Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Hospitality in the Churches of East Tennessee

The simple act of visiting a church of another denomination can be a wonderful thing to do. The Glenmary Home Missioners, the group I work with, has a long tradition of doing this very thing. As missionaries, they approach church worship services themselves as a mission field--not a place to convert others, but a place to reach out to one another, be open to what the other is saying, and build the kind of unity that Jesus himself prayed for. That all who believe may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you (John 17:21).  

Anyone can be an ambassador of the faith in this way. My colleagues usually recommend going to another church on the invitation of a member or the pastor. It is usually easy to get an invitation in a conversation around town, perhaps at the grocery store or restaurant. An invitation is not always necessary, but it helps to break the ice.

When I go, all I say is, "I'm Frank Lesko, I'm visiting my friends at the local Catholic Church for the weekend, and I would like to worship here this morning." It is that simple. You do not need a theology degree to be kind and open in this way. Folks are often extremely warm and quite pleased that someone from outside their congregation would take the time and effort to spend a Sunday morning in their space and hear what they have to say. Their hospitality is a gift that I do not take for granted--I appreciate it greatly as itself an act of Christian love.

Sometimes the journey toward greater harmony between churches only takes someone proverbially knocking on the door and asking to come in and sit for a spell. Your actions will speak much louder than words, and say, "I want to be in your world for a while. Let's listen to each other."

I visit churches regularly in my work. It only makes sense to share more of these adventures in more detail online!  So here goes . . .

Union and Grainger Counties are circled in red above.

I spent this weekend in and near the Catholic mission parishes in Union and Grainger Counties in east Tennessee. Visiting other churches is easy here, as there are few churches in Union and Grainger counties in which Br. Craig Digmann has not visited at least once. He is a regular face at many places. His current total is well over a hundred churches that he has visited at least once in his few short years in the area, and that number is steadily growing.

On Saturday evening, I attended Catholic Mass at St. John Paul II Catholic Mission parish in Rutledge, TN. I have featured this congregation in posts before, most recently here. What is noteworthy about this little storefront church is that right now it has been almost entirely converted into a distribution area for food commodities for folks in need. All the chairs, altar and podiums have been temporarily moved against the wall to make way for God's hungry people. Did they move Jesus out of the way to do this? No, this is how they make space for Him! Make straight the way of the Lord! (Isaiah 40:3, John 1:23).

I had the privilege of attending Beeler's Chapel United Methodist Church early on Sunday morning. I appreciated greatly Pastor Denver Davidson's deep faith and well considered thoughts. I like that they make Ash Wednesday ashes not just from bunt palms but also from notecards of prayer requests of members of the congregation. I repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:6).

I felt right at home in this congregation, which is located on a picturesque mountain road outside of Washburn, TN. While there, I got to connect to a number of people who live at the nearby Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center. They live off the grid and have a profound witness of environmental sustainability. I have been especially impressed with their natural burial cemetery which is part of their environmental witness and commitment. God saw all that He had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31).

Not too far down the road and just a few short minutes later, I found myself attending Mt. Eager Missionary Baptist Church. Br. Craig may have been the first Catholic ever to step foot in this and other churches in the area, but now it is somewhat easy for me to come along afterwards. I was impressed by the hospitality and vitality of the congregation, as well as the good natured presence of Pastor Gary Donehew. Be hospitable to one another without complaint (1 Peter 4:9).

My only regret is not getting a picture of the view from the entrance of the church looking out. The mountain panorama is something that can strike awe into the heart of any person and never grows old. I may be back to snap that picture, but I am not going back today. After an inch of snow and ice fell last night on those steep mountain dirt roads, I am sticking to the highways today! If you want a taste, check out the cover picture for this blog, because it was taken from this very same part of the country.

I headed back to Maynardville for Sunday evening service at Hines Creek Missionary Baptist Church. They operate a critical food pantry for Union County, which is itself an ecumenical effort. For I was hungry and you gave me food (Matthew 25:35-40).

This is also one of the most musically talented congregations I have ever visited. Members make up at least two different music groups. I especially enjoyed the country Gospel of the Beason family and look forward to hearing them play again in the future. Good food and good music, this is what makes this church a pillar in the community by all reckoning! Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation (Psalm 95:1).

The one word that comes to my mind after this weekend in east Tennessee is this: Hospitality. Each of these churches was so welcoming and gracious to this shy outsider who speaks in a very obvious northern accent. I would like to see these kind spirited people again. We do worship the same God. We may have different ideas about how to do that and sometimes even what that means, but we are all doing the best we can to make our way through the fog. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Cor 13:12). 

I am glad to have met these Christian brothers and sisters of mine in east Tennessee! Br. Craig has estimated that there are over 210 churches in these two counties, so these four are just a small sampling, but if each of us took a step to get to know just one other church, we would build quite a relationship.

If you would like this Catholic to attend your church, and you live in the rural US Southeast, drop me a line!  I would love to visit your church and celebrate our mutual relationship with Christ together!


  1. My wife has some relations in Tennessee so we have visited often. We have attended several different churches over the years with different family members. I can completely attest to the hospitality of the people of Tennessee. They want to make you feel welcome and they love to feed you. I appreciate your work of "building bridges" between churches.

    1. Thanks for you comment! Yes, visiting churches often involves lots and lots of potlucks and other food!