by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff
August is a time when many people do “church shopping." Those of us who have already found our spiritual home have a responsibility to clean ourselves up and be good hosts to those who may be visiting us for the first time.
We have gotten much better as faith communities about greeting our guests on Sunday mornings. We are more intentional about our efforts to notice when we have visitors to our worship services. We try to reach out in a warm and welcoming way; to treat others as we would want to be treated. These are good and important efforts. How could we be better?
I’m not convinced that we are being as generous with welcoming the whole person in all of their complexities as we can be. It is not just one thing that makes us who we are. I am not me simply because I grew up in the Midwest or lived in New York state for 27 years or any of the many other parts of my background. I have been formed by the many pieces of my culture and there are many pieces to my identity.
You cannot see by looking at me whether I have a disability. If I do, I will be wondering if I will be welcomed when I visit a congregation. You do not know if I am a person who grew up in a family that spoke a language other than English at home. You do not know what my spiritual practices are or how I prefer to worship. If I am not of the generation of most of the people I meet, I will notice when you treat me differently than you treat others. Even if your intention is to treat me better, I may just see you treating me differently. This happens with our youth all the time.
We make many assumptions about people in the first couple of seconds that we encounter them. If we were truly generous and welcoming to others we would let our curiosity and not our assumptions lead us. We have to know our own culture in order to be welcoming to those who are not like us.
When I was growing up in Springfield, Ohio in the 60’s and 70’s, it was normal to seat 35 people or so at our family gatherings. When one of us got serious about someone we were dating, we would be asked “ When to we get to meet him?” or if that meeting was soon to happen, “Have you warned her about us yet?” You see, we had enough knowledge about ourselves as a family that we knew an encounter with us could be overwhelming. We were loud laughers, big huggers, boisterous singers that sang at every gathering. We talked over one another, interrupted, gave our opinions freely and there seemed to be an expectation that you should be able to keep up.
Having said all that, it was not just the extroverts that felt welcomed by us, some quiet introverts also found a family that accepted them just the way they were. Because we knew our own culture, we were able to understand that not everyone would be able to or want to “keep up.” We found ways to get to know the partners of our loved ones. We made room for them. We made room not just at the dinner table. We might invite them into the kitchen to help with the preparations. We would find a quiet moment to ask for thoughts about the planning of the next event. We asked what their experiences were and how that informed how they felt about things. We showed them that they mattered and that we were willing to try things differently if it was important to them. We were far from perfect but we made sure that conversion to “the way we do things” was not the goal. Integrating them, changing some things so that their needs were met too was important to us. We stayed true to who we were while adapting to who they were.
In our congregations we need to know who we are so that we can stay true to ourselves, not because we are most important---just the opposite. We need to know who we are, so that we can move aside and put others at the center. We need to make room for their leadership and be willing to find a place on the sidelines. That is the generous way. We need to move from treating others the way we would treat ourselves to the platinum rule of “treat others the way they want to be treated."