You always heard Frank before you saw him.
He never modulated his voice, talking at volume ten through fellowships, Sunday services, and chats before church. Animated and smiling, he was a consistent congregant, a regular attender in Sunday School and Sunday morning worship.
No one knew much about his past or his day to day, despite conversations, visits to his home, and his constant presence. It was clear from some of his mannerisms and behavior that he had a cognitive disability.
He was also, sometimes, troublesome.
He interrupted Sunday School and sermons to ask unrelated and, sometimes, inappropriate questions. He overwhelmed people’s personal space and needed gently to be told to step a bit back and away when he was talking with others. He once took money from the collection plate and it had to be explained to him that the money belonged to God.
But it never occurred to anyone for any reason to ask him to go anywhere else. Frank was ours.
And besides, Frank was hardly unusual in his behavior. We had a wide variety of folks whose actions in other context might have raised eyebrows. One of our congregants, a surly and silent maintenance man who scarcely ever answered a question, rarely went out of his way to engage others and frequently snored through Sunday School and worship. Another, an elderly man with severe dementia, frequently stopped people to share with them his out-of-nowhere, staggering memorization of highway maps and road information. One woman, a longtime congregant, would weep and sometimes throw tantrums in the hall upon finding out that the crafts made by the children to take home for their mothers weren’t for her. It was clear from those and other behaviors that she was unwell.
But all of those congregants were ours.
They came to our dinners and weddings and events. They showed up for Sunday School and services to learn about God. They prayed with us. They worshiped with us. They were our family.
That’s not to say, of course, that the congregation accepted unacceptable behavior or permitted our occasionally-odd congregants to harm or upset church members. That’s important to mention, particularly in a time when many church cultures have striven to cover up abuses perpetuated on their congregants. Accepting people with affection and warmth does not mean accepting or excusing unacceptable behavior. My church did not allow those congregants to experience harm or hardship themselves.
People who wanted to visit one particular gentleman were discreetly warned that he had a vermin and insect problem at his home and that those who had trouble with such things might want to avoid meeting him at his residence; the church also offered him the resources to solve those problems. The church reached out to those in medical, psychological, or economic hardship to provide help and direct them to necessary services, whether that meant telling them who to call or literally driving them to where they needed to be – but it was always clear to everyone that mental illness and physical emergencies were far beyond our pay grade, better dealt with by experts in the field. And, should it have become necessary, I am certain the church would have contacted the authorities about unlawful behavior or proceeded with any necessary action to ensure that congregants felt safe in their place of worship
Welcoming people into our church community meant we shared responsibility for their well-being, for how they treated others, for how they cared for themselves. They became a part of the family, to be treated like family.
It also meant, sometimes, a lot more work. When Frank visited, the ushers kept an eye to the collection plate just in case. Teachers took the extra time to explain material so he could understand it. My mother, in charge of the children’s church group, started making extra crafts for the bereft woman who always felt left out. Those who cooked for church dinners offered only amused smiles when she walked off with 2/3 of the leftover food after a dinner. Local church members frequently shared resources with some of our needier congregants and drove them where they needed to be.
As a child, fed up with the snoring in Sunday School and sometimes Sunday services, I questioned my mother about why we put up with our sleeping congregant. “He’s asleep so he’s not even listening,” I pointed out. “It’s not like he cares about God. I mean, he’s being pretty obvious about it.”
“Maybe he needs the rest,” my mother said, bemused, and somehow not offended despite the fact that it was her class he slept through.
“But seriously,” I protested. “Like, why even bother to show up? If you’re not going to listen and you’re not going to be awake, why come to church at all? Just to eat the food during fellowship?”
My mom considered. “I don’t know,” she said at length, “but I just know I’d sure rather have them closer to where they can hear about Jesus than farther away.”
I didn’t ask again. She was right.
And as an adult, strangely enough, I think of those folks, and I remember them not as troublesome or even as irritating but as a part of my life. My family. Sometime after that conversation with my mom, I started walking up and shaking hands with the surly maintenance man. My reward was his shy, small smile. Ever since I can remember he has served as our usher, and I cannot imagine who would take the duty more seriously.
The weeping woman remained a fixture at our church until she eventually moved into nursing home and became unable to attend. What I remember is that, up until I last saw her, she always knew my name, always wanted a hug, always seemed glad to see me.
Our road warrior remained at the church until his death. Every time I saw him, even after I moved away, he remembered my name and my face, and would recite with delight the roads I had driven to come home. When I attended the first service after he passed away, the sight of his empty pew made me sad. It still does.
And that’s really the point of it all, a reminder that the church does not exist to serve me. It is not there to cater to my every whim, to please my senses, or to entertain me. The church is a community; the church is a home; the church is a family and the place where I have the opportunity to live out the gospel of Christ. All who come may enter in and, if all is well, experience a little bit of what God’s love is like.
It’s always better, as my mom put it, to have people closer to where they can hear about Christ than farther away. And I find it helpful to keep that in my mind whenever I grow impatient with the members of my own church family as God has delivered them to me.
May we always be willing to let everyone enter in.