Guest Writer: Clair Bolender
I was recently reminded of an event that happened to me about 30 years ago that changed a particular area of my life. It came to me as a “calling” to a specific ministry and, to this day, I am still answering the call and reaping the benefits of being obedient.
As missions go this one may be relatively insignificant and certainly won’t qualify me for sainthood, but there are small tasks that need to be done in the Kingdom as well as large jobs. I wish that I had been as willing and obedient on other occasions when I was asked to do important kingdom work.
I have not been bashful about telling this story many times before, but I don’t think that I have ever put it to paper, and it is too important to be lost from my history. It is about an event that happened roughly thirty years ago, but still affects how I act today. If you have heard it before you are excused from reading this account but the moral of the story is worth remembering, and it may change your life in the same way that it changed mine.
Sande and I had only been attending our church in Gig Harbor for a few months when we heard that Billy Graham was having one of his famous crusades in the Seattle Kingdome. They had advertised, among the local churches, for singers for the mass choir that would be part of the Sunday service. She and I both love singing in choirs, and eagerly jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this momentous event.
The choir was scheduled to rehearse on Saturday, so we decided to make a weekend of it and stay in a hotel overnight. We were relatively new to our church’s denomination, so we thought, since Sunday morning was free, it might be fun to check out another similar one in the Seattle area.
I went to Pastor Ernie and asked if he had any suggestion as to a church we should visit, and he told me of one where he had served as an associate minister in his early years. I won’t mention the name of the church but it is in a rather affluent suburb of Seattle.
On Saturday we drove to Seattle, checked into our hotel, then went to the dome and practiced with the choir. When the rehearsal was over we had our dinner, went back to our room and left a request with the desk clerk for a wake-up call at 7:00 AM. Then we retired for the night.
After a quick, continental breakfast Sunday morning, we navigated the streets of downtown Seattle until we found an on-ramp to the freeway that would take us to the church we would be attending that morning. We didn’t know the starting times for their services, so we made sure to be there plenty early. Sande never wants to be late to anything. As it happened, we arrived while the first worship service was still in session, and the second session was still forty-five minutes in the future.
The narthex was completely empty when we arrived, so we had a chance to poke around a little and get the lay of the land. After a few minutes, people began to trickle in and folks started drifting together into friendly little clusters. You could tell they were friendly because they chatted and smiled a lot, and hugged each other. I don’t think they could see we were there, but I thought I saw some of them glance our way a few times, and then quickly turn back to their visiting before I could actually make eye contact with them.
There was an information kiosk near the center of the room, so Sande and I busied ourselves by thumbing through the pamphlets and flyers. It made us feel like we were not just standing around looking lost. I’m pretty sure we didn’t distract anyone because no one came to ask if we needed any help.
When the first service was over the early worshippers filed out and warmly greeted their friends that were entering the sanctuary for the next session. We blended in to the procession of second service worshipers, and located seats that were in the center section and a few pews back from the front, because we are not backrow people. Others came and sat in the same general area, but not too close. By this time, I was beginning to wonder if Gig Harbor people looked different to them.
I was a bit surprised but also excited when the pastor asked if there were any visitors in the congregation. I quickly stood up and announced “My name is Clair Bolender, this is my wife Sande, and we bring you greetings from Gig Harbor.” Everyone clapped, and for the first time it seemed like they could actually see us. The pastor thanked us for coming then went on with the rest of the service. After the benediction the pastor and his wife stationed themselves at the main exit from the sanctuary where they shook hands and smiled at all the retreating worshippers, because it is a friendly church. They warmly and graciously thanked us for attending, and invited us to return.
We unhurriedly continued our exit through the friendly folks that had gathered in the narthex. We were still hoping that someone might notice us, but I guess we were once again, invisible, or they were just too busy sharing their love and hospitality with one another. We continued out the front doors and to our car, then drove back to our hotel in Seattle.
It was an exciting and emotional experience to be a part of the crusade choir, and I was profoundly moved when I saw the many folks that came forward to demonstrate the changes that had taken place in their hearts, as they heard the words from the great Reverend Graham. But I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to them when they left the Kingdome. Where would they go to find a church that would nurture and mentor them in their new-found faith? What if they had the same kind of experience that we faced earlier that day? What would happen to the enthusiasm and zeal that they were now feeling, and who could they share those feelings with? What if they showed up at my church?
It was a quiet ride home, that Sunday evening. Sande and I were both deep in thought, and tired from standing for a long time in the choir, and from the emotional exertion of the day’s events. When we arrived at home we wasted no time in finding our way to bed. But sleep didn’t come easily.
For some time, I tossed and turned: I couldn’t clear my mind of the experience we had at the other church. I had to see that the situation got fixed. That was no way for a church to act. Something had to be done. All these things kept running through my mind. This couldn’t happen at my church.
That was it!!! Now God had my attention. This was not about another church. It was about my church, and it was about me. The message could not have been clearer. I was being charged with the responsibility of making sure that all visitors to my church were warmly welcomed, and made to feel comfortable and wanted. I laid there quietly for a while longer as I pondered my new mission. Then I promised the Lord that, in so much as I was able, I would never allow a stranger to walk out of my church feeling that he had not been properly welcomed. Finally, I was able to fall into a much needed sleep.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to get to church. I excitedly marched into Pastor Ernie’s office and blurted out my story of the weekend’s experience, and the resulting vow that I had made. He was surprised by the inhospitality of the church we visited, but encouraged me to pursue my mission. However, he warned me that others may not always be as passionate about meeting and greeting as I was, and that I might want to approach it calmly. That was not my plan. I was “all in” and I thought the whole church should be also.
To be fair, I must say that our church was a welcoming church before we started attending. I well remember that on our first Sunday we were greeted by David and Connie Peterson when we walked in the door. Then they asked if we would sit with them during the service. Before we left they introduced us to others. The following Sunday JoAnne and Gordon Cochrane invited us and another new couple to their house for brunch after the worship service. While we were there they invited us to sing in the choir. Soon after that we realized that we were tangled in a web from which we would never escape. And that was fine with us.
Also I knew that I was not the Lone Ranger. There were others, in the church, who had a heart for hospitality. Warren Olsen, for one, was always positioned near the main entrance to the sanctuary, and always ready to meet both familiar and new worshippers. Bill Glazebrook still keeps a keen eye open for new faces, and has a very special kind of “down home” way of making people feel cheerful and glad to be there. Others also come to mind who understand the importance of making visitors feel “at home.”
The Sunday morning, after my meeting with Pastor Ernie, I was at the double doors, eagerly and zealously doling out hospitality to all who entered. I am sure that I wasn’t very good at it and sometimes I put myself in an embarrassing position, but I kept trying and it became more comfortable and genuine as time went on. I still embarrass myself once in a while when I forget the name of someone I had met just a week ago. But I am usually forgiven, and those little embarrassments are insignificant compared to the elation I feel once a name is securely planted in my memory.
Thirty years have now passed since that first Sunday morning. The main entrance has moved from one end of our building to the opposite end, and we now have a spacious and comfortable narthex that we call our Gathering Place. That’s where I hang out. I’m not an official greeter. In fact, I don’t wear a “greeters” name tag because I don’t like the idea of designated greeters – I think everyone should be a greeter- but meeting and greeting is still what I do.
I now look at my ministry a little differently than when I was first called. I originally saw it as a task that needed to be done, and that I was the one chosen to do it. It wasn’t long before I discovered that God had chosen this path for me as a way to enrich my life. The blessings and rewards that I have received overwhelmingly exceed the time and effort I have put into it. Seeing folks return after their first visit is an adequate reward, but the ensuing warm words, smiles and hugs are the real frosting on my cake. Thank you Lord, for this wonderful gift!
I Peter 4: 8……
Above all, love each other deeply…….
Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.