Welcoming the Stranger
(I'm not sure what "cockles" are, but they are indeed very warm.)
Over the past couple of days I've perused some of the on-line materials in conjunction with these workshops and have been gratified to see that they appear to be grounded in a true ethic of hospitality and in spiritual understanding. Despite the fact that our HQ keeps churning out promotional gimmicks like, "The UnCommon Denomination," it seems that folks on the ground (and some at HQ) are simultaneously concerned not with the gimmickry of hospitality, but with the heart and soul of it.
Last weekend I attended a UCC church and was enthusiastically greeted by some folks and heartily ignored by a few. The people who greeted me were all women d'un certain age (French for "old") and all seemed to be bright-eyed recruitment types. When the pastor, an old friend, put her arm around me and said, "She's a Unitarian minister," one disappointed elderly gal responded, "She can be a Unitarian minister if she wants."
I so wanted to say, "Why thank you," but of course that would have been ungracious.
Another awkward moment came when a woman asked me point blank, "Where do you work?" This wasn't in the context of ministry -- she had never laid her eyes on me and hadn't been standing near when my friend the pastor identified me, but she knew my companion and where he worked, so apparently felt that "Where do YOU work" was an appropriate first phrase to level at me, before even "How nice to meet you" or "What brings you here?"
First impressions do matter. Training our people to ask caring, open-ended questions is important. Training ushers to welcome people, find them a seat, and to help them open the pews (in my church, they can be confusing) are small, crucial details. Reminding the congregation again and again that souls are at stake in the way we encounter our guests is worth doing, as is providing them examples of appropriate questions to ask people, and gently correcting each other when we fall into overbearing recruitment or Rush Week mode.
Remember Rush Week? I endured it as an undergraduate at Northwestern University and loathed every bloody second of it. It was a humiliating round of vapid conversations with sorority girls who sized you up, determined whether or not you were One Of Them (never mind whether or not you felt they were worthy of having you!), and if they liked you, bestowed upon you the dubious honor of being a Pledge.
I believe it's just as distasteful to crow to someone one has just met, "Oh, you're a UU and don't know it!" as it is to throw your arms around a college freshman's neck and say, "I just KNOW we're fated to be Tri-Delt sisters forever!" Based on what? Appearances? Mutual comfort and ego-stroking? Chummy feelings? Race, class, educational background, upbringing, privilege of all kinds?
It is the Holy Spirit/Spirit of Life and none other that brings seekers to our doors or into conversation with us in the supermarket, on the bus or at the dinner party. We must respect that and bring our most open, respectful and reverent selves to these encounters. We are not growing social clubs here. We are being gathered together as a family of faith by a Mystery beyond all of us. In those liminal moments when this is possible, we must rise to the occasion at a much higher level than just easy affinity.
It is true that many people find liberal religious communities after a long, painful search across a spiritual desert of misunderstanding and alienation. It is therefore tempting to greet them with self-congratulatory, smug crowing and assurances that they are safe at last from the Bad Guys. To do this, however, is a degradation of the art of hospitality, not to mention an egregious expression of hypocrisy against our claims to affirm the "worth and dignity of all people" and to be a religion of tolerance and compassion.
I believe that one of our chief improvements as a denomination may come when we learn together to forego the tempation to make clubby, superior claims about ourselves -- claims that heard by an outside ear are downright offensive, exclusionary, and ignorant -- and grow into our vocation to be the mature and authentically open people we claim to be.
How do you welcome the stranger?
How do you evangelize as a religious liberal?