Today’s question comes from Stevie, who wrote: “Yesterday I attended Sunday morning services in a UCC in Kalispell, Montana. I always wait for the touching sentence, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I love that. I got to thinking as I sat there. Pastor Craig, it is said so sincerely and warmly. What do you do if that is not honored in your church community? Does it ever happen, and if so, how do you handle it?”
I wish I could say that as the spiritual leader of Progressive Christian communities, I have never experienced a time when those in the community I have served were NOT hospitable. Sadly, that’s not the case – for it doesn’t matter what label one attaches to one’s community, the community is still comprised of human beings who each come with their own set of biases and prejudices. Myself included!
So what do I do when I encounter inhospitable behaviors?
There are a couple things I try to do in such instances. The most important way I believe I can respond is by modeling the behavior I would like the community to exhibit. It’s fairly common, for instance, in the Fellowship Hour following our weekly worship service to see some individuals standing off to the side without anyone from our community talking to them. Sometimes the individual standing off to the side is doing so because she or he is shy; sometimes the individual is isolated because her or his behavior is different because of a mental health issue of issue of social development. Whenever I see that happen, I try to engage the individual and bring them into the group. This first method – leading by example – is the easiest (and quickest) way to respond to expressions of inhospitality.
The second thing I do is much harder and takes much more time. It has to do with finding teachable moments to help individuals better understand the ways in which they are not being hospitable.
So what do I mean by teachable moments?
Teachable moments are those moments that occur somewhat spontaneously that provide a context for individuals to reflect on their past behavior and consider better possible responses for the future.
So why do I like to use teachable moments more than other teaching methods?
I’ve noticed over the years – both in my time spent teaching in the classroom and preaching from the pulpit – that if you try to take on the issue of hospitality on a theoretical level, oftentimes the worst offenders will tune out the lesson because they assume you are talking to/talking about someone else. If you pick a particular moment – and then help them see themselves in that moment – they are more likely to reflect on their own behavior and change it.
Let me give you an example.
When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, FL in 2012, there were lots of spiritual leaders who talked about the evils of systemic racism and railed against injustice at the macro level.
I chose a different tactic. In the conversations that followed, I tried to use the event itself as a jumping off point to spurn a series of teachable moments.
I started by saying, “You know the events of the evening started going downhill when one person looked at another person and made a set of assumptions about him because of his age, his clothing, and the color of his skin. Once we start heading down that path of assumptions, things can get out of control fast. I wish I could say the only place where people make assumptions about others was Sanford, FL – but I can’t. For my African-American male friends from Spokane, WA; Denver, CO; and Los Angeles, CA regularly tell me about the many times they are walking down the street and see a person suddenly hold on to their pursue tighter or cross over to the other side of the street when they make eye contact with the person. Those same friends have also talked about the times they have gone through the checkout aisle at a store and have been asked to produce their driver’s license (or some other form of ID) when writing a check while the person in front of them (who belonged to a different racial/ethnic or age group) was NOT asked for their ID.”
When I share expressions of racism like that, I’ve found people are much more apt to reflect on their own behavior and see if they themselves have done anything like that. They are open because they weren’t initially “expecting” me to go there. They let their defenses down because they assumed we were going to only be talking about how different people in different places were guilty of bias. Before they knew it – in that spontaneous “teachable moment” – they were reflecting on themselves.
Those are the two strategies I most regularly use to help people reflect on their inhospitable behaviors and help them grow.
So what about you? What strategies do you use to help others grow in their capacity for being welcoming?