How do we live as if the Gospel is true? How do we welcome the stranger, the outsider? How do we open ourselves to receive the gifts of those who are often kept at the margins?
Duane Carlisle, who joined our staff in 2007 as the Pastor for Children, Youth, and Families, has developed practices of hospitality around the lives of youth in our parish. When he started, we told Duane that if he started a youth group, he’d be fired. We wanted him to build on the gifts of the youth in our parish, and we needed to find a way to discover the gifts they had and what they felt was their calling in this life.
Youth are people who have a contribution to make that we would be poorer without. We believe hospitality is not just about a place where you are welcome but a community that recognizes you have something to contribute to the world and to life around the table.
Duane began his practice of hospitality by coordinating meals with youth in our parish. At each of these meals, the young person’s family is present, acknowledging right from the start that the family is the most important presence and powerful teacher in the young person’s life. Their family knows them best, having seen them, in most cases, from the first moments of that person’s life.
The youth also invite friends to the meal. These friends—adults or other young people—often have insights the family doesn’t. The affirmation of the youth by both friends and family binds the two groups closer together in support for this person they know and love.
Duane also invites a person or two who he thinks is a good fit for the meal. It may be someone with the same interest or gift as the young person, expanding on the new relationship or deepening an existing one.
After the meal Duane invites the people in attendance to each tell the youth what giftedness and/or calling they see in the young person’s life. The encouragement and strength it gives to the young person is clear.
Duane then asks the youth to speak about their own sense of calling or giftedness. Often the young people will talk about some dream they have for their life. In many cases the youth has never mentioned this to a family member or friend. Naming one’s calling or dream aloud brings clarity and direction as the young person reflects on the comments made around the room.
Duane then turns to the room and asks if anyone present has something they are willing to offer to the gifts and dreams of the young person. Once, a youth surprised everyone by talking about her love for opera. One of the people in the room happened to be a singer in the local opera company who asked the young person if she would want a tour and suggested that the two of them sing an operatic duet at worship in the future.
The meal concludes when everyone gathers to lay hands on the youth and bless them. It is an embodied action for what has just happened with words. It is an action deeply rooted in Christian tradition, and it is an action that joins together old and young in common work as all lay hands on the person.
After only a few young people had participated in these gatherings, a couple of them attended the governing board meeting to share their experience. Montell, a young man who lives in our neighborhood but does not attend our church, talked about the experience of his meal. His grandmother, mother, and sister had attended, as well as a man who had spent time as a tutor for him years before. There was also a teacher present who Montell stopped and talked to each week. Montell’s grandmother, who uses a wheelchair, spoke about his gentleness in caring for her and how he gets her out of bed every morning to prepare her for the day ahead. His family shared personal stories about his stubbornness in the face of being discounted at school and in larger society. His tutor and teacher talked about his inquisitiveness and interest in learning.
When Montell shared, he talked about his dream of one day being able to have his own place where older people were cared for with dignity. The people around the room, including his family, were stunned. No one knew that was his dream. Several people in the room offered to invest in him and his tutor offered to take Montell to visit a few places that are known for treating people with dignity and gracious care. Others offered to introduce him to people who were involved in this kind of work. As they laid hands on him and blessed him, many tears were shed.
After Montell told this story, he answered some questions and left the meeting. Once he left, the people around the room asked, “Why do we do this just for youth? Everyone should have this experience.” We agreed and decided our meetings would not be a place where reporting is done but instead where we hear the gifts and wonder of the lives of the people of our community.
Our meetings now are places where young and old, women and men, both inside and outside the walls of our church come and tell us what they care deeply about and what gifts they have. It has changed what we talk about, what we pay attention to, and what we understand about what it means to be church.
Duane gave us a new way to pay attention to one another, to structure our life together, and to pay attention to the gifts of God in our hands. This, for us, is living as if the Gospel is true.
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Michael Mather has been pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana since 2003. He is the author of Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. He is also on the faculty of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University.