The Tour de DioMil officially came to a close late yesterday afternoon (September 9, 2011), as our group of cyclists wheeled into the parking lot at St. Simon the Fisherman Episcopal Church in Port Washington, Wisconsin. We were greeted by the same sound that had launched us out onto our pilgrimage eleven days before — the ringing of a church bell. Earlier in the day, we had been treated to lunch at the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Milwaukee, where we were greeted by the cheers of well-wishers and the peals of the Cathedral Church bells.
Yesterday’s ride from Kenosha was 73 miles long. When we stopped in Port Washington, the Tour had covered a total of 538 miles. What a journey!
Someone asked me tonight at dinner, “What one memory stands out from the Tour?” I didn’t have to think too hard about my answer. The memory I will carry forward are the people I met, the stories they shared and the welcome the Tour received.
Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles. We were greeted with meals. We were greeted with shelter. We were offered the best gift any pilgrim could receive — the hospitality of fellow pilgrims. We weren’t treated as strangers…or guests…or burdens, but as long, lost friends. Along the way, we received assurances of prayer and gifts of money in support of the causes the Tour has highlighted.
On our last night on the road, we heard one parishioner tell the story of his lifelong connection with his parish (some 70 years or so). He told those present at dinner of the times he had been in the worship space in the late evening, as the sunlight was fading, and the dappled light spread unevenly upon the floors and walls. He said, “In moments like these, I can almost hear the voices of all the people who have been a part of the parish since its founding. They have all gone on beyond this life, but somehow they are still present. I find great comfort in this.” I found myself enthralled by this unguarded personal account of an experience of “the communion of saints”.
I have encountered this communion of saints “in the flesh” over the past two weeks — holy people doing holy things, in the quiet, unassuming and practical ways that are so much a part of the ethos of what it means to be an Episcopalian. Sometimes we may not look very dynamic. There are times we can be overly cautious, bordering on recalcitrant. We’ve certainly got our challenges as a “mainline” denomination. And yet, in spite of all our ecclesial quirks, we are, deep down, people who want to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
All over this country there are signs attached to telephone poles, mailboxes, street signs and light posts. It has a simple message, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” Twenty years ago, I experienced that feeling of welcome when I participated in my first ever worship service according to the Book of Common Prayer. These past two weeks, I’ve been overwhelmed by that same feeling of welcome in every one of the parish churches the Tour visited. I can attest that the words on those signs aren’t wishful thinking — they describe who we are.
People who have been welcomed into relationship with God through the gift of another’s hospitality are changed forever. Over the course of the last twenty years, maybe I had forgotten some of the sheer joy I felt when I was first welcomed into the community of faith named St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida. In the last two weeks, as I have been received into parish churches throughout the Diocese of Milwaukee, I have been powerfully reminded of the ways one particular parish in this Diocese received me as their priest seven years ago. I am a better priest today because of the graciousness, the generosity, the humor and the practicality of the saints gathered as Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa.
For me, experiencing the Episcopal Church for the first time was like coming home. I reconnected with that feeling every time I walked through a set of church building doors on the Tour de DioMil. The Episcopal Church has welcomed me over and over again through the years. It is my spiritual home. My prayer is that we Episcopalians never lose sight of our call to hospitality. My fervent hope is that whenever someone sees that sign and takes the risk to cross our church building thresholds, they will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are being welcomed as they are and for who they are — beloved children of God.