We were at a conference in Kansas with about eighteen hundred other folks, almost all coming from United Methodist Churches. Seven of us went from First UMC Burlington; but some churches came by the bus-load. One afternoon after sessions were over we were headed to our car and I happened by a bus and thought: These folks are Christians. And they are Methodists. I’m going to hop on board, say “hi” and see where they are from.
So I climbed on board and the first thing I heard was: You are on the wrong bus! When I tried to explain rather simply that I just wanted to say “hello” and ask them where they are from, they only seemed to become more belligerent. WE ARE FROM WISCONSIN; BUT THIS IS NOT YOUR BUS! I was quite surprised by their extreme lack of hospitality, especially after we had just experienced workshops and sessions and teaching on how important it is to welcome the stranger and embrace the visitor. I very quickly got off the bus and headed to the car.
Later that evening as we emerged from the late session in the dark and headed to our car, I happened upon another bus. After making certain it wasn’t the same bus as before, I climbed the steps and as I did so a nice looking man on the “about 40-ish” side of life smiled and politely told me: I think you are on the wrong bus. But he was in a hurry – perhaps trying to round up folks who were supposed to be on the bus. Undissuaded, I climbed on board. The driver gave me a half-hearted smile. A jovial woman sitting toward the front said: Honey, I think you are lost. Which bus are you looking for? I explained I just wanted to say “Hi” and asked where they were from. We all are from Arkansas shouted a happy woman on the other side of the isle. Where are you from?
The bus became animated as people welcomed me. After all, Vermont is almost a foreign country to some of our Southern friends. Are you all from the same church, I asked. Come to find out there were two bus loads of people from Arkansas, and this bus was full of people from the same church.
Hey, the woman in the front said, we have snacks! Would you like some? She was pointing to a large basket filled with bags of small candy bars, chips, crackers. Please help yourself – and take some for your friends! We laughed and visited for a few moments and then I said goodbye. As I stepped off the bus, that young man came back. He smiled in a confused sort of way and I explained what I was doing. He laughed. I’m the pastor of these folks, he said; I guess I wasn’t very welcoming! He shook my hand and we spoke for a moment.
I wondered: Why were the folks on the Wisconsin bus unwelcoming to the point of being hostile, and the Arkansas folks so refreshingly and genuinely hospitable? And then something occurred to me. Maybe the Wisconsin folk had heard about the shooting which had happened earlier that day in Oregon. Maybe they were skittish about some stranger being on their bus. As I played with this notion I began to think: Who IS on the bus?
Chris Harper Mercer attended classes at Umpqua Community College. He knew the teacher he shot and killed. He wasn’t a stranger to his victims. How would I have felt about some stranger climbing on my bus? Perhaps even more to the point, what about the “questionable people” I know – are they welcome on the bus? What is the line between wise caution and selfish isolationism? Can I really blame the folks from Wisconsin?
It’s not just a personal issue and it’s more than a matter of hospitality for any church group. This is a landmine on the field of our nation’s politics. Who are we willing to let on the bus with us? And what kinds of chances are we willing to take with each other?