A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were in Portland for the baptism of our youngest grandson, Cooper. In fact, it was my privilege to perform the baptism — a great honor and a great joy. Talk about amazing grace!
Our grandson Ben and his moms were also with us for the weekend. Ben is a busy and active 12 year old. He plays soccer and basketball, plays trumpet in the school band and often at church, and thankfully, still seems to enjoy spending time with his grandparents. I guess we are not too boring … yet! But he also loves playing Pokémon.
While in Oregon, he had to spend a lot of time with adults; not particularly exciting, but he was a good sport. As a thank you, his mom found a card store in Portland that hosted Saturday evening Pokémon games. When asked if he was interested, he quickly answered, “Yes!” And so we were off to downtown Portland and Pokémon. Being the ever-cautious grandpa, I went in with Ben just to check things out. There were a number of tables, each with people earnestly playing the game. A wide range of ages was represented, although the crowd was overwhelmingly male. Ben had his cards, so without hesitation he went to an empty table and sat down. Almost immediately a young man sat opposite him, they shook hands, and the game was on. It was quickly clear that this was a safe place. The guys had come to play. The atmosphere was intense, but friendly. Players introduced themselves to each other and after games, often congratulated each other on playing a good game.
As you can tell, that experience has stayed with me. First of all, when I was 12, I would never have done what Ben did. To be in a new city far from home, walk into a large room filled with strangers, and then engage those strangers in a card game for a couple of hours … I was much too timid. But, again, he walked right in and sat down. Game on!
But what also stands out in my memory is the feeling — the atmosphere — in that room. I am quite sure most of the people did not know each other: different ages, different backgrounds, some in school, some with 9 to 5 jobs. It didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was coming together and sharing in the game. Diverse people gathered together, for an evening, around a common interest … for many, a shared passion. Now I don’t want to take this too far, but standing there watching these people, again most of whom were strangers to each other, sharing together their love of the game, I felt as if I had stumbled into a community. No cell phones, no computer screens, but people actually engaging with each other across a table, making eye contact, even talking. Imagine that! This was a place where there was room — room to welcome others and be welcomed by others.
Ben will probably never again see any of the people he engaged with that evening. The community pretty much dissolved when everyone left and went home. But it will form again next week. And I find that very hopeful. All around us, we see how exclusion, hatred and fear can shrink our world and our hearts. But hospitality, acceptance and welcome enlarge them. The message I received loud and clear that night in Portland was this: “Welcome. We are glad you are here. There is room for you at the table.” Interestingly, some guy named Jesus of Nazareth used to say much the same thing! What an increasingly rare, but precious and necessary gift, such a message is.
The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.