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Practice Justice

Boundaries Are Key to Being an Inclusive Church

Creativity Turns Trolling Upside Down
by Debra McKnight | June 8, 2022

I took a deep breath and a seat, then gave a one sentence explanation that sufficiently raised the eyebrows of the other clergy at the table: “Sorry I am late. I was banning and barring someone from my inclusive church.” 

Everyone expects running a coffee shop/bookstore church in a vibrant downtown to be all sunshine and rainbows, but it is not. And boundaries in a space where even the identity holds a fair amount of ambiguity are, well, a real learning opportunity. 

A “Just Say Yes” campaign

About 3 years into our new church start, I knew we were not living the culture I had hoped. So I began a “Just Say Yes” campaign, an inverse of Nancy Reagan’s slogan. I had the staff practice it with me. Just say yes when folks want change for the meter; say yes to people who wanted to return something; say yes when folks want to take their ceramic cup outside or to the salon next door; just say yes when a guest wants to add peanut butter to his strawberry smoothie; and hundreds of other things. We had such a hard time saying yes, even when it seemed so easy and so obvious. “Just Say YES,” for the love of God, just say yes! 

Saying yes was important to me because the Church has a history of saying, NO. No, you can’t have communion or get married here. No, kids can’t be in the sanctuary for worship. No you can’t do that or say that or be that here. No, we tried that before and it didn’t work or no, we have never tried that before and we are not going to do it now. Or the biggest point of conflict: no, you can’t put mustard in the potato salad. “Just Say No” hasn’t worked for the church (or Nancy Reagan). 

Of course saying, “yes” led to some of our biggest problems. One of our managers said yes, and made a latte while I offered our opening prayer. A barista said yes to making three smoothies while Sister Kathleen shared about the horrors and costs of Texas for-profit immigration detention centers (P.S. this was during Obama’s presidency and blender noise and for-profit detention centers are still a problem). We tried to stay open as a coffee shop even when we hosted our partner events and it didn’t work for anyone. Coffee guests felt awkward for interrupting and occasionally traumatized by such hard stories being shared around them when all they wanted to do was write their paper, and event guests were distracted. We were not holding sacred space because we couldn’t honor boundaries that were needed in that hour.

We had to start saying “no”. 

We cannot welcome people into spaces that are not safe for them

I don’t think I ever learned much about Jesus having boundaries. This is probably for the same reason we don’t learn that he is political. Yet in Scripture Jesus is clear on his boundaries over and over and over. We tend to domesticate him and his message in a way that is palatable for the powerful. We transform this change maker into a maintainer of the status quo because a community of quiet, boundary-less folks are much easier to use than a group of robust, committed folks with serious intentions and a profound sense of their own worth.

Most of the time the boundaries I need to learn are felt first in my gut. We could host events and we could be a coffee shop, but not at the same time. We could be a space of welcome for folks experiencing homelessness but we could not be a day-center, and being one on accident without the staff to match the needs because we are too afraid to figure out good boundaries was not only a problem but dangerous. So I have learned to call for help and kindly set a boundary. 

That’s the thing about a welcoming and inclusive church. You can’t welcome people into a space if they are not really safe to be there. We occasionally get protested, particularly during Drag Queen Story Hour, which we host with our amazing partners at Out Nebraska. Recently, Devon, clearly influenced by QANON and certain that I was organizing pretty unspeakable harm to children, began sending us emails. Lots of them. 

I ignored him and our team looked him up to try and get a sense of who this guy was. Then he began emailing every non-profit partner listed on our website, urging them to not be our partner and of course tossing in some quotes from the Bible. One of our partners has a little more experience than us with threats and turned it over to the FBI. She also called him. She listened, urged him to talk with me someday and even though he tried to convert her to Christianity, she set a time to meet him…along with building security, of course. 

Ultimately he decided not to come to the meeting, claiming, “You can’t change my mind.” But he did decide to come to the Abbey and tell folks they shouldn’t go in for worship on Sunday morning. Our door opens to a public sidewalk and I have had enough protesters to know we can’t do anything about it. Our boundary is the door. 

I tried to talk with Devon during the opening conversation time, saying “you can join us if you can worship, if you can treat it as holy. But if you cannot do those things, I will ask you to leave and ban and bar you with the help of local police.” He thinks the police should come … but for me. I wonder – Will this happen? – every week. Will our kids, particularly our gender creative kids who feel safe here, have to walk by this guy on Easter Sunday? Our strategies were not working. 

A designated fund! 

Enter the “Devon, Please Stop Bothering Us Fund.” We asked for help. I asked people to give so that every time Devon emailed us or showed up bothering folks or emailed our non-profit partners, I can respond, “Thank you so much. Because of you we raised $100 to keep doing our work.” People gave generously.. 

Five days later, I sent Devon one more email; thank you for helping us raise $3,000 from 40 different folks to support our story time where we make safe space for kids. And we have a pledge for $10,000 to cover the next 100 emails you send to us or our partners. Please let me know if you want to talk.

Devon hasn’t been back. And the “Please Stop Bothering Us Fund” not only helped us clarify our boundaries, it transformed my experience of Devon’s emails or protests.  

About the Author

Debra McKnight

Rev. Debra McKnight is ordained in the United Methodist Church and is the founding pastor of Urban Abbey (www.theurbanabbey.org) in Omaha, Nebraska. She blogs at www.theurbanabbot.org.

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