Inclusion is a journey. Inclusion is not easy. Inclusion is worth it.
These are three conclusions I reached at the end of a weekend conference called ‘Being an Inclusive Faith Community’ at the beginning of the month.
It was a challenging and moving weekend at which a small group of us gathered in the warm and welcoming atmosphere of Woodbrooke Quaker Centre in Birmingham. I was the only non-Quaker in the group, which was led by Mark Russ, tutor at Woodbrooke, and Ruth Wilde, national co-ordinator of Inclusive Church, an organisation to which this parish belongs.
One of the first lessons of inclusion in a faith context is that the light of God shines in everyone, and we had this written up in the room in which we met, alongside other guidelines drawn from Quakerism including the belief in true equality and that Quakers seek to follow ‘the right way, not the popular way’.
These tenets are key. We probably think we are all lovely and welcoming and never exclude anyone, but when we take a deeper look we can discover that not everyone is as included as we might think. Changing that is an ongoing process and can meet opposition, not least in ourselves. For if we genuinely welcome everyone in, we will welcome in those we don’t understand, those we don’t like, those we don’t approve of, those who challenge us. Heck, we might even have to change.
There are several exercises I would like to try out in the parish following on from the weekend. One of them is to make us look at our own privilege and how we unconsciously or otherwise make it harder for others to feel truly accepted and valued. Are there people in our churches who feel they have little to give because of their background, illness or disability? Are there people who are not listened to because they find it hard to express ideas or because no-one thinks to ask them? Are there people who do not come into church because they believe they would not be welcome and if so, what have we done to make them feel like that? What barriers are we putting up?
I think that listening to each other’s stories and our true, lived experiences is key here, and not just listening but acting on what we learn. So if someone says that they feel left out or unwelcome, ask why and genuinely listen. If someone says they are afraid of something, or overwhelmed by it – too much noise perhaps – what can be done which also allows other people to express themselves? We are not looking to become some lowest common denominator which seeks to please everyone and ends up pleasing no-one, we are looking to become a radically welcoming community where everyone’s gifts and voices are heard.
It’s not easy and we will get it wrong time and again. There were times even in a group committed to inclusion, as we were that weekend, when we found it hard to understand each other. Sometimes it can be too hard. Sometimes genuine listening and being prepared to accept that we have to change is a step too far. It is possible to exclude ourselves.
I think there is a good example of this in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32) which ends with the younger son, who has previously rejected his father and the life he lived with him, coming back and being welcomed by his father with open arms and a party. This understandably upsets the older son who refuses to join in because he has dutifully stood by his father, worked hard and as he says, never been given so much as a young goat to kill so that he can celebrate with his friends. The father replies “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I hope that at this point the elder son came in to the party, welcomed his brother back and maybe found ways of getting along with him, even learning from him. We believe we have a God who is worth sharing so we must share and celebrate with everyone, and we must be prepared to change in following the radical welcoming God who will never give up on any of us.
Picture by Rémi Walle. Unsplash.