We were strangers
Welcoming newcomers, no matter the season.
I’m sitting at my desk, looking out a new window, trying not to think about the seed catalogue which arrived today in the mail.
We moved to a new house before Christmas and, for the first time, there is a bedroom for each of the children and a back garden with grass. It might not be much to look at right now, but that garden feels like it holds all the possibilities in the world. I can’t stop thinking about the vegetables I could grow there – runner beans, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, eggplants? – and all the bright summer flowers ahead. But it’s not yet time, so I’ve put a bright pink cyclamen on my windowsill to remind me to keep focused on the here and now.
Each season brings its blessings.
As well as a new house, we’ve moved to a new church, and we’ve been glad that the local covid restrictions have been eased enough to allow weekly worship in the sanctuary. Getting to know new people while wearing masks felt daunting at first, but the congregation went out of its way to make us all feel welcome. After the service, people talked to us, asked our names, seemed to want to hear our stories and to share their stories, too. We got the sense that this was a congregation actively and prayerfully seeking to understand their place and calling in the wider context of their neighbourhood community.
We learned it was an amalgamated church, first brought together in 1995 when a Baptist congregation and a United Reform congregation united. Each brought a significant history into this union. The Baptist congregation was founded in 1852 while the United Reform Church was the oldest non-conformist church in Cardiff. A third congregation joined in 2013, and now the church is built on this combination of memories and traditions from these gathered congregations. Maybe it was these roots that helped create the culture of welcome we’ve experienced.
A new church meant a new Sunday school for our youngest and – something else new – a youth group for our two teenagers. That’s something they have never done before. It was easy to be nervous about these new gatherings, especially in these days when we’re feeling used to keeping apart, but it wasn’t long before all three kids had put down roots and were telling us how they felt at home in these new spaces.
The symbolism of an empty chair
At Christmas, our eldest organized the youth group to design a window display for the church’s coffee room. The large window there faces a busy street, lined with cafes, shops, restaurants and bus stops, and lots of people pass by on the sidewalks every day. The youth group decided they wanted to fill the window with something memorable that would tell the familiar Christmas story, but also encourage people to think about it a little differently, too.
They dressed a mannequin as a modern Mary, maybe a refugee from Syria or Iraq, and they placed her in a tented space, with no shoes on, but a cup of coffee in her hand, and an empty, waiting chair beside her. All around, they hung tinfoil stars and, to one side, a painted poster proclaiming We Welcome the Stranger. I asked my daughter about the poster as she was working on it at home. Why did she choose those words to sit beside the waiting figure of Mary?
Because that’s what they did, she said. And she was right.
We were strangers there, and the church gave us welcome. There will be fuller, brighter days ahead, with meals shared and time together in the garden, but I’ll hold onto that moment on this wintry morning. Another blessing of the season.