Once upon a time, I was the director of music ministry in a very large parish in northern New Jersey. The parish choir numbered in excess of 30 voices, and they were a very good group of singers. But like most groups, they were not without problems and a couple of difficult personalities. Anytime a new soprano would join, one of the male singers always joked about how the other sopranos would be “sharpening their elbows.” He said it in jest, but it wasn’t too far from the truth. But it was a bass who caused an incident that I shall never forget. 

Like so many choirs, our numbers were always thin in the tenor section. So, imagine my delight when a new parishioner, “Tim the Tenor,” came to me and asked about joining the choir. He was a good singer, he read music, and was very enthusiastic about becoming a part of the parish music ministry. What could go wrong with this scenario? I was about to learn — plenty! I invited “Tim” to the next rehearsal, and the Sunday morning before that rehearsal I told the choir about our newest member. I reminded them that we should welcome him and make him feel at home. 

The following Wednesday evening, Tim showed up at what was to be his first — and last — rehearsal. Tim was a slight man in his late 40s or early 50s; like many men of that age, he was balding. I introduced Tim to the group and everyone greeted him warmly with words of welcome — everyone except for “Bill, the Crabby Bass.” When the “hellos” had faded away, Bill said loud enough for everyone to hear, “I thought all tenors had hair!” After an audible gasp, there was dead silence. 

Bill went home to God several years ago, so I’m told. As for Tim the Tenor, I never saw him again. I never saw him at choir and I never saw him in the parish. I called him several times and left messages of apology, but he never responded. I can’t say I blame him. He may not remember exactly what was said at that choir rehearsal and he probably doesn’t even know who said it. But I guarantee the one thing he does remember is how he felt that evening, and how he was “welcomed” to the parish choir. 

I recently had an experience that gave me insight into some of the difficulties people face when returning to church after being away for a long time. I had a conversation with an acquaintance, Katie, the other day. She’s a cradle Catholic, received all her Sacraments in her local parish and she still lives in that same town. She told me she wants to return to church and became very animated when describing her feelings when attending a wedding or funeral Mass. In short, she’s uncomfortable. She’s been away from the church for a number of years and there have been changes. While the recent changes to the liturgy happened years ago, they are still brand new to her. She doesn’t know the responses, and when she responds incorrectly, people give her “dirty looks.” But wait, there’s more! Because she would like to return to the parish in which she grew up, she fears that she’ll be judged by people who know her. She’s pretty well known in her town and she’s afraid that there will be prying questions about why she’s not been to Mass or comments like, “I didn’t know you were Catholic.” 

It’s no secret that many  parishes throughout our country are struggling with declining attendance at Mass. One study suggests that a primary reason for people leaving their parish is that they just don’t feel welcome. There’s a takeaway here. We only get one chance at first impressions. How we treat people, how we welcome people to our parish family matters. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a new parishioner, someone who’s been away from church for many years, or even someone who’s only now returning to church after the COVID pandemic. If and how we recognize the face of Christ in every person we meet will determine how that person perceives us as disciples of the Lord. A simple smile, a nod, and a “welcome to our parish family” doesn’t require much effort but it can make a world of difference to a newcomer or someone who’s been away from church for a long time. The truth is, there are no strangers in our midst because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Our Christian witness is reflected in how we treat one another and how we welcome the stranger. 

Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). That, my friends, is the Good News.

Anchor columnist Ada Simpson is former editor of Ministry and Liturgy magazine, holds an M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, and is the director of Music Ministry at St. Francis and St. Dominic parishes in Swansea.