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Alice Walker’s short story “The Welcome Table” introduces an old, poor Black woman in the South, who, one Sunday, decides to worship at the church down the highway.

After a long walk on a bitterly cold morning, the woman arrives at the church steps. “Perhaps she had known suffering,” Walker writes. She “was angular and lean and the color of poor Georgia earth, beaten by king cotton and the extreme weather. Her elbows were wrinkled and thick, the skin ashen but durable, like the bark of old pines.”

Her reception at the church is icy: “Some of those who saw her there on the church steps spoke words about her that were hardly fit to be heard, others held their pious peace.” Walker tells how the congregants each felt a different kind of fear in this black woman’s invasion of their church, including those “who knew the hesitant creeping up on them of the law, saw the beginning of the end of the sanctuary of Christian worship, saw the desecration of Holy Church, and saw an invasion of privacy, which they struggled to believe they still kept.”

The white pastor intercepts the woman at the door to the sanctuary and, with the kind of smile I might manage for a Jehovah’s Witness at my own door, says, “Auntie, you know this is not your church?” The woman thinks to herself, “As if one could choose the wrong one.”  She brushes past him through the door and takes a seat on the back bench. Shivering now from the cold within the church, she quietly focuses on the stained-glass window beyond the pulpit and waits for worship to begin.  

The white church women, meanwhile, are in a tizzy. So, they persuade their “burly indecisive husbands” to remove the old woman. “Under the old woman’s arms they placed their hard fists. Under the old woman’s arms they raised their fists, flexed their muscular shoulders, and out she flew through the door, back under the cold blue sky.”

Almost immediately the church grows warmer: “They sang, they prayed. The protection and promise of God’s impartial love grew more not less desirable as the sermon gathered fury and lashed itself out above their penitent heads.” Walker’s satire is sharp: with the Black woman gone these white worshippers feel born again.

Back outside in the cold, the woman looks around herself, stunned, bewildered. Walker writes that “she had been singing in her head. They had interrupted her. Promptly she began to sing again, though this time a sad song.”  Suddenly, her sad song turns to giggles because down the road and heading toward her with a warm smile is Jesus himself, whom she would have recognized anywhere. “There was a sad but joyful look to his face,” Walker says, leaving readers to interpret all that look might mean.

Jesus says to the woman, “Follow me,” and she “bounded down to his side with all the bob and speed of one so old,” telling Jesus along the way about how poorly she had been treated in “his church.” Jesus “simply smiles down at her and she felt better instantly and time just seemed to fly by.” She was so happy that when they walked right past her own house, “forlorn and sagging, weather-beaten and patched,” she didn’t even notice.

The story in town later is that an old woman’s body was found dead by the side of the highway—that she had foolishly walked herself to death. Of course, the truth Walker invites us to consider is that Jesus himself really walked with her, meeting his beloved saint on the highway to heaven, welcoming her to his barrier-free table. 

Racially, psychologically, socially, religiously—there’s a lot going on in Walker’s story. Bottom line, though, it’s a story about Jesus welcoming the marginalized.

It’s also a story that raises a lot of relevant questions: If it’s not the old Black woman’s church, whose is it? Can we own a church without becoming exclusive, call it “my church,” possess it like a favorite Friday morning breakfast spot? And do churches need gatekeepers, like the pastor in Walker’s story, other than Jesus Christ who said, “I tell you again, I am the gate for the sheep”? (John 10:7).  Worse yet, do I serve as some kind of gatekeeper at “my” church?

I’m no theologian, but I am a Bible-reading Christ follower, and after rereading the gospels recently, I can’t cite an instance where Jesus meets needy people honestly seeking him and keeps them away: Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers, adulterers, demon-possessed, tax collectors, prodigal sons. Regardless of their sins or ailments or reputations, he opens the gate to every one of them. It’s the Pharisees and, sometimes, the over-zealous disciples he reprimands for trying to close it. In Matthew, he says to the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, “You hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (23:13). In example after example, Jesus proclaims, “Stop it, gatekeepers! Let them come.”

This idea was reinforced when my wife and I worshiped with old friends at a Presbyterian church in California. We heard a sermon on Luke 8, where Jesus heals Jairus’s twelve-year-old daughter and the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years. Both Jairus and the woman, the pastor noted, were desperate to see Jesus, in hopes he might bring healing. How desperate? The woman was violating purity laws left and right by even being in such a close crowd; she knew that everyone she touched would be considered impure because of her, including Jesus. Still, she risked everything just to touch the edge of Jesus’ cloak. It was a memorable sermon, and the question the pastor asked that convicted me most was this: why do we Jesus followers so often serve as gatekeepers to those who so desperately want to see Jesus?

As a Christian school teacher, I had countless students over the years who were all too aware of a church gate they could never pass through. Students who identified as gay or trans would share their pain in the essays they wrote or in private conversations. I could hear the flickering hope in the questions they’d ask: Could I take my same-sex date to the Senior Banquet? Can I form a group of us to meet during lunch every Friday, and would you come?  Could I do a chapel about being gay? About having gay parents? Maybe after I graduate? Ever?

I’ll never forget the two high school seniors who met me one day before class to tell me they were worried about their best friend. She had told them she planned to commit suicide on her birthday, which was about a week away, because she couldn’t imagine ever telling her Christian parents she was gay. They were risking their friendship with her by telling me because they were desperate to save her life. Later that morning, when a counselor and I confronted her about her talk of suicide, she was a mixture of anger and grudging gratitude. When she talked to her parents that evening they were, as I’d hoped they’d be, full of grace and unconditional love for their despairing daughter. Still, it worries me how much our conflicted young people imbibe the restrictiveness, even imprisonment, of those towering sexuality gates that loom before them, gates that many Christians never intended to create, much less close.  

Time after time, no matter what I or their other “safe” (I was not alone) teachers said, no matter how much we talked about loving them for who they were and about God’s abiding love for them, regardless of our efforts to make clear to them that there were many Christians who didn’t see same-sex relationships as sinful, they would flee their Christian community first chance they got for any place that felt more welcoming. It saddens me that Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ would feel more loved and at home in a secular community than they would in a Christian church that proclaims, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16).

Each year I assigned my seniors Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” a story with, perhaps, the most notorious church gatekeeper in all of fiction, the Grand Inquisitor. Because he has sold his soul to Satan, he sorely resents when Jesus actually shows up during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Jesus appears on the hot streets of Seville “softly and unobserved,” yet everyone recognizes him immediately. The people are “irresistibly drawn to Him,” they surround him, flock about him, touch him, follow him. Like magnets they are drawn to this energy of unconditional love made flesh, in whom “the sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love.”  It is when Jesus actually brings a dead child to life, saying only, “Maiden, arise,” that the dark, old Inquisitor shows up and signals his henchmen to take Jesus to prison so that he can interrogate him. Then, while the Inquisitor spews his damning indictment of God’s stupidity in granting humanity a free will, Jesus does not say a word. The monologue goes on for several pages. At the end, Jesus gently approaches the old Inquisitor and kisses him on the lips. Outraged, the Grand Inquisitor opens the door and says to Jesus, “Go, and come no more…. Come not at all, never, never!”

Gates and gatekeepers are no match for God’s love.

When that Sunday-morning service my wife and I attended with our friends at the Presbyterian church in California drew to a close, we stood for the parting blessing. With raised hands the pastor looked at us and calmly said, “There’s more than enough Jesus to go around. So, if you’re desperate, seek Jesus.” Then he paused. And with one of those “sad but joyful” grins that Jesus must have worn a lot in his years on earth, he added, “And if you’re a gatekeeper, knock it off.”

Sometimes, the truth is that simple.

Mark Hiskes

Mark Hiskes is a retired high school English teacher from Holland, Michigan, who devotes his time to a number of things: two delightful grandchildren, Sylvie and Paige; his wonderful wife, Cindy, with whom he rebuilds and refurbishes old furniture for sale in her antique booth; reading ever more great books, ancient, old, and new; and doing his best to write poetry, stories, and essays that might, God willing, tell some manner of truth.

27 Comments

  • Kathryn Schoon-Tanis says:

    Yes! This! Thank you, Mark.

  • Tom Walcott says:

    Excellent

  • Jean Scott says:

    Thank you for writing this. I pray that more people will read it and look deep into their souls and see Jesus loving all.

  • John Hubers says:

    Powerfully sad commentary, Mark, on a phenomenon too recognizable in too many churches. Reminds me, in fact, of something a relative once pointed out; that they felt more welcome in a local bar than the church, reflecting in this case on the theme song from Cheers:

    Sometimes you wanna go
    Where everybody knows your name
    And they’re always glad you came
    You wanna be where you can see
    Our troubles are all the same
    You wanna be where everybody knows your name

  • Keith Mannes says:

    Oh Mark…oh wow. So beautiful.
    Having met you and interacted with you, I would have to agree with your students: You are a safe person – safety, in waves from you. I am thankful for your crafting of this courageous piece.

    • Dana VanderLugt says:

      Echoing, Keith. I love the power of story on display here, and this picture of what you did for kids in your classroom —through literature and love—daily. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Ron Wells says:

    Thanks, Mark. This is profound.

    Can someone who knows the ropes in the CRC better than I do get this wonderful post to every delegte to the CRC Synod which meets in a couple of weeks from now?

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    I just did the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 today and both the parable of the wheat and the weeds and the dragnet speak to this. We must let both wheat & weeds grow up together in the church and wait for angels to do the sorting. Same with fish caught in the dragnet, it is the angels who do the final separation. We are not the gatekeepers or the judge or the jury, only God and the angels can do that. Our job is to cast the net as wide as possible, throw the seeds as far as possible, and let everyone in, including outsiders, so the kingdom is full, for all of us to be leavened, etc. We are all simultaneously sinners and saints, loved by God.

  • Doug says:

    Thank you, Mark!

  • David Schelhaas says:

    Thanks, Mark. Utterly convincing. Sometimes I think the Literature classroom can be a better place than church or Sunday school to speak the truth. D

  • Henry Baron says:

    A story and a sermon woven together beautifully and memorably and enhanced by your own experiences as a teacher (that match my own) – thanks, Mark!
    Yes, Ron Wells – required reading for the Synod delegates.

  • Mark Stephenson says:

    Mark, thank you. As people who are always Reformed and always reforming, we are continually asking what faithfulness to Jesus means. And that means we have to keep changing, which is so difficult. Many years ago, I remember my CRC grandfather saying that anyone who divorces and remarries is living in a state of perpetual sin. I can’t imagine many CRC people say that today. Now, many CRC people are saying that anyone who enters into a same sex marriage is living in perpetual sin. Not only that, a recent blog says, “The Christian Reformed Church is home to countless members, pastors, and office bearers who struggle with all kinds of sins, including the sin of same-sex attraction and the temptation to commit sexual sin.” So, some CRC people still believe that even same sex attraction is sinful. To be faithful to God’s calling to his people today, do we need to change from the traditional understandings about sexual orientation and gender identity, and the traditional understanding that marriage that is faithful to God’s call as a lifelong commitment of one man and one woman? Change so so difficult. What is and always has been clear, though, is your point. Faithfulness to Jesus always means welcoming and loving the people who are pushed to the margins in the church and in society. Always!

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Can that Mark guy ever write, both in subjects and style. Ever gently provocative Mark. Let’s affirm those who want to be gateeepers by requesting that they simply keep the gates open.
    Thank you for making every student safe and at home with you.

  • Kris Swieringa says:

    This is beautiful, Mark. It should be required reading for every delegate at The upcoming CRC synod. Thank you for this piece

  • Cheryl Hubers TenBrink says:

    Excellent piece, Mark! Your students are blessed to have a safe place with you. Thank you for being the hands and feet of Jesus to our LGBTQ+ children.

  • Jan Heerspink says:

    Thank you, Mark. Your experience as a teacher has given you connections that many of us teachers have had — connections with the vulnerable. It was through such relationships that I began to change my perspective on same-sex attraction, and later on same-sex marriage. God is not finished with any of us yet, although some are pretty sure of themselves.

  • Steve Tuit says:

    Thanks, old friend and brother, for this beautiful peace. (That’s not a usage error.)

  • John Terpstra says:

    Thanks Mark. A moving essay.
    I’m a classmate of your brothers John and Rich. We ran cross country together at CCHS and played a lot of ball as well, especially with John all through HS.
    I have siblings Mary, Ken, Sara and Bob who you may have known back in the day.
    Grace and Peace
    John Terpstra

  • Rannow Beverley says:

    Excellent piece Mark!

  • Carrie Blauwkamp says:

    Beautifully said, Mark. Thank you.

  • Alicia Mannes says:

    Beautiful. Powerful. Challenging!

  • Dave Lar says:

    There’s something about the combination of great teachers–exceptional teachers in your case, Mark–and great literature that opens up minds and hearts to the harm done by gatekeeping and boundary making. Thanks for this, and for your ability to show a better way. “Gates and gatekeepers are no match for God’s love.” Indeed.

  • Spencer Tuttle says:

    Hello, Mark. I simply must point out, it was Jesus, the “gate of the sheepfold,” who said, “Enter in at the narrow gate. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and FEW there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
    He also said that on the day of judgment, MANY will say to Him, “Lord, Lord,” and He will profess to them “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7:23)

    And if “Gatekeeping” is a bad thing, how do you explain Paul’s instructions in Romans 16:17 (“Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; AVOID them.”) and his exhortation to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 5:13 (“Purge the evil person from among you.”)? How do you explain
    3 John verse 10 (“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting.”)? Or Titus 3:10 (“A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition, reject.”)?

    To be sure, there is inappropriate “Gatekeeping.” But there is such a thing as Biblical Gatekeeping. For a refresher on how our Lord feels about churches tolerating sexual immorality, including homosexuality, I recommend the letter to the church at Thyatira, in Revelation chapter 3.

  • Herbert W Schreur says:

    I still feel you and yours would quickly and happily gatekeep me. I realize that through your superior understanding and use of nuance and context would it never identified as t that, but that’s what it would be.

  • Marlin Vis says:

    For some reason I find myself crying a lot lately. Something is happening in people like me, people once into church with everything they had, and are not any more, but still hanging in there. This post touches on the reason for so many tears—they bubble up from a place of hope, not despair. It’s stories like the one you shared at the beginning that might reach us all, gatekeepers in particular, or more to the fact of the matter, the gatekeeper in each of us—present company included. So thanks. I feel better for now.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Folks,
    Thanks for the encouraging replies and, even, for the ones that honestly, respectfully, push back. Truth matters, and we need to listen to each other. I am grateful for a place like The Reformed Journal where we can write and respond so honestly to these difficult issues life presents us with.

  • Anne Sttuyk says:

    Thank-you, Mark. Perhaps some leader will reference this story during Synodical discussion and hear what is being said.

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