I walked through the family room, on my way from one task to the other, when the words of a guest on a television news program caught my ear and made me stop. In his discussion of the Covid vaccine distribution, Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said that our country needed “simplicity of eligibility.” His comment made sense to me given the confusion from state to state about who is eligible to get the vaccine currently. In some states, teachers are eligible to receive the vaccine no matter their ages or underlying conditions while not in other states. I agree with the expert regarding the need for simplifying vaccine eligibility and access, but for me, there was a broader truth to his statement.
Eligibility means “having the necessary qualities or satisfying the necessary conditions.” (dictionary.cambridge.org). If we have the right qualities, we can get something, we can be part of the group, we can belong. But oftentimes in our society, real or perceived barriers to entry that have nothing to do with actual qualifications prohibit our belonging. Recently, my teenage daughter entered a situation in which she didn’t know anyone. She said she had a tough time finding a group with which to engage because they had their cliques already. It’s a familiar and painful plight. We shut people out, we shut them down, and we make them feel excluded by our words, our behavior, and our attitudes. Perhaps we act from our own set of fears and insecurities, so we cling to the known and erect walls to keep out the unknown. But the resulting shame and exclusion hurt others just the same. We feel good because we belong and don’t give enough consideration to those people on the outside.
Our faith communities are especially capable of making people feel left out. When my mother was a little girl, she and her sister tried to go to a church one Sunday, but they were turned away because they had on pants instead of church dresses. They were poor and did not attend church, so they didn’t have Sunday dresses and didn’t know they needed them. This may sound ridiculous today, but we still see plenty of ways to block the entrances for people. In fact, many folks will never even attempt to enter because they already feel they are not eligible: they don’t know anything about church or religion; they’ve been rejected by religious institutions or people before; they’ve heard they are sinners and think they are not eligible as a result; they hear harsh rhetoric from religious people and it scares them. The list of ways those on the inside of the church walls make others feel unwelcome goes on and on.
We make eligibility complicated and seemingly impossible when truly eligibility is simple: be a human. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28). Sounds to me like an invitation to everyone. Not every church will fit every person. But each of us gets to decide where we want to belong, where we want to pursue God’s teachings and love, where we want to be in community with other people who believe similarly. That’s a personal decision – not a decision that a church should make about a person before they even darken the church’s doorstep.
Let us be mindful of the ways we purposely or inadvertently communicate to others that they are not eligible to be in our communities, in particular in faith settings. Let us follow Jesus and make sure that others feel a “simplicity of eligibility.”