My first legal drink was in a gay bar, and I am grateful.
It was just a few days before my 21st birthday and I headed out to Chicago for a spring break mission trip. We were headed downtown to serve with Emmaus Ministries who help male prostitutes get off the streets, build life skills and become whole. Our experience consisted of a variety of projects, from manual labor to ministering in ‘gay bars’ in Boystown, Chicago. The experience was fascinating and filled with major growth in my world view.
On our 4th day of the trip, my birthday arrived. The team cooked a pound of bacon for me at breakfast and we got the night off to go celebrate. Bill, John and I took the metro to an Irish pub near Wrigley Field. It was packed; my birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day. We squeezed in and overpaid for a drink and tossed some quarters in the Foosball table before we got too hot from the endless bodies bumping into us in the overcrowded bar.
We decided to hit a different bar. As guests in the city, we did not know where to even begin, but we knew how to get back to the bars that we ministered in a few nights before. Off to Boystown we headed. I handed my ID to the guy at the door and we made our way back to a cocktail table with some bar stools. A group of guys one table over brought us laughter as one of their shirts read ‘I can’t even think straight.’ The serve came over to greet us and he had a tray of drinks ready. “The guy at the door said that today’s your birthday. Happy Birthday, these drinks are on us!” He then set down 3 shots of Peach Schnapps. Perfect.
We stayed, enjoyed a few more drinks, talked to a few people and headed on our way. It was a great night.
That trip has taught me so much about the ministry of hospitality. We walked into that bar a few nights before my birthday to evangelize. This consisted of us going around and introducing ourselves to others, hearing their story and sharing ours. There are many differences regarding lifestyle choices on both sides of the conversation, but never once did we feel threaten, unwelcome or that our world view was something they would kick us out of the bar for.
Then the night of my birthday arrives and I was celebrated, not for agreeing with a lifestyle choice or a creed, not for supporting a cause or agenda, but for simply having a birthday and choosing to be in their presence.
Yes, Christian culture and Gay culture clash on moral issues, the understanding of marriage and other aspects, but as a Christian, I learned the power of hospitality from my experience that night. If people coming to our churches for the first time felt half as welcomed as I did in that gay bar on the night of my 21st, our communities would be transformed. I encourage you to reflect on the following questions and evaluate how your church, community or ministry can better welcome all.
- Do those coming to your community feel like they need to agree with a certain set of beliefs or values before arriving?
- How can your community better welcome people who might not understand or agree with aspects of your beliefs?
- Where does shame or shaming exist in your community?
- One area that I see often is those ‘book-ending’ the pews so that those arriving later have to crawl over people to get to empty seats instead of people sliding over to welcome people.
- Is your community willing to respond to those who have unique needs?
- If someone who is blind or deaf arrived, could you accommodate them? What about someone with mobility issues? Or you able to form students with unique learning needs in your youth programs?
- Is the task of hospitality something your entire community embraces or is it seen as the role of a few?
- How can you improve on creating or improving a culture of welcoming?
I often reflect on the model that Mother Teresa gave us. She did not ask their creed, or judge the circumstance that brought them to their place of great need. She did not serve them in order to save them or win them over. She simply saw each person as an expression of God’s love and an opportunity for her to love her God back. May we seek to echo this beautiful example to all we encounter.