The Mormon church in Harborne, which opened up as a vaccination centre last year, has a sign on the front that says ‘Vistors Welcome’. I have never been to a Mormon church before and have been thinking about attending a service there if I have a free Sunday morning one day. I’ve wondered though if I actually am welcome, if I can just rock up in my normal street clothes and take part — that’s the funny thing about language, sometimes when you say something, people might think the exact opposite thing. If you’re saying everyone’s welcome, it suggests that some people must think that they’re not welcome, and they probably have a reason for thinking that.
It’s a difficult issue when it comes to religious faith: on whose terms are you welcome and how can you change perceptions when people don’t feel welcome. I first understood the power of welcome in Islam when I went to Istanbul with my family in 2011. Everyone in Istanbul was kind to us and I initially was incredibly uncomfortable: strangers picking up my children, the street sweeper telling me and my wife what a great mix our kids were. But after the initial shock, we were overwhelmed with how much genuine love was shown by everyone. I remember saying at the time that if only you could get the most hardcore anti-Muslim racist in the States and take them to Istanbul, if they could have some ice cream and Turkish Delight and wander in the markets, there would be no way they could stay racist. How could you hate Muslims when you felt that sort of love from everyone around you.
Last Friday, I attended the University of Birmingham’s community Iftar, one of the things I have most been looking forward to since Covid shut it down for two years. I didn’t go with anyone, and after the speeches in the Great Hall were done, I wandered outside to the tarps put out on the Chancellor’s Court, under the lights strung up and Old Joe, and sat by myself. In a couple of minutes, two other men, who didn’t know each other or me, and who had both come alone, sat with me, and we broke the fast together, and they invited me to come pray with them. After the prayers, we ate and talked about our lives and the challenges of living a meaningful life. It was completely serendipitous and true display of Islam as I understand it, where people of all different walks of life sit and share food together.
I left to walk home and wondered again about welcome, thinking these days not about American racists, but other people I would have loved to have seen at the Iftar. I had felt an overwhelming feeling of welcome, of course, but then again I’m a cis-gender, straight, white man: would I have felt the same way if I was gay and with my partner? I could ask the same question about St Peters, the local Anglican church that I attend as a hopeful atheist: the doors are open, and anyone is welcome, but not everyone feels welcome. Welcome is, of course, something that must be both offered and felt. I love the language of inter-religious dialogue, the focus on building bridges and finding common ground, but I wonder if it simplifies the more difficult things that we need to talk about. We say all are welcome, but does everyone feel welcome. Welcome is something you need to pursue, not just offer, and it’s probably going to require everyone being a little bit (or a lot) uncomfortable.