Sunday, July 23, 2006

Know Thy Greeters

PeaceBang goes to church, part deux.

I drove into the city today to drop off L'il Flava for her rehearsal at the Paulist Center and had an hour to decide where to attend services myself. After having coffee and a bagel, I stood for awhile in front of the Park Street Church, which identifies as conservative Congregationalist.
I decided I wouldn't go there, having seen that the sermon topic was something about the Church Fathers. YAWN.
But not only that, I realized that I felt a little fragile this morning, and that I wanted to be sure to go somewhere where the Christian message being offered would not offend my soul. Sometimes I like to worship with conservative churches because I feel I need to know what they're saying and what kind of spirit they're raising. Today was not one of those days. I didn't feel like a confident minister and student of religion.
I felt like a slightly tired, spiritually hungry seeker who just wanted church.
My decision not to go to Park Street reminded me how much of a risk it really is to walk through the doors of any church for the first time. I was doubly glad that almost every Sunday in my own congregation, I greet our guests from the pulpit by expressing just that sentiment, and thanking them for taking that risk.

Next, I walked across the street to the big Tremont Street Baptist Church and asked a man outside if it was an American Baptist congregation. He said that it was. I went inside and saw that I was the only white person around. A woman at a desk in the foyer asked me, "May I help you?" I figured, it's 10:45 on a Sunday morning, what do you think I came here for? Her question caused about thirty heads to swivel my way, so I lost my nerve and walked out after bidding the woman a good day and kind of waving a pathetic little wave at everyone who was staring at me.

Another learning: I realized that I didn't have the energy or courage to be the only white woman in the place this morning, that I didn't like being asked "may I help you?" in a church, and that I didn't like being stared at. Funny, because there's a bit sign outside the church that says "First Integrated Congregation in America." I will certainly take some of those lessons back to my own church. What's it like to be one of the only brown faces in my own congregation? Do we ever stare like that? Do people ever show up at the door come Sabbath day to be asked, "May I help you?" All worthy questions.

Finally, I walked over to one of our historic Boston churches, which is not just a worshiping community but a tourist site. It was the stroke of 11:00 and there was a sign in front of the church that said, "No Tourists: Worship Service In Progress." A large man, ostensibly the Church Bouncer, stepped in front of me and blocked the entrance. Perhaps assuming I couldn't read the sign, he growled, "Are you here for church?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact, I am," I said. I was dressed in a skirt and sweater; not your usual tourist get-up. The man was a bit non-plussed. "Oh, okay," he said and stepped aside.

"Listen," I said to him. "That's not really the nicest way to greet people for worship, blocking their entrance and interrogating them like that."

"Well, you try keeping 5,000 tourists out of here on Sunday mornings," he snarled at me.

"I understand that." I said. "But it would have been so much nicer if you had said good morning to me and asked me if I would be joining the congregation for worship."

The man practically spit at me. "Oh, okay. I'll work on that."
"You really should work on it, for real," I said as I walked in to worship with the community, ticked off in the extreme. NICE way to start the worship service. Very pleasant.

I had a lovely little chit-chat with several concerned members of that congregation after the service, and I'm sure Mr. Bouncer won't be occupying such a prominent place in the doorway come next Sunday morning. Turns out he's on the church staff and that he's not well known for his hospitality and people skills. There was a fair amount of hand-wringing about his treatment of me, and I'm sure the good stewards of that church will see to it it doesn't happen again. Which is to say, if something like that happens to you as a worshiper in any of our churches, please do let us know. We care, and we want to make it right.

This reminds me of a horrible story I heard from two women who came to my church for the first time last spring. They said that they visited one of our very historic UU congregations nearby and that when they introduced themselves as a couple, the greeter said, "People like you usually find that they prefer to attend church in the city."

Ministers and lay leaders, I recommend that we have a serious start-up every year with our membership committee, greeters and ushers. So much hurt and offense has been caused to sincere seekers from those first encounters. Even perfectly confident, sassy ministers have been hurt by them.


Blogger Caroline Divine said...

Outrageous. And at that particular church (I'll eat my straw hat, or at least chew on it, if it's not the one I think it is)even more so. Yeesh! So much for increasing membership, sharing the good news, or just plain welcoming the stranger.

Blogger Park Street Church said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Blogger Park Street Church said...

As the preacher of the yawner of a church fathers' sermon, thought I'd send what you missed. And please know you're welcome at our conservative stronghold any time.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Thanks, Park Street! I will be there this Sunday! ARE YOU AIR-CONDITIONED?


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