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A BEACON OF LIGHT
Radical Welcome – The Revd Jon Canessa
This speech was given by Newcastle Cathedral’s Lantern Initiative Lead, the Revd Jon Canessa, at the National Cathedrals Conference on 16 May 2022.
How do we offer a welcome to all our visitors, so they stay to be blessed by us – as well as to be a blessing to us?
In the Gospels Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to proclaim the Good News, directing them to stay only where they are shown hospitality. Jesus is clear they shouldn’t waste time where their presence is not wanted: “If anyone doesn’t welcome you, leave and shake the dust from your feet.”
‘Radical Welcome’ cannot be a passive response, it must proactively attempt to meet people where they are. If we are serious about offering hospitality to everyone, we will need to actively seek out and walk alongside those individuals and groups that have previously been alienated by the Church and wider society. Radical welcome looks around to see who is not here and actively goes out into the city looking to make connections and partnerships.
Offering a radical welcome will stretch us. It recognises that we have blind spots, that we sometimes operate from our fear and prejudice and that we can be too quick to rescue people. Volunteer Welcomers receive training on how we manage the tension between, All are Welcome and All Feel Safe. This looks at unconscious bias; rescuing behaviour and the drama triangle; ensuring personal safety and boundaries; trauma-informed environments and how we respond to conflict and practical needs.
In centuries gone by, a fire was lit at night in Cathedral’s Lantern Tower as a beacon to aid boats to navigate their way safely home up the River Tyne in the dark. Drawing upon this analogy, the Cathedral’s Lantern Initiative seeks to be a beacon of light to those visitors who are navigating difficult circumstances in life.
Through the work of the Lantern Initiative, the Cathedral has been working with a group of women who have been through the criminal justice system. As a result of their past, their collective experiences have been impacted by being judged by others, by being denied access to certain opportunities and they carry a deep-rooted sense of not belonging. The trauma and abuse these women have been exposed to throughout their lives unsurprisingly means they value ‘feeling safe’ and are highly attuned to their environment. Their sense of the Cathedral as a place of sanctuary – where they are affirmed simply for who they are – has resulted in two exciting projects which the women are leading on.
We are still learning how to do this – one of the women recently expressed a desire to become a Cathedral Volunteer ‘Welcomer’. Our safeguarding policies relating to recruitment necessitate checks and risk assessments that require disclosing some information about the individual’s past. This was painful to put down on paper by the individual concerned and had the effect of triggering painful memories for them, despite our best efforts to do this ‘sensitively’. Reflecting on this afterwards has resulted in the individual offering to help us to re-design what we do, and how we do it, and better enables us to work in ways that are trauma-informed. This way of working can be messy and time-consuming but when we work with (as opposed to for) people, something new is co-created that both parties own and are invested in.
Radical welcome disrupts and stretches but we know that unless we are willing to embrace this discomfort, people will shake the dust from their feet and search for hospitality elsewhere.