every other church I had attended was a laughable imitation of the church as it will be in heaven.
I was ashamed that all my attempts to be inclusive and diverse fell pitifully and glaringly short of genuine welcome and acceptance, as they were missing a clear marker of what it means to be a home for “the least of these.”
I had never found a church that truly incorporated the most vulnerable into its fold. Worse yet: I had never noticed what I was missing.
Shame quickly transformed into overwhelming gratitude as I realized what a blessing it was to be in the presence of this incredible body of people.
I wondered what this church was doing “right” in order to open its doors to people who were so marginalized by everyone else and to create an environment where someone in poverty could know they would truly be welcomed just as they are.
As the service came to an end and we all sang the closing song, I glanced up from the lyrics in the pamphlet in front of me to embrace the sights and sounds of God’s children celebrating in beautiful unison.
The people sitting around me had no need for the written lyrics, as they had memorized all the words to the song.
As our voices rang out, ushers carted meals down the aisle and out the front door. The congregants followed closely behind and, as I stepped out onto the steps, I saw hundreds of people lined up around the block, including those whom I had seen earlier in the day.
The pastor blessed the food, as well as our time together, and those who attended the service ate and mingled with those who had lined up outside, with no distinction between those of us who had been in church that morning and those who had not.
I genuinely believe that even if there had been no guarantee of a meal, all the people who came to St. Mark’s for church would have come anyway out of a genuine desire to learn and worship, and not only for the promise of food.
There is a sincere love present in the people of St. Mark’s, forged through a history of over 100 years spent promoting faith and justice. “Come as you are” truly means just that. There are no expectations of performance or presentation.
Visiting their website reveals how central their commitment to have “genuine care and love for one another” truly is. The experience I have had with St. Mark’s encourages me to hold every church to this standard.
We cannot relegate a commitment to the poor to something done outside of Sunday mornings, and we must identify the groups of people who are missing from the congregation and do the work to figure out why they are not present.
What barriers are there keeping poor people away from the church, and how can the congregation minimize or eliminate those?
As we work towards these goals, our churches will become better representations of the body of Christ, and more clear reflections of God’s work on Earth.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week highlighting the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. The other articles in the series are:
‘Bootstrap Theology’ Offers Flawed Perspective on Poverty | Terrell Carter
A graduate of Baylor University where she studied Science Research Fellows as a pre-med student with a philosophy minor, she also served as president of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an unofficial LGBTQ student organization at the university. She is serving as an Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern for the fall 2021 semester.