There is something I have stopped doing for myself but memory asked me to keep bringing an awareness of the experiences of a new person in a church or other faith based group. I was once an insider, and even then noticed how often it was seen as the task of the stranger to meet everyone. Even then it troubled me, especially in the times bridging that gap meant I heard a story of pain that made it hard for a new person to reach across that distance alone.
Many years later, I was the person seeking entry into a church community. The struggle I had seen from one side became my struggle as I met much of the same resistance to risk the new. I began sharing my stories, hoping that having shared both sides, these experiences would cause others to at least begin to consider the impact of how we act church on those who may be coming through our doors seeking.
Sadly, when the stories of seeking a church home are shared, most inside church people remind me of how fragile the people are in the church and what understanding the newcomer needs to have of the needs of the people included. Today, that may be truth. It is not unusual to talk to people who have gone to the same church for years without knowing others in the congregation.
Oh, there is often a core group who know each other through family relationships or shared activities outside of church. I have even been in churches where a circle was talking about preparations for a women’s activity and how each could be involved. It was a church I had attended for weeks, even helping with some of the music with the music director but hadn’t notice any women’s group in the bulletins.
Wanting to be involved with others. I stepped into the edge of the conversation and listened. As they were talking about how each could be involved, I offered an entry into the conversation by asking what I could do. They looked at me, told me I could buy a ticket and turned back to their conversation with those near me stepping forward into the circle to close me out.
I don’t believe their purpose was to be rude. Often, we are unaware of how our body language is read by those who are longing for the inclusion we have already at least tentatively found in a setting.
For me, at that stage of the journey, and with the reality that this was not my first effort to find a way to be a part with others, the slump of my shoulders would have spoken to those who might have observed.
This was not a place where I was going to receive a personal welcome. It was a denomination that in theory reaches beyond barriers set for many but in practice, at least in this setting, it was an ingrown group of family and friends who did not have room for those from outside.
What we say with word and body matter. That new person who walks through your door may need your words of welcome, your opening of a circle to allow them inside, your inclusion at a table or the act of moving over so they feel they can sit beside you.
The rest is up to them but it is time to stop asking the newcomer to make the first move in a fabric that has been sewn over time. Rebuffs hurt especially in a church which once had a reputation of welcome.
Wherever we are, may our hearts and eyes be opened to see those among us with the need of inclusion.