A Community of Intentional Welcome

It was a Unity church.

As always, I arrived early.

From my uncomfortable pew, I watched as a parade of locals entered some back room only to appear moments later carrying pillows.

There was no usher educating.  There was no greeter directing.  There was no sign pointing.  Clearly, these people knew something I didn’t.

The memorial service began.

I remember nothing of the service.  But I remember everything of the first presenter.  Now, I remember her not for the eloquence of her presentation.  I remember her not for the depth of her understanding.  I remember her not for the sweetness of her compassion.

Rather, I remember her for the impact of her introduction.  For she approached the microphone, scanned that smattering of pillow-poised parishioners and offered the following nine words, “Well, I guess everyone here knows who I am.”

Wow.  Yeah.

Having an arguable grasp of social etiquette, I resisted the temptation to raise my hand with the obvious question.  And glancing to my left, I deemed it equally inappropriate to direct the question into the elbow of the pillow-poised parishioner seated next to me.

So, I allowed the obvious question to go unasked.

And yet, the first presenter was wrong.  Everyone didn’t know who she was.  I didn’t know who she was.  And in that moment – as something of a rich climax to the pillow parade prelude – I knew exactly how it felt to be excluded.

And while it’s commonplace to equate exclusion with malice, there’s a far richer conversation to be had by us as community builders.  For those in attendance were not meanies.  Those in attendance were not snobs.  They were decent, well-meaning folk who clearly shared an authentic -even enviable - fondness for each other and for their church home.  So, my experience can’t be equated with the visible social taboos of classism, racism, sexism or ageism.  It wouldn’t be accurate, fair or helpful to describe mine as an experience of exclusion born of malice.

And therein lies the richness of the conversation.

For while we as community builders tend to equate exclusion with malice, exclusion finds even richer soil among decent, well-meaning folk who clearly share an authentic - even enviable - fondness for each other and for their church homes.

The logic goes something like this: Because I feel welcome, mine must be a community of welcome.  But it’s a logic as faulty as it is insidious and dangerous.

It’s faulty because it’s quite common for one to feel welcome within a culture that would exclude others.  (Remember the pillow parade.)

It’s insidious because many tactics perpetuating exclusion fall beneath the visibility threshold of social taboos worthy of some form of intervention.  Remember our first presenter.

And it’s dangerous because, as tactics perpetuating exclusion remain beneath the visibility threshold and go unchallenged, we eventually find ourselves talking about seemingly happy newcomers who, nonetheless, found themselves even happier elsewhere.

Welcome doesn’t occur naturally.

And while that statement usually strikes something of a counter-intuitive cord, I press further, asserting that welcome requires the humility to see those tactics perpetuating exclusion and the courage to challenge them with active practices of welcome.

Perhaps this is why the early Hebrew writers extended the dictate to welcome the stranger more times than any other – even the dictate to love your God.  They knew welcome was tough work.  They knew we humans need to be reminded, and reminded often and then reminded again, of the humility and courage required of us as community builders.

You see, the first presenter gave a rich gift on that Sunday afternoon.  For her nine words, “Well, I guess everyone here knows who I am,” inspired an initiative which is reflected weekly, if not daily, in our nine words, “Unity in Lynnwood is a community of intentional welcome.”

When I consult on this initiative – it’s principles and practices – I usually begin with some iteration of, “Every ministry has code words, unspoken rules, covert rituals and insider privileges.  And if you don’t agree with this statement, you’re likely a part of the problem.”

Even years later, our nine words are supported by conversations and decisions and actions which reflect and support the breadth of potential they represent.

For us, those conversations, decisions and actions take the form of a dogged commitment to a newcomer orientation in all matters.

All references to our history include context.

All references to our individuals include introductions.

All references to our rooms include directions.

All references to our jargon include explanations.

We avoid industry abbreviations, insider jokes and saved seats.

And, though it could go without saying, we never stash pillows.

And we never assume that everyone knows who we are!

Now, do our founders feel excluded by this initiative?  Not at all.  They’re among its proudest proponents.

So, look: People leave.  It happens.  Let us, as community builders, cultivate the integrity to support those who leave for the right reasons.  But let us, as community builders, cultivate the humility and the courage to support those who would stay, were it not for our unconscious and unexamined tactics of exclusion.