“The heart of [being a people of welcome] is about creating space for someone to feel seen and heard and loved. It’s about declaring your table a safe zone, a place of warmth and nourishment.” Author and blogger, Shauna Niequist
“[Being a people of welcome] is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person.” Best-selling poet and essayist, Kathleen Norris
“[Welcoming people do] not try to impress, but [they try] to serve.” Author, Karen Burton Mains
[Being a people of welcome means] invit[ing] strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.” Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, Henri Nouwen
[Welcoming people don’t] have to be perfect, just heartfelt.” Counselor, Susan Karas
People of welcome offer not wisdom, but love.
[A people of welcome offer] the exceptional blend of love, humility, hospitality, and persistence [that] can overcome …barriers…” Christian Apologist, Nabeel Qureshi
[And finally, as people of welcome we remember that:] “The places in which we are seen and heard are holy places. They remind us of our value as human beings.” Author and Integrative Medicine Professor, Rachel Naomi Remen
So what does it mean to be a people of welcome? For us here at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church to be a people of welcome? Well, first I encourage you to read the newsletter this month, Mary Law, our Congregational Life Director, Steve Cooper, our Director of Religious Education and I have offered some ideas about the practical aspects of being welcoming. Effective ways to engage a visitor to our congregation, strategies to help them feel at ease in this unique faith of shared values, but different beliefs, and tips about how to connect them with the various affinity groups here—from the humanist group to the pagan group, as well as the chalice circles and covenant groups. You might think that how you engage with a visitor doesn’t make much of a difference in the long run, but it does. A few weeks ago Martha was telling a new church friend where she goes to church, and the person replied, “Oh, I visited that church years ago—I remember they actually talked to me!” So yes, you do make a difference. These kinds of positive interactions are part of being a people of welcome. The quotes that I shared today all speak of welcome, but I think there‘s more to it than being friendly to strangers on a Sunday morning, something that pulls all those quotes together. And just the other day I found it.
As background to how I found what I was looking for I want to tell you that I am going to Washington, D.C. to take a course offered by the American Humanist Association called The Humanist Lifestance. I will be in class from 9 AM to 5 PM for a couple days with two leaders from the Ethical Society and take a field trip to the Hall of Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. In preparation for this course, I have to read about 5 books, 8 or so articles, and write four papers. It seems very much like a college course. It is in one of those books, The End of God-Talk: An African American Humanist Theology by Anthony B. Pinn, that I found what I was looking for.
Just to make sure we are on the same page this morning, I offer this definition of humanism. Humanism is living in the here and now, focusing our lives on making ourselves and our world the best we are able in the time we have been allotted to live on this planet. Pinn would add that humanism includes a “quest for complex subjectivity…[and] a push for greater life meaning.” I really have no problem adding that to the definition we will use for humanism today. Pinn describes theology as a “method for critically engaging, articulating, and discussing the existential—[what it is to be an acting, feeling, living human individual]-- and the ontological – [the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality—in other words, theology is engaging the] issues that are part of every human life.” Then he begins a theological exploration of the history of the African American religious experience. He delves into two different types of humanism, and these are his terms: weak humanism and nontheistic humanism. I don’t particularly like the term weak humanism or weak humanist, probably because I am one. Weak humanism allows for the possibility of a belief in a divine or god while at the same time living according to humanistic values. He rejects transcendence and supernaturalism, while exploring how humanism can embrace a sense of awe and wonder in the everyday experiences of life, and he describes how ritual and celebration can enhance those mundane experiences. Pinn experiences awe and wonder in the world and explains this by explicating the works of theologian Howard Thurman, author Alice Walker (she wrote The Color Purple), and Transcendentalist and Unitarian Henry David Thoreau; he also finds inspiration in the lives of Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglas. One of his ideas is to consider place, spelled p (l)ace, as both a physical space and a place in time. The physical space is embedded in time place embodying complex subjectivity—thus the world embodies complex subjectivity and how we experience and make meaning of it cannot be a simple process. I will probably expand on all that in a later sermon.
So what does all this have to do with being a people of welcome? Pinn writes: “Non theistic humanistic theology wants to avoid any tendency to essentialize community, while still retaining a sense that [community] means something akin to the substance of the uncertain, a misty recognition of ‘and’.” What he is getting at here is the idea that we cannot make a community be what we want it to be. A successful sense of community comes from embracing the “uncertain…misty recognition of ‘and’”. I need to unpack this a little. He feels that many Christian communities--or really any community-- that tries to enforce like-mindedness is counterproductive. Pinn believes that people really shouldn’t be molded or shaped or even nudged to think a certain way. He encourages us to embrace the idea of community that is enriched by the diversity of thought that is created when people think for themselves. He believes there is value in being in that kind of community, but also that we should still avoid any sense of needing to be part of a community in order to have a fulfilling life. We join a community because we are enriched by it, we grow from being in it, even as we have an awareness that community is not perfect and never will be. Being part of a community lays “bare the limits and importance of the empty spaces in its geography…[and] exposes [us to] what is and what is not [in our lives and in our world].” In this type of community we live in the tension of what we label as community and the feeling that there is something absent, some need/want not being fully met by the community. Thus in a community, we learn how complex our lives and our world are and that is a good thing, an important function of the community. Pinn writes that community “does not override the ability to achieve personal ends [but provides an opportunity for] collective vision, loyalty, and recognition.” For him community is a p(l)ace both physical and spiritual.
Our Unitarian Universalist third Principle states that we affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth within our congregations. Our Principles are not doctrine. I agree with this Principle and try to live it in my life because it makes sense to me, and it’s congruent with my values, not because it is doctrinal to our faith. Members of any Unitarian Universalist church do not have to be in agreement with any of the Principles to be a Unitarian Universalist. Here is the truth, the Principles are descriptors. They were created to describe the values of the people who generally come to and remain members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation. They were created to describe Unitarian Universalism to people who are not Unitarian Universalists. The minute they become a litmus test for being a Unitarian Universalist or a member of this church, we are on a path to both essentializing this community and forcing this community to become like-minded—in other words trying to get people to accept that there is one and only one right way to think or believe and they must understand that in order to be welcome.
So what is it to be a people of welcome? Being a people of welcome means that we’re not here because we have to be. We’re here because we want to be. And we understand that the people who visit us do so not because it’s Sunday morning so they have to find a church to be in; they’re here because they want to be. As people of welcome we affirm the importance of an uncertain ‘and’, understanding that uncertainty that is intrinsic to a diversity of belief and thought. We are aware that embracing this uncertainty allows anyone who joins us to know they can belong to this community. Being a people of welcome means we realize that we will be enriched by anyone who joins us. As people of welcome we are imperfect and our community is imperfect and that is the way of life. We are a people of welcome when we understand the complexity of our lives and our world, while understanding that anyone who joins us is just as complex as we are and they have the capacity to help us understand more about the complexity of life. As people of welcome we need to hold our Principles loosely—understanding that they describe the values of many, but not all of us, and that we use them to help others understand what many of us as Unitarian Universalists value. And as people of welcome, we do not try to mold, shape or nudge each other, or anyone who visits us, into a particular way of thinking or believing.
In Kreves Hall there is a sign that says Welcome at the top. Welcome to anyone who is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Ally, black, white, Hispanic, latino/a, Asian, biracial, multiracial, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Interfaith, Pagan, elder, adult, young adult, teen, child, infant, native born, immigrant, humanist, atheist, agnostic, theist, conservative, liberal, single, partnered, special needs, a visitor to our church, and each of YOU! But this is an incomplete list. After the service I invite you to add more descriptors to the list. After you write those descriptors of others you feel should be welcome here, think about how we can make it so and share your ideas. This is another way we can be a People of Welcome.