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Will They Come Back? Radical Spiritual Hospitality

General Assembly 2007 Event 2070
Presenters: Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Taquiena Boston, Rev. Dr. Devorah Greenstein and Rev. Keith Kron.

This workshop was conducted by Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Staff members of the Identity-Based Ministries (IDBM), whose mission is to make Unitarian Universalism a welcoming, inclusive, empowering, and just faith for Unitarian Universalists who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, and/or transgender; economically oppressed; Latina/Latino and Hispanic; multiracial families; people of color; and people with disabilities.

Taquiena Boston, Director of IDBM, introduced staff members Rev. Sofia Betancourt (Program Director for Racial and Ethnic Concern), Rev. Dr. Devorah Greenstein (Program Director for Accessibility Concern), and Rev. Keith Kron (Program Director for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Concern).

Sofia Betancourt began with a reading from Radical Hospitality: Benedict's Way of Love by Father Daniel Homan and Lonni Gollins Pratt.

"When we speak of hospitality we are always addressing issues of inclusion and exclusion. Each of us makes choices about who will and who will not be included in our lives...Issues of inclusion and exclusion, while personal, are not just personal. Our entire culture excludes many people. If you are in a wheelchair, for example, you are excluded because there are places you can't go. If you are very young, if you are very old, you are excluded... Hospitality has an inescapable moral dimension to it... It is an issue involving what it means to be human. All of our talk about hospitable openness doesn't mean anything as long as some people continue to be tossed aside...

"But calling hospitality a moral issue does not tell us the whole truth about hospitality either. A moral issue can become bogged down in legalisms, and hospitality is no legalistic ethical issue. It is instead a spiritual practice, a way of becoming more human, a way of understanding yourself. Hospitality is both the answer to modern alienation and injustice and a path to a deeper spirituality."

The presenters each modeled a story of feeling welcomed or not feeling welcomed before pairing up workshop participants to tell one another their own stories.

Devorah Greenstein:

She was leaving a 30+ year marriage and coming out as a lesbian when she entered a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church in her hometown for the first time. It was a Gay Pride service. The hymn "We Are a Gentle, Angry People" left her in tears. She has felt welcomed from that day on.

Taquiena Boston:

She and her family have passed through the All Souls Church Unitarian, Washington DC many times and have been intrigued by the Wayside Pulpit, with sermon titles like, "God's Trombone" without stopping to visit until one Sunday in August when they decided to do so. The minister, the choir, and most of the members were on vacation and the service was lay-laid. It was far from the dynamic worship they were used to. During coffee hour, a lay leader explained the peculiar "summer schedule" of most UU congregations, and invited them to return when the minister would be back in the pulpit. It took only one person's hospitality to make them feel welcomed and to decide to return.

Sofia Betancourt:

While she was a seminary student, she was invited by another seminary student of color to participate in a Kwanzaa service at her friend's church. The church was predominantly white and for that particular Sunday, they "showcased" the only people of color by having them participate in the service: a youth of color lighting the chalice, her friend doing a reading, and she herself being responsible for the music. After the service, a parishioner came up to her and commented on the unusual music then invited her to return for Black History month.

Keith Kron:

As a visitor to one of the churches in the Greater Boston Area (the identity was not revealed to protect the guilty), he would stand around during coffee hour with his green visitor's mug and no one would come to talk to him, leaving him to read all the announcements on the bulletin board. The only person who talked to him was a student ministerial intern. This went on for two whole months before someone besides the student intern talked to him

Some of the stories and insights participants shared with one another were:

  • A white minister greeted a mixed-race couple by saying, "We need more people like you here."
  • Many congregations assume that they are welcoming and accessible until a person in a wheelchair is invited in to speak and there is no ramp to go up to the podium. The podium being a symbol of power and literally a position of power, what does this say about the congregation?
  • There are two groups of people who consistently feel minimized and unwelcomed in UU congregations: political conservatives and the hearing-impaired. When people speak too quickly or do not use a microphone, the hearing-impaired are left out and they eventually drop out from participating in congregational life.
  • A birth-right young adult UU who wanted to study the Bible is told she doesn't belong in her home church by her humanist elders.
  • It only takes one person to make visitors feel welcomed or unwelcomed.
  • In times of loss, a kind word can help the grieving person feel connected and welcomed
  • Over-welcoming turns People of Color away.
  • A visitor usually knows within 10 minutes whether he/she is welcomed.
  • Large people often feel discriminated against. A typically insensitive remark is, "Are you sure you want dessert?"
  • Emotional disability is not tolerated as much as physical disability. People with physical disability are expected to do less than they are able while people with invisible disability are expected to do more than they are able.
  • People of Color are jumped on initially but then there aren't any programs in place for them when they return.
  • Four large lesbians are so often confused with one another that a typical response is, "It's the other lesbian you mean."
  • People of Color are expected to be experts in race-relations and are expected to lead and teach anti-racism/anti-oppression classes and workshops.

Workshop attendees participated in another small group exercise to look at three separate scenarios and discuss how they would handle them:

  • The doors of the church are open. A line of people are entering the sanctuary where an usher is handing out orders of service at the entrance. A slightly built woman in her sixties is in the line, alone, and confides to the usher as he hands her the order of service, "I'm very hard of hearing. I hope I can hear the sermon." The usher smiles slightly and hand an order of service to the next person in line. The woman walks alone down a side aisle. What feedback, training, and advice might you offer this usher?
  • An overly-dressed woman shows up for the Sunday morning service. She is in a flower-print white dress, matching shoes and purse, and large, well-chosen hat. She is 6'4" talk, white, and has an obvious Adam's Apple. She is clearly transgender. She is also alone. She is trying to appear confident but not always succeeding. As she enters the foyer to be handed a bulletin, someone gasps loudly when seeing her. As a greeter, what would you now do or say?
  • A multiracial family arrives twenty minutes early for Sunday morning worship. The mother is African-American and the father is Mexican. Their cheerful 8-year-old daughter is biracial and energetic. You overhear the main greeter for the morning introducing themselves to the family. The adults explain that they have recently moved to town and were delighted to find a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the area. The greeter hands them two pamphlets—The Faith of a UU Christian and UU Views of Jesus—before asking how they found out about Unitarian Universalism. The mother replies that she was raised UU in Barnstable, MA, and that she has returned to UUism soon after their daughter was born. The greeter shows them where to take their daughter for RE and the family takes seats near the front of the sanctuary and waits for the service to begin. What feedback, training, and advice might you offer this greeter?

The small group discussion period was highly energetic and although participants were not able to share their stories in the larger group due to lack of time, they left one another with a lot of share experiences and insights on welcoming the strangers as a spiritual practice.

Reported by Kok Heong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Monday, August 27, 2012.

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