Welcoming people to our congregations isn't a duty; it's a way to encounter the mystery and wonder of life.
I want to suggest an approach to the ongoing question of how we welcome people into our communities that I call “the spiritual practice of hospitality.” Practicing hospitality is not something we can appoint people to do, nor is it a set of techniques or behaviors we “use” on new people. Rather, it is an individual work of intentional action, action that creates the quality of relationships in our churches that will nourish newcomers and longtime members alike.
Practicing hospitality expresses our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of each person. Through our actions of hospitality we move towards creating a world in which we are all treated with justice, equality, and compassion.
It is easy to imagine that the spiritual journey is about something other than our daily life. But in fact, the spiritual journey is our everyday life. How do we choose to meet and live each moment? We are always practicing something. Everything we do has some consequence to our spirit, and as the existentialists tell us, what we do repeatedly becomes who we are. When our actions spring from our deepest truth, we become more alive and aligned. When our actions are out of step with what is most true in our core, we are left feeling disconnected and diminished.
Feeling the lack of something essential, we begin to look outside ourselves for something to grab hold of. But most religious traditions teach that what we are seeking is right here. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Kabir writes, “He is the breath within the breath.” Zen Buddhists say that we are already enlightened. So, too, does the spiritual practice of hospitality suggest that what we are looking for—the mystery of aliveness—can be found as we encounter each other. Rather than pursuing paths that lead us away from this moment, we can use our practice of hospitality to encounter ourselves and our world in all their vividness and particularity: right here, right now, with this person in front of me.
In a true encounter with another human being, we come face to face with the mystery of life. In some way, every other person, no matter how well we know them, will remain as mysterious to us as a country across the ocean we only read about in books. When we judge other people or other countries by our native standards, we miss the richness and texture of their life and wisdom. We need to learn to be good tourists—to be curious and respectful. We need to appreciate both what is the same and what is different.
Too often we get stuck in the trap of believing we already know who someone else is. But whenever we encounter another human being with respect for this essential unknown, we create the possibility for something genuinely new to emerge. In every interaction, whether it is with a stranger or our longtime partner, we can be surprised by what we have not yet seen or even imagined.
Zen teacher Uchiyama once observed, “Everything you encounter is yourself.” Because we believe other people exist only outside of us, we forget that our experience of them is always a personal experience. We see them through the filters of our idiosyncratic experience, beliefs, and senses. The resulting picture becomes a combination of who they are and of who we are. In that sense, we are part of everything that we encounter. So this journey of hospitality is simultaneously outward and inward; we are always meeting ourselves in the form of the other.
It is possible to view hospitality as a duty, as something that imposes a claim on our attention from the outside. But I believe that as spiritual practice, hospitality becomes something quite different, an act of mutual beneficence undertaken in a spirit of self-discovery.
As I approach welcoming as an expression of who I am, I realize that as I greet you, I also greet myself. I am not doing this act for your sake only. In fact I should be grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to move deeper into my life, to align my actions with my deepest values, and to encounter the mystery of life in this moment. In true hospitality, we are both giving and receiving at the same time. The traditional hierarchy dissolves into something more equalitarian, and the “duty” becomes an opportunity.
The spiritual practice of hospitality is a radical act that requires a new way of being for those of us who wish to practice it. It requires that we go beyond being nice and polite. It requires that we break unwritten rules governing polite social interaction: “Smile but don’t get too close.” “Don’t ask questions that might make you or the other person uncomfortable.” “Don’t name what is really going on.” “Don’t ask for what you really want.” None of us really believes these unwritten rules, yet they govern most of our interactions and keep us from creating the deeper and nourishing connections we all seek.
Breaking the rules is never easy. Let me suggest three important things to do as a church if you are serious about becoming more welcoming to outsiders and to yourselves.
The spiritual practice of hospitality cannot be “just another program” or it will fail. Only if you discover and articulate the relevance of this practice to your central purposes as a faith community will you be able to begin to break out of the gravitational field of “the way things have always been.”
If you decide that this practice of hospitality is at the heart of who you are called to be, you must acknowledge the gap between the aspiration of being welcoming and the reality of your practices. At First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, we realized that despite our best intentions we were practicing what we came to call the ‘New England welcome.’ It goes like this: “We sincerely welcome you into our church as long as you know how to get here and know what to do and know your way around. We’ll be happy to talk to you if you initiate and will promise not to bother you.”
We were sincere, but we realized that if we really wanted to practice our values to include and invite everyone, we would have to learn some new ways of being.
We must stop trying to figure out how to get other people to change and begin instead to look at our own actions. It’s easy for members to believe that the church governing board or the minister or the welcome committee or someone else should be the ones to change how we do things, that “it’s not my job.” But each of us needs to begin to accept responsibility for creating the kind of church we want to be a member of. In other words, hospitality and welcoming becomes a personal choice, rather than an institutional issue.
In choosing this spiritual practice of hospitality, I live out the longing of my heart—creating a new reality for myself and the people around me. I reclaim my power to create the kind of world I want to live in. Gandhi was speaking of this kind of radical act when he said, “We must be the change we seek.”
We may have little control over conflicts in another part of the world, but we can practice truly honoring the preciousness of all human life by how we enter into relationship with each other. If we are serious about creating a more just, equitable, and compassionate world, we have to start with the room we are in.
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Growing up on Star Island
Looking back on my summers spent at a beloved Unitarian Universalist retreat.
We cannot hear unless there is silence.