Welcoming the Stranger

I used to officiate at quite a few weddings. With a marriage, there are both losses and gains that come with the entry into this new phase of life. There’s the loss of single personhood and the primary identification with one’s family of origin. But there’s also the potential joy that comes with marrying into each other’s families and all the new relationships that are formed as a result. We tend to focus only on the positives, the gains, at a wedding ceremony. Yet I think it can be of value to acknowledge the losses involved in making a transition like this.

We know that there are blessings and losses with any change. And as a congregation, we know that we are not static. Our community is always in flux. We had a wonderful experience on Sunday with a contingent from UUFN (The UU Fellowship of Newark) joining us on Zoom. It really felt great to know that, between those in the sanctuary and those on Zoom, we had over 55 people attending. Most of us would love to have more folks joining us on Sunday morning. There are many benefits to a larger community. We could offer a wider variety of inspiring programs and activities, including religious education for our children and youth. With more people, we could accomplish more “church work”  both internally and in the larger world. We could build a stronger financial base with which to do this work.

But perhaps even more important to many of us is this: having found something of great spiritual and personal value for ourselves, we want to share it with others. If our faith were truly wonderful, why would we not want to encourage other free-thinking, liberally religious people to join us? As the late UU minister William Burnside Miller commented in his essay, Dangerous Myths, “In a sense, if we do not [invite others to join us], we are passing a terrible judgment on ourselves and the choices we have made.”

We say we would like to have more members, but I think we need to acknowledge that we have ambivalence about changing the makeup of our community – ambivalence that is quite natural. It has to do with losses. As with weddings, we often focus on the positives of growing and minimize what we might lose (or what we think we might lose) by growing. One thing that a lot of us find comfortable about our current community is that, after we have been around for a while, we know quite a few people in the congregation.

When we imagine walking into an all-congregation event, let’s say a summer picnic, would we rather find a group of people we already know, people with whom we can let down our guard and just be ourselves? Or a group, many unfamiliar to us, who we can only come to know over time through our efforts to reach out to them? Well, maybe it depends a little bit on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert! But the reality is, it’s human to feel more comfortable with what (and who) we know. And growth and change mean the loss of some measure of comfort and familiarity.

Miller believed that many UU churches do not really want to grow. After all, he says, if we have discovered “Truth” with a capital “T,” and we believe that only a small elite can possibly attain that goal, we’d want to be careful about just who we let in. Maybe our way can only appeal to a few people like us who are truly superior, he says.

Do we really believe that? I hope not, and I don’t think we do. But we do know that some small congregations operate more as if they are a club than a beloved community that welcomes the stranger into their midst.

I don’t believe we have an exclusive, “club” mentality; I have seen our newcomers being welcomed warmly by many of you. But I think we need to ask ourselves: Can we live with a little discomfort in order share our faith with newcomers? And can we stand the fact that of course new folks will bring their own ideas about how things might be done? That means more change! And more discomfort. In order to be truly welcoming to new people, we must accept that some discomfort is healthy and normal. And as with any change, there are both blessings and losses.

Publicity helps to attract newcomers. But, if we really want to see more new folks join us, in person or online, the most effective way to make that happen is for members to invite friends and acquaintances. We have scheduled a “Bring-a-Friend-Sunday” for April 23rd. So please consider inviting someone –or several “someones” – to attend. The topic will be Ralph Waldo Emerson as spiritual guide. But, of course, you don’t have to wait until April. Let us reach out to those around us, to those who need our spiritual message and who can help us become a stronger voice for liberal religion in central Delaware.