What's Your Hospitality Challenge?

Welcome the Stranger, part 3

We are not such a diverse lot ethnically, or in terms of socio-economic class. Yes, we do have members from various ethnicities and economic classes, but not in numbers proportionate to the general population. Nor are the political opinions among us reflective of the general population. Even theologically, people with conservative forms of their religion are probably going to be more comfortable somewhere else.

We say everyone is welcome in our congregation. And we do mean it. At the same time, the people likely to make us uncomfortable themselves feel uncomfortable and don’t come, or don’t come back. We don’t say anyone is unwelcome, yet we can pretty much count on it that the people who stay will be basically like us. And, of course, I understand how good it feels to be among my people, to be with the people who think like me, people among whom I can relax and be myself, and don’t have to be afraid I’ll say the wrong thing.

At the same time, we are called to connect with people who are very other.

When hospitality was our theme three years ago, the issue of On the Journey back then included a list of some example of cases that have in recent years challenged the inclusivity of some Unitarian Universalist congregations. Three years later, it’s worth remembering and reflecting on that list. How welcoming would you be – how welcoming would we be to each of these? Each of these (with the possible exception of the one particularly contemporary example, which I haven't heard about actually occurring at a UU congregation) has at some point in the past for some Unitarian Universalist congregation been a stranger difficult to welcome. Some of them I think we can honestly say are not difficult for us, here and now, to welcome. Others, maybe, remain a bit difficult for us. Consider:
  • A young woman with an infant in her arms who, when the baby starts to whimper during the service, begins breastfeeding;
  • A Native American with long dark hair and tribal dress;
  • A man from a Pentecostal background who waves his hands in the air during the singing of every hymn;
  • A beautifully bedecked woman in a flowered print dress, with matching high heels and purse. She is 6-foot-four, and clearly transgender;
  • A person whose gender cannot be determined, whose nametag displays a unisex name (like “Pat,” “Alex,” “Jamie,” “Riley,” . . . or “Meredith”) and who prefers to be referred to with pronouns “ze,” and “zir”;
  • A person who speaks out of turn and can’t follow the hymns. He seems to be mentally ill;
  • A well-dressed opposite-sex couple: the man has an American flag in the lapel of his suit, and they have their Bibles with them;
  • A homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week – and whose clothes have evidently been worn daily without being laundered for longer than that;
  • A couple whose smiles reveal that neither of them have enjoyed the benefits of a lifetime of reasonable dental care;
  • A woman with a guide dog;
  • A man who mentions during the social hour that he has just been released from prison – where he was serving time on a conviction for child pornography;
  • A person who, during the social hour, mentions the color of people’s auras;
  • A service man back from Afghanistan, in uniform;
  • A 21-year-old who just graduated from a West coast college and has moved here to find his first job. He knows no one in town, and he is African American;
  • A woman, skin-tone consistent with being middle-eastern, wearing head covering we recognize as the Muslim Hijab;
  • A couple wearing large “Make America Great Again” buttons;
  • A group of Latino youth who speak among themselves in Spanish;
  • A forty-year old man who comes in holding hands with a woman – and his other hand is holding hands with another woman.
Which ones are “no problem” for us – and which ones might be challenging? I’m asking that question at two levels: Which ones might you personally struggle to extend the most gracious hospitality toward? And second, knowing this congregation as you do, which characterizations on that list would some members of the congregation find it difficult to make feel welcome?

Also: which ones are “no problem” only as long as there are only a few of them, or irregularly attending? One or two cases like these each week, is one thing. But what if there were a lot, and they were here week after week after week? What if half the people here on Sunday morning fit one or more of those descriptions I listed? What if that continued to be true for a couple years, with no apparent end in sight? This place wouldn’t be your comfortable club of like-minded friends anymore. What then? Would you then become the one who, not comfortable, stopped coming?

Or would you delight in this challenge to expand your circle of “us”?

All great literature, said Leo Tolstoy, “is one of two stories: Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town." What happens when a stranger comes to our congregation town? Are we prepared to learn what would feel welcoming to them? Are we prepared to then extend that hospitality? We lit our chalice this morning with words of Bill Schulz:
"It is the mission of our faith to teach the fragile art of hospitality."
May it be so.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Welcome the Stranger"
See also Part 1: You Were Strangers
Part 2: Defined, Yet Porous

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