the up-and-down-sides of inclusion

the other day i went to a catholic mass for a quincenera.  it was a lovely service in so many ways; i love these kinds of celebratory, sacred moments to honor life’s passages.  the priest was amazing and shared one of the best homilies i have ever heard about Jesus, the master teacher of Love.  it was very stirring.  i was really appreciating and enjoying the sacredness and beauty of the moment until it came time for communion. of course i knew it was coming before i walked in, but i think i got sucked into the priest’s lovely message about Jesus’ heart for people and forgot about the very strict guidelines around the eucharist.  he made very clear that it was only for catholics, and even then you also had to have gone to confession in at least the past year.  i respect their tradition, and of course they are entitled to their strong beliefs & practices about the way it should be.  i’m not here to challenge all the ins & outs about it, i am just writing about some of the feelings it stirred up in me, that’s all.

out of respect for the priest’s instructions, i chose not to participate in one of my most favorite things about gathering together in Christ’s name.  at the same time, i knew i could “remember” without walking in a line to receive it.  but as i sat there i noticed how icky and ugly and sad it felt.  to be denied Jesus’ blood & body because i do not profess a certain way of following Jesus, because i haven’t gone through certain steps “they” think i’m supposed to was really a drag.  i remember one time when i was a kid, sincerely seeking Jesus all on my own, and i went to church with a friend of mine.  when it was time for communion, i went to get in line and her mom stopped me and said “you can’t take it unless you’ve been baptized” (which i hadn’t). they all got up and took it and i sat there by myself.  i will never forget that moment; i felt so stupid, so ashamed, so confused. this time, of course, it didn’t feel anything like that.  my relationship with God is secure, and not taking communion in that moment certainly didn’t have any kind of impact on my life.

but it did make me consciously think about all the beautiful people who walk through the doors of churches around the world–which takes a lot of courage in the first place–and then are made to feel “out” or less than because they see things differently or don’t know the hoops to jump through (as in believe this, do this, be like this).  i don’t mind people deciding for themselves whether they want to participate or not; the freedom to choose feels critical.  the part i mind is other people in power deciding for them.

a willing heart feels like enough.  feet in action, walking toward receiving feels like enough.  a feeble attempt, no matter how awkward or “off” or whatever else you want to call it feels so consistent with God’s heart for us.  and extremely consistent with the gospels and the many, many people from the “out crowd” that Jesus seemed to have a special passion for.

a few days after the quince we had a lovely conversation at our house of refuge focused on the different emotional responses people had to words & traditions like “hymns” and “the sacraments.”  we ended up focusing a lot on communion & people’s experiences with it over the years.  i will openly and strongly say that i am in favor of an open table beyond just communion. non-controlled, radically inclusive, a come-eat-taste-see-that-the-Lord-is-good-approach. living in a community where people are all over the map in terms of life experiences & theology & a wide range of other differences has helped me see that God is B-I-G and that probably the hardest thing for all of us to learn has nothing to do with “right and wrong” and “good and bad” and “us and them” and “in and out.”

it has much more to do with what it means to love Jesus and others and be loved by Jesus and others.

and that’s tricky business, an art rather than a science guided by right belief.  i know there are so many people who believe that it’s their responsibility to be the gatekeepers of truth and make sure that those who are not-doing-it-the-way-we-think-they-should are “out.” but i just don’t see how some of that man-being-God’s-policemen-idea has turned out to benefit the kingdom much.  it seems to divide and hurt and interfere with experiencing Christ’s love in a tangible way. i’m not saying “conviction” isn’t important; of course i believe wholeheartedly in God’s spirit working mightily in people’s lives.  i’m just wondering why we’re so sure we’re the ones who need to gatekeep for God and decide who is in, who is out, who is worthy and who isn’t.

last week’s experience made me think a lot about inclusion & it’s upsides, it’s downsides.   oh, of course there are so many others, but here are just a few that come to mind in this moment:

upsides to inclusion:

  • we get to see, taste, and experience the beauty and freedom of what it means to let God be God.
  • a chance to meet and love and learn from interesting people who see things differently from us
  • grace extended reminds us of the grace we’ve received
  • we get to resign from our busy and distracting 2nd job as God’s policemen.
  • way less time spent worrying about all the things we think we are “supposed” to be saying but don’t really want to.

downsides to inclusion:


  • it means mixing with people who might make us feel uncomfortable
  • without our second job, we actually have to focus on our first one which is a little harder–our own life before Jesus.
  • no good escape clause from relationships
  • a painful realization that all that time spent on cultivating “right knowledge” might have been for nothing.
  • we might end up being labeled a heretic (i’m starting to see it as a compliment)

i know this barely scratches the surface, but i’d love to hear from you.  what are some of your thoughts on inclusion?

* * * * *

ps: happy thanksgiving.  enjoy.   i’m really looking forward to it & the beginning of advent this weekend!

pps:  if you haven’t read take this bread yet by sara miles, i highly recommend it.  it really fleshes out the beauty & power of an open table & the up and downsides of inclusion.  i wrote about it earlier this year on the refuge blog; it’s called bread.

ppss:  also, check out this lovely guest post by joy shroeder at communitas collective called “the church is here.”

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • I believe that the motto floated on Wed. night was
    “Commune ’em all… let God sort’em out”

  • beautiful. God’s policemen – wow I won’t ever forget that term and image – I think it’s right on. Thanks as always!

  • So interesting!!!
    Last week I got to experience being called a “heretic” for the first time…it brought out a mix of emotions to say the least!! Because of it I spent a lot of time thinking about what you are saying here about “inclusion” and “exclusion”…the experience has helped me define even clearer what I am about and how this great lover of a Creator that we have wants to have a relationship with ALL of us. I love to go to mass and like you get ticked off every time they get to communion…I would love to be able to participate and would every day if they would let me!!! There is something so sacred and beautiful to me about communion…the binding together of us all in one body. Those silly rules that keep us from truly being one….Love you much Kathy, thanks for thinking and saying such important things!!

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful turkey day!!!

  • Beautifully said, Kathy. I love the kind of community you’re building, and I think the world needs more like it.

    As the devil’s advocate, though, I have to ask, (and this is something that’s been troubling me for a while): What if that Priest has it exactly right? What if God demands that everyone follows a certain set of rules, ceremonies, and procedures, handed down through the One True Church, and if you don’t comply, don’t expect to get into Heaven?

    What if that voice inside many of us that tells us that God is greater than that, that God loves everyone and we shouldn’t worry about whether or not we follow certain religious practices is really just our own voice making excuses? How would we know? Who are we to say that the strictest, most fundamentalist Christians / Catholics don’t have it right?

    And if so, could the wonderful community you’re building, outside of that rigid structure, still be a great thing?

  • I find it easy to write about being inclusive, but much more difficult to do. By all means, open communion. By all means allow whoever to attend our church, our small group or whatever. But really accept everyone? That is really difficult.

    We’re planning Thanksgiving dinner. We have invited friends and family. But there are those we have not invited because we know they would not fit in. They would make our other guests uncomfortable. These are rude, obnoxious, ill-mannered people who no one likes, such as the man we invited several years ago who ate over half the large turkey, made many very inappropriate remarks and totally monopolized the conversation. One couple who was present will never speak to us again because we invited that man.

    How is this any different when we’re talking church? How is it practically possible to really be inclusive? Jesus is, but how can we be? What do we do when a person who stinks so bad you can smell him a block away walks into our group? How do we deal with people who everyone finds offensive, the people no one like or want? They’re out there and we know some of them.

    Jesus loves them, just as He does you and me. But invite them to my home for Thanksgiving? They’ll offend everyone! Include them in our Bible study group? Have you heard the things they say? They’ll scare off everyone else! How do we include them?

    One moment – I just remembered that I’m on some people’s “do not include” list – such as the church we used to attend. When I see people in Costco who still attend there, they pretend they don’t see me, and pretend they don’t hear me when I say hello. Now that doesn’t feel very good, does it? But – I still don’t want to invite that obnoxious guy to my house. I’m not sure I’m even comfortable with the fact that he knows where I live.

  • Kathy,

    As always, my heart resonates with yours…I’ve been a so called “heretic” for awhile and must be careful not to wear it as a badge of pride….but I grieve mostly for lost relationships because of some man made technicality…grace is such a difficult thing…

    Vofes’s “Embrace and Exclusion” is a great read…

    Maybe someday I will again join a local church……

    Still wondering, if my heart is right, why can’t I walk in and do communion in catholic church…or any church where Christ is elevated? I don’t think humans have the power to exclude me from the Bride of Christ….

  • Thanks so much Kathy. Wednesday night was a great reminder of the sacredness of communion.

    “And he took bread and gave thanks and broke it and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you, do this in rememberance of me. Likewise he took the cup, saying, This cup is the new life in my blood, which is shed for you” Luke 22: 19-20

  • Hi Joel, you wrote-
    “What if that Priest has it exactly right? What if God demands that everyone follows a certain set of rules, ceremonies, and procedures, handed down through the One True Church”
    The account of Jesus in Matthew 5:17 is as clear an answer as you can get (of teachings carried in paradox). Jesus addressed this very issue. Jesus does not diss the law, but radically expands “the law” inward into the heart and outward into action, Filling it with the holy spirit. His point is that we live the spirit of the law instead of being obsessed with just the technical details of it.
    For me, that makes your question and the others that follow from it a moot point.
    Happy thanksgiving!

  • Interestingly, not long ago, a recent convert to Catholicism was trying to explain to me why Catholic Communion is exclusive. And, the funny thing is, I grew up in a VERY Catholic home. I was an alter boy, my family servered (and my parents still do) in that church in many ways. I was trying to listen w/o being judgemental or responding negatively, after all he was so excited about his new beliefs. However, inside I was just kind of shaking my head wondering is that how God really feels about me right now?
    Last Christmas we went to Mass w/my parents and everything was fine and comfortable until we got to that point. Amazingly, one of my daughters started choking just as Comminion started. She was fine, and just needed a drink of water, but it gave me an escape from that moment of feeling judgement that I was so grateful for.
    During Lent last year, I went (by myself) to an Episcopal Church near our house. When communion came, they said everyone was invited and we went forward, kneeled at the front and received it (elements where much like Catholic Mass). I was so overwelmed by that moment of being able to share it openly with this faith community.
    If God doesn’t have his arms open wide for all of us to join in, why did Jesus share communion with the one who turned him over to die? Why did Jesus include the tax collectors and the prostitutes? Including everyone is difficult and messy (and some may be turned off by those included), but isn’t that what the Kingdom of God Jesus showed us is really like?

  • So, Jim and Sage, are we saying we think Catholics have it wrong, and are going against what Jesus clearly says in the Bible? It sounds like Sage is very sure about what the Bible has to say about exclusivity — does this mean we should phone the Pope and let him know that all their centuries of Bible interpretation have been mistaken?

    It’s easy to say that others are wrong, and we’re the ones who really know what God wants–heck, people in every belief system have said that since time began! But my point is that there’s a chance God isn’t who you want him to be. BUT also that maybe being a member of an inclusive community is more important than pleasing an exclusive God.

  • Joel, you are right…people have said that they have it right and others wrong since time began. And, I am pretty certain God has never been who I want him to be (either today, or in the past). I am struggling to know him, and I always very doubtful of how much I do know him.
    There are many things about the Catholic Church I still love and respect very much. And, I know many Catholics who would agree that there are many things the Catholic Church has gotten wrong throughout the centuries. I am not saying they have it wrong and I know what is right.
    However, I am still wondering, why did Jesus include the people he included? If his mission was all about making sure people had it exactly right, wouldn’t he have praised the Pharisees and condemned the tax collectors and the prostetutes? Based on the teaching and example of Jesus, I’m not sure I understand how exclusive God is.
    I like your last sentence “BUT also that maybe being a member of an inclusive community is more important than pleasing an exclusive God.” I think I am agreeing with you, but I’m just hoping God is more inclusive than exclusive. And, I could be quite wrong.

  • No Joel, that is not what I am saying.
    Also, I do not understand what point you are trying to make.

  • Communion the most segregated hour in Australia, to paraphrase ML King … all you of like mind gather round and partake in the thimble and have a little piece of cracker.

    “If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God. ”

    One of the reasons Jesus gave his life was to form “one new humanity” in which all racial, gender, cultural and class walls have been torn down Eph. 2:14-15; Gal. 3:26-29. Racial, cultural, gender and class reconciliation isn’t some sort of “politically correct” addendum to the Gospel: its part of its very essence! If Jesus died to create “one new humanity,” then manifesting a community in which people of different ethnicities are learning to love, understand and do life with one another is as mandatory for the church as is preaching the forgiveness of sins, which Jesus also died for.

  • hope everyone had a good thanksgiving! i am just now getting to this, but always appreciate the different input and perspectives.

    sage – i forgot that little quote from the eve! i agree with what you are saying related to Jesus seeming to be pretty clear in the gospels that the way of the law & the confines of religion wasn’t where it was at. i totally get joel’s valid question & that is what sometimes is confusing. where i like to land is that it does seem that many of the things that “religious systems” do not-in-any-sense-of-the-word align with a lot of Jesus’ teachings. it just doesn’t make sense. yet, it does to them, i suppose, and that’s why i’m sometimes not crazy about using scripture to make a specific point because there are so many contrary views on the same passage or other scriptures seem contradict it in some other way (i’m just talking generally here). the spirit of Jesus’ message is what i’d cling to here, that the willing & open & poor in spirit & seekers were somehow always welcome & embraced, touched, loved, not excluded by Jesus.

    randi – glad you liked the image…i am glad that i resigned my position a long time ago, but boy did i used to take that job seriously!

    donna – welcome to the club 🙂 i do love the sacredness of communion, too. it doesn’t have to be solemn and ceremonial or ? for me to feel its sacredness, i just always love the act, the intention, the reminder. i have taken communion before in a catholic church and pretty much just ignored the preamble, but for some reason this time i felt like it was important to honor his clear words. not sure why, but i think each of these weird moments helps me in my faith journey somehow. i like the challenge, too, and what it stirs up. love ya!

    joel – i always love the devil’s advocate perspective and i am so glad you tossed it in there. i always want to be careful about “right” or “wrong” because of course there are so many ways that people experience God and i don’t want to be one of those people who say it’s my way or the highway. the one thing that i will cling to, though, is that the “religiosity” of exclusion is very contrary to Jesus’ teachings. i think i will hold to that. over and over and over Jesus’ main teachings were to the pharisees, the “law”-enforcers. and he usually didn’t use the kindest of words. he was very strong in his communication about desiring mercy not sacrifice, that he came for the sick not the healthy, that the law of love superseded the law of right behavior. none of us ultimately “100% know” anything, i have long since given up that thought even though for a long time i was sure i did! i think it’s more honest to say that everyone’s just giving it their best shot. thanks for your thoughts, so much more we could talk about!

    sam – oh i hope one day we get to have a real conversation. this is the story of my life, even within my own family who get frustrated with me/us for our inclusiveness. and i am so with you, true inclusion goes far beyond “come in” and “take communion.” real love, real friendship, real inclusion is a whole other story. sometimes i leave certain moments when we are mixing up all kinds of beautiful nuttiness in one room and say to myself “i think this is what Jesus meant when he said small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life…” and it’s not all about heaven. it’s about here, now. and it’s not for the fainthearted. it will come through great sacrifice and discomfort. it will require losing friends & family & being misunderstood. thanks for sharing.

    carlos – oh i always love your heart. you said: “I don’t think humans have the power to exclude me from the Bride of Christ….” no, they shouldn’t. they don’t. don’t let them. it is free & open & available in all different shapes & forms and that’s what i love about it, really it can’t be kept down, no matter how hard “man” tries to…

    irene – so glad you were there and are part of the nuttiness, the beauty.

    jim – oh that story made me smile. i love that contrast & the power of the open table during lent. i completely agree with you, those Jesus stories seem to be pointing to something quite different from exclusion…hope i get to hang out with you all next sunday! watching the flights…

    mark – preach it brother! amen!

  • Kathy – You have the rare ability to see what people are really saying. That leads me to suspect that you can do this in person. That is a real gift!

    I once knew a man who said he met an angel, who came to him when he was in trouble. The angel looked like a regular person. The story is too long to retell here, except for a few points:
    -Other people saw the angel (who looked like a man)
    -The angel accomplished what appeared to fall beyond physical laws
    -The angel literally vanished in a matter of about two seconds when everyone else turned around. This was in open country, with not even a bush anywhere near.

    Is it possible that angels come not only to help us, but to prepare us for the real, not-so-pretty people we will later encounter? Might it be that we should help/befriend unlovely people, not because we think they might be angels, but because that is what Jesus and His angels are trying to teach us to do?

    Isn’t this sort of like the story of the man who moved the big rock that was in the middle of the road to assist his fellow travelers? He moved it because he wanted to help others. Little did he know that the king had placed it there, and had placed a treasure beneath it that the person who moved it would find.

    Might our King have done a similar thing? Might what we think is a difficult thing to do (love the unlovely) really be an opportunity with a rich reward hidden beneath – the Kingdom of God? Perhaps those angels, real or imagined, are trying to give us a little nudge in the right direction.

    I wonder if I too have encountered angels, disguised as people who needed me, then and there, and almost always at the most inconvenient of times for me – when I was busy, tired and just tired of helping others. Could it be that the most unlovely people I have met were….?


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