Poet Maya Angelou said children need to see our eyes light up when they walk into a room. We need to know that we matter to someone. My grandmother did this for me—and every person who walked through her doors. With barely a word, she’d find you a place at her kitchen table, wrapping you up in love and cookies. Grandma’s welcome was so delicious I wanted to share it with all my friends.
In looking for a church home, we wanted a place where eyes light up at the sight of children and strangers. The first year we lived in our new house, I drove by Hephatha Lutheran Church as I ferried my son to and from school. This Milwaukee church has a great big “open door welcome” sign on its side. The church’s name, Hephatha, means “be opened.” It comes from a story in Mark’s Gospel about Jesus healing a man who was deaf and speech-impaired. Jesus said to the man, “Ephphatha. Be opened.” The man’s ears were opened, his tongue released, and he spoke plainly (Mark 7:31-37).
Two years after we moved to our new neighborhood, on the first Sunday in Advent, I opened Hephatha’s doors. I walked into church that day feeling much like the deaf and mute man in the story. For the past two years, my young children and I had been seeking a church home. Our last congregation was difficult, and we needed to be wrapped in love. We had visited plenty of churches but had yet to see any eyes light up.
At one church, a helpful member leaned over to me during the opening song (to which my then-2-year-old daughter was loudly singing, “La La Laaaaaa!”) and said, “You know we have a nursery.” At another, my son chose the sermon time to ask, “Is it time for the credits?” Fifty heads turned toward us, and I wanted to slink under the pew. It went better when I was alone—no one stared, but no one spoke to me either. I felt discouraged. I didn’t know if I was deaf to the shouts of welcome God was offering to us or if the delicious welcome I sought was simply a fantasy.
On that cold Advent Sunday we found that delicious welcome at Hephatha Lutheran Church. The community gently gathered us in. On our first visit, Pastor Mary Martha Kannass greeted us at the door. A woman helped us navigate the service. After the children’s sermon, a boy gently led my 3-year-old daughter back to me. Since then, several young children have adopted us as their family—beaming each time they slip into our pew. At Easter, a woman grabbed my hand on her way up to communion, her eyes bright, and said, “I’m so glad you are here today!”
Here at Hephatha, my children and I have found the gracious embrace we sought. Even more, this embrace has transformed us, opening us to speak freely about Jesus’ love to others. This is how it works at Hephatha: We experience Jesus’ embrace in baptism, in the word and the meal, in the smiles and hugs of those who are glad we came. The pastor invites us to welcome others. People do. A woman who is grieving the violent death of her son has found welcome and healing at Hephatha. She opens her home and heart to neighborhood children, bringing them to church. One Sunday a young woman brought 17 children from her block. These children, welcomed and loved at Hephatha, come back with their brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors. And on it goes.
Evangelism can seem like part mystery, part magic act. At Hephatha, outreach is as simple as my grandmother’s kitchen table welcome: an open door, eyes that light up with love, and a place at the table for everyone.
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