for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I
was a stranger and you welcomed me
--Matthew 25:35 NRSV
A year ago, Park Hill Christian Church began a 40 Days of Prayer emphasis. It was a chaotic time--Rev. Fugarino had moved to a new ministry setting, the COVID pandemic was just beginning, a city-imposed quarantine interrupted in person worship and meetings, etc. Yet, out of discussions during that time, in both in-person and online meetings, came the idea of “Bold Hospitality.” We talked about how do we use the church’s building and location to benefit our community and welcome others? I believe God was preparing PHCC for some opportunities to show Christian hospitality which came only a few months later--the welcoming of two congregations to use our building for their ministries: Athens Church, a new church start in Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the The Oromo Evangelical Christian Fellowship, a congregation made up of Ethiopian immigrants who live in the Northland. I feel quite sure that God has more opportunities ready for the church, because Christian hospitality is at the core of our faith.
Last week I read about an interesting court case involving a church and Christian hospitality. A church in Florida. Pass-a-Grille Beach Community Church, in St. Pete Beach near St. Petersburg has been fined by its small city for allowing beachgoers to park in its parking lot. The church sits two blocks away from a beautiful Gulf Coast beach, and in busy times the municipal pay-to-park lot is full. Several years ago, the church began allowing beachgoers to park in its lot and set up a box where people parking could make a donation. A sign clearly states the donations are voluntary and all proceeds go to the church’s annual youth mission trip. Often, church members, especially members of the youth group, hand out information about the church and their annual mission trip. They even pray with people on occasion. The city fined the church $500 per incident arguing it violated zoning laws (left unsaid was also the possibility the city might lose out on revenue).
Although the case is still going to trial, a federal judge issued an injunction allowing the church to continue to allow beachgoers to park in its lot. The judge agreed with the church’s argument that it was exercising two core values: stewardship and hospitality. The church was using its resources--its building and property--to share about the church and its beliefs. Also, it was welcoming strangers as a part of its Christian faith--the church cited Bible verses such as Matthew 25:35 “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” The judge disagreed with the city’s argument that the church was “not sincere in its religious beliefs and practices.”
I realize that the last sentence has a particular legal context, but I am struck by the language about sincerity. I have been a part of church fundraisers that were “sincere” efforts to share Christian love and hospitality, but I have also been a part of ones that were simply money grabs to help a church make money and close a budget deficit. I’m here to tell you there is a big difference between the two.
For me, it begs the question if our church or any church was taken to court over a conflict with neighbors or local zoning ordinances, etc. would our actions be justifiable as a “sincere” part of our religious values and mission? I’m less interested in the legal arguments than I am whether or not a church is actually operating out of a sincere desire to care for “even the least of these” with the understanding that when we do so, we are actually demonstrating love for Christ as Matthew 25 teaches. Would a judge find our church or any other given church “sincere”?
If a church is only a club or community group, then its actions, however good, differ little from other groups doing good things in the community. But a church, if it acts like a church, does its good out of a conviction that its hospitality and stewardship are not only commanded by God but that when they are carried out we serve others in Jesus’ name. When we do so, we actually are serving Jesus Christ himself.
I would argue that sincerely acting like a church means a church should be actually doing more for its community than the many other non-profit church groups, as good as their work may be. If we really believed we were serving Jesus Christ himself, wouldn’t that mean our passion, our generosity and our hospitality were the greatest in the community? Sadly, we know this is rarely the case in the churches we know.
As PHCC continues to contemplate what God is leading us to be in terms of “Bold Hospitality” let us contemplate how great would our service have to be for us to be judged “sincere.”
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851