Welcoming the Stranger

The assortment of Lutheran and Mennonite institutions in K-W is a quietly prominent sign of our city’s enduring German Protestant roots. On the last Sunday in May, just before 10 a.m., I settled into a back pew at Waterloo’s Mount Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church for a peek behind one such sign. Across the skylit octagonal worship hall, in the company of about 70 mostly middle-aged parishioners, I faced a simple altar: three woven banners of earth, cross, and flame covering the wall, behind a heavy oak communion table and four white candles.

Worship began efficiently on an entirely human, even humanitarian, note — with announcements:

“Don’t come to Church next Sunday! Come to Waterloo Park instead for our annual park service and picnic.”

“We’ve signed and submitted an application to welcome a family of seven from the Congo deemed travel-ready.”

“We’ll circulate a petition we’ve formulated to John McCallum of the Liberal government protesting the delays in Canadians being able to receive Syrian refugee families.”

And, projected on twin screens flanking the altar: “Please join us in this ministry of welcoming the stranger.”

When the minister of music explained that the opening hymn came from Cameroon and would need more rhythm than his piano could muster, a young man grabbed a djembe and a few women got to clapping and swaying. Unaware of the organ pipes behind my pew, they boomed to life halfway through the service acclaiming the Gospel reading that followed.

Under white robe and silver-green sash, Pastor Philip Mathai sustained the announcements’ theme of the stranger in his sermon on Luke 7:1-10:

“We are always quick to draw lines between us and them in matters of faith… Jesus commends the Roman centurion’s faith even though he will likely never become a disciple… Who may be the other we deem as being outside God’s grace? Is Luke inviting us to see that all people can demonstrate faith that even Jesus could commend? To see that they could be used by God in the world even though they wouldn’t call it that?… May we be open to God amazing us in ways we do not expect… May there be a transformation in the way we see the other, because it is then that we experience holiness.”

Having often visited Catholic mass with my Grandmother as a child, I’m familiar with the protocol for guests during Holy Communion: stay seated as the baptised file out of the pews and up to the altar for their magical bread and wine, the peak of worship. So I was surprised when Mount Zion’s “usher captain” approached me in the rear with a gentle invitation: “Thank you for worshipping with us. You’re very welcome to partake of communion if you like.” So I did, a very welcome stranger.

Mount Zion Lutheran has been on my radar for a couple years, chiefly as the site of my rented community garden plot. Worship on this particular Sunday concluded with a singing procession to the garden where Pastor Philip presided over a blessing of seed and soil under the late morning sun. Three children giggled by his side holding up seed bag, soil tray, watering can and sun icon during specific prayers of thanks and supplication for each element. The blessing concluded poetically, yoking outer and inner, self and other.

“As all the earth is a garden, Lord, we ask that you bless this small piece of the earth. We pray for a bountiful harvest, both in our garden and in our lives. Give us the wisdom to take what we need to feed ourselves and to use our abundance to the benefit of others. As your Light shines upon us and upon this garden, giving us life, likewise help us to give light and life to others, through Christ our Lord.”

En route to the garden, a parishioner welcomed me to Mount Zion and asked if I was a student or just checking out churches. I said yes to both and she told me that she’s been coming since her son, now at UW, was five years old, “because everyone needs to know they’re not alone.”