They made quite an impression when they walked into church that Sunday morning. The patriarch of this motley family had untamed hair barely held hostage behind his head by a rubber band, a beard like an Old Testament prophet, his pant legs rolled up above his bare ankles and feet and his tie-dyed t-shirt exploded in color. He was followed by his wife, two sons and two daughters, all with hair rarely acquainted with brush or comb. The entire family was barefoot, the boys in patched pants and the girls in faded sundresses.
Had they walked into a church in their native upstate New York, they would have turned heads, but this was Appalachian Tennessee in 1979, where one dressed in his or her finest to attend church, even if that meant a dress shirt under overalls never worn for work. To be barefoot and unbathed was scandalous.
They arrived at this small country church located at the end of two tire tracks between hickory woods and farmland, not by accident, but by invitation. The pastor of this century-old clapboard church had a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, and the only person in that part of the country who knew anything about VW’s happened to be a “hippie” from New York state. A relationship began over engine repairs and grew to a friendship between the pastor’s family–themselves transplants from Oregon–and this family of “misfits.” As a result of this friendship, the above scene of turned heads and raised eyebrows was made possible. And the church was better for it.
Even though I was only six when they came into my life, I have many fond memories of playing with the three older kids and staying at their house. They taught me volumes about hospitality and kindness. They taught me that no matter how poor you are, you are wealthy in the eyes of someone else. My brother and I attended school with the older kids and they became our best friends. Through their connection to the church and the acceptance that eventually blossomed there, they came to know Jesus. None of this would have happened if my dad had not been willing to make his congregation uncomfortable by inviting his VW mechanic and his family to church.
I would like to think that my childhood friends wouldn’t turn heads if they showed up in one of our churches today looking like they did in 1979. I like to think they would be instantly embraced and folded into the fellowship, but I don’t think that would be the case. Smudged faces, dirty nails, and the smell of patchouli and sweat would make many of our folks uncomfortable. The temptation would be to lead with judgment instead of love, to build walls instead of bridges. My prayer is that we will get comfortable with the uncomfortable so that no one feels like they don’t belong.