Monday, November 28, 2011

How Large Is The Circle

Yesterday after a couple of moving services at church I received an e-mail from a congregant.  He'd brought a friend with him and something had happened during the service that had made his friend feel unwelcome and had embarrassed him.  The issue was something that was said during the welcome:
"We are an intentionally inclusive congregation and we welcome everyone to our church regardless of age, race, sexual orientation, gender expression, theological perspective, and even political party. The circle is large."
The problem wasn't with the words themselves, to be honest.  It was the fact that after the words ". . . and even political party," people laughed.  It happened at both services.  And it has been happening, at both services, each week, since this language was introduced nearly a month ago.
I understand that for some it's an example of "nervous laughter."  There are things that we Unitarian Universalist have generally made an unspoken agreement not to talk about in our sanctuaries -- theological perspective and political affiliation are two of the biggies.  So to hear both of these things named in the same breath, well, there was bound to be a nervous giggle or two.
And, too, most Unitarian Universalists self-identify as liberal/progressive folks and it's taken almost for granted that most also self-identify as Democrats, politically.  There is, again, a largely unspoken assumption that Democrats are liberal and Republicans are conservative and, so, why would a Republican even want to come to a Unitarian Universalist church?  And, so, a chuckle at this seeming incongruity.
And yet . . .
And yet there are people who are liberal theologically, or socially, yet are conservative fiscally.  (For instance.)  There are people who, for any number of reasons, vote Republican and align with the majority of Unitarian Universalist in all sorts of ways.  Many of these people are Unitarian Universalists; some of them are members of our congregation.  And these people hear the laughter that follows our statement of inclusion and wonder if this church really is open to including them.
And then there are other folks who have family or friends with a different political perspective than their own who bring these people to church and they, too, feel the sting of that laughter.  It's like we put out our hand in welcome and then pull that hand away just before the other person can grasp it.  And then we laugh at our clever joke.  It's humiliating -- for that other person, certainly, but it should be for us, too.
Now I want to be clear, I'm not trying to slap our collective hands, here.  I wrote those particular words and was virtually certain that they would elicit some laughter.  I expected it the first week; I even anticipated that there'd still be a reaction the second week.  By now, though, these words have become a mirror, one that it may be uncomfortable to look into.
I have used words like this at some point in every congregation I've served.  (Although, to be honest, the specific challenging category has been different in each one.)  One of my jobs, as a pastor, and one of our jobs, as a faith community, is "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable."  It is really pretty easy for us to affirm that "[our] circle is large."  It is harder, though, to keep reminding ourselves that it is not yet all-inclusive, nor even as inclusive as we'd wish it would be (if we're being honest).
There is always work to be done.  As inclusive as this community is -- as truly warm and welcoming as it is -- there are just so many people who have been marginalized, who have come to expect marginalization, who anticipate being unwelcome.  There is so much brokeness, and pain, and fear out there.  And "church" can be a really touchy place for people.  As I've mentioned in earlier posts, being truly welcoming involves a whole lot more than merely allowing people to come in the doors.  It means that we -- the ones doing the welcoming -- must be willing to change, to be changed.  Not an easy thing.
So I'm going to work on tweaking the language of our welcome to soften the "trigger" that elicits the laughter.  And I will continue to search for ways to challenge each of us -- and I certainly include myself in that -- to live more fully into being who we know we can be.

In Gassho,

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Lori said...

Ongoing issue in our fellowship as well, that those more conservative (fiscally, politically, etc.) feel on the fringe. I appreciate your words on the topic.

David said...

The assumptions that hurt the most to me are the ones that never get questioned--even by nervous laughter. Gotta start somewhere, though, I suppose....