Welcome and Hope: a reflection on the PCUSA/ECCB Partnership Conference 2019

David Sinclair

        It is sometimes (maybe always) helpful to see things through the eyes of others. As we stood in the immigration line in the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, (a shuffling, leg-wearying, patience-testing wait that lasted for over two hours) there were others who helped put our situation into a better perspective.

         First, there were the people who, unlike us, were trying to get to another flight elsewhere in the USA. We watched as these people went from anticipation, through impatience and frustration, to resignation, as the time of their connecting flight came and went while they inched their way forward with the rest of us – wondering, as did we, why there was not a separate line for those with connecting flights.

         Then there were those who, unlike us, struggled with the language, or struggled with the procedure or the documentation, those who were worried they would not be allowed to enter the country, those who feared they might be viewed with a profiling discrimination because of where they came from, or what they looked like. As I approached the front of the line, having spent my two hours in purgatory, I waited while the two desks available for that line were taken up by a man who needed a translator for Spanish, and whose papers seemed to be something of a question; and a young woman who needed a translator for Arabic, who had a pile of papers which the officials on duty were struggling to understand.

         Then there were the staff on duty themselves. There were clearly not enough of them, but they were doing their job, doing their duty, working their way through hundreds and hundreds of people who just kept coming from one flight after another. When we finally got through, and were finally able to meet the people sent to meet us (who had also been waiting all this time), the line behind us was no shorter than it had been when we joined it. By this time it was almost 10.30pm. We had landed at 7.45 – so those immigration officials were going to have a long night.

         We were going to a conference on the theme of hope, and I wondered what hope might mean for the people in that immigration hall. Which of them grabs our attention? Whose hope is the most pressing, the most vital, the most central?

         For some, like us, there was not only the hope but also the confident expectation that there was someone there, someone on the other side of the barriers just for us, someone carrying a card that had our names on it, someone who would be waiting for us for as long as it took, someone who would welcome us, look after us, guide us. There was – his name was John, and we were very happy to see him, very happy when he drove us the hour and half to Athens, before he drove the hour and half back again! (He later drove us back to the airport at the end of the conference.)

         For others, those who were missing their connections, there was probably the hope of another flight that night, or a room in an airport hotel (hopefully paid for by the airline or their insurance company), or perhaps the resignation to a night in the airport itself, hoping for an early flight the next morning.

         For the staff, there was the knowledge that, eventually, the flights would stop arriving, the lines would shorten and they could, finally, go home. The hope was probably that that time would arrive sooner rather than later, that their energy would last, that their patience would not wear out, that their demeanour would remain professional, that no more particularly difficult cases would present themselves.

          But what about those who arrived with a heart full of desperate hope, but a mind full of worries or fears? What about those whose papers, or whose background, or whose past, or whose poverty, make them suspicious in the eyes of the rich world? It is at the border, at the margin, at the place where worlds meet and greet, or collide and deride, that the nature of hope is encountered in its most ungilded, unguarded, unprotected state. It is there that hope is revealed as another word for welcome, for acceptance. Hope is fulfilled in a place at the table.

          We who were visiting the USA for a conference on hope were welcomed enthusiastically, hosted extravagantly, fed plentifully (and more) by Betty, and Mark I, and Mark II, and all those who worked with them. We experienced love for friend and stranger, both with the congregation in Athens and at Columbia Seminary in Decatur. Our theme for the week was not only ‘hope’ but ‘hoping together’, not merely the bringing of our hopes together, but recognising the hope that is engendered by the act of coming together, the encounter, the gathering, the sharing, the seeing through others’ eyes.

         Many of us knew others among us already, or had exchanged emails, or had heard about one another. For some of us the visit was a little like a homecoming. For all of us the place at a bountiful table was assured and certain, welcome and wondrous. Whether we came from the USA, Scotland, or the Czech Republic, we were one. We remembered shared pasts, we planned shared futures, we exchanged presents. We shared doubts and sorrows, celebrated anticipations and hopes, learned about one another, got to know one another – and grew as a result in faith and in love and in hope. The question for us all will now be what we do with that, how we communicate it, how we spread it.

         We also remembered, and tried to interact with, the places where hope is less certain, because the welcome is less apparent. We remembered the struggles in the American south for racial equality and civil rights; we recalled those who told others that they should know their place, and their place was not at their table. We spoke of how easy it is for countries and peoples to think they have nothing to share, no duty of care, no need for compassion, no desire to welcome. And in those remembrances the need for and the lack of hope was laid bare in a world putting its faith more and more in barriers and borders, where hope descends through frustration and impatience not only to resignation but also to despair.

         At one point, we talked about who was, in our assembly, invited to the table, who was not there, and who might yet be there. We spoke as people whose table it was, those who could decide who had a place. It is perhaps a dangerous assumption to make, one that those in the rich world, those whose table has enough and sometimes too much, find it no doubt too easy to make. Nevertheless, if we do make such a presumption, it brings with it a responsibility for how the world is ordered, not necessarily in this particular gathering, but in our lives of faith more generally.

         Hope is realised or denied, recognised and named, not among those who already know themselves welcomed, but at the border, the margin, the place where hope pleads and love beckons and faith knocks. The hope, in the immigration line, behind the wall, through the fence, in the places where razor wire separates, where suspicion infects, is in the welcome. It is in the ability to see through the eyes of others and respond to what we see.

         Behold I stand at the door and knock.