Monday, December 5, 2011

Hospitality (December 4, 2011)

“So glad you’re here”
“So glad you’re here”
Like a mantra
They repeat with warm smiles
“you must be tired”
“you must be hungry”
“you must be cold”
“It means so much
that you would come
all this way to be with us”
“Do still drink decaf?”
“I made those walnut cookies you like
when I heard you were coming”
“honey take her bags”
“tell us about your trip”
“No, take my chair,
I’ll get another from the den”
“take your time”
“rest a while”
“stay as long as you like”
“so glad you’re here”
“so glad you’re here”

Hopefully each of us has at some point in our lives experienced really skillful hospitality; we have met the host or hostess who knows how to make us feel truly at home, easing our awkward transition to a new situation. Hospitality is a Mitzvah, that is to say a religious commandment not only in Judaism from which tradition we get the word “Mitzvah” but in many of the world’s religions. We offer hospitality because it is the right thing to do, the caring though to do. But I would like to suggest that it is also a spiritual practice, one that works on those who practice it. Today we want to consider the question, “if one took on hospitality as a spiritual practice, how might it change the one who practices, and how might it change the world?”

I begin with the easier question, how could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world. For example, about 6 years ago this congregation took upon itself the task of becoming a “Welcoming Congregation.” This is the phrase used by the Unitarian Universalist Association to refer to a congregation who has intentionally opened their doors to Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgendered persons. I’m sure it seemed unnecessary to many members of this congregation- Unitarian Universalists were one of the first denominations to ordain openly Gay and Lesbian clergy, and have long been at the forefront of the movement to widen this circle of inclusivity. But I know that in the first welcoming congregation I ever served things were not so simple. Many of those who joined in discussion groups and classes, and scanned the church for heterosexism, found that the issues were more complex than they had imagined. For example, we begin to notice hetero-presumptive language in talking about relationships. We realize that unless we publicly speak our intention to be inclusive, say by hanging a rainbow flag out front, folks would have no reason to assume that our church was any safer than those who publicly condemn same sex relationships. We realized that we each had to root out our own internalized homophobia, so that it would truly be a safe place for our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered members to speak their stories. Queer clergy, like myself, had to be willing to say our truth as a gesture of hospitality, as it were, to others. Being a “Welcoming Congregation” takes commitment and self awareness and hospitality.

How could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world? I remember the first time I attended the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. As I watched the Dykes on Bikes roll by, leading off the festivities, my eyes welled with tears, grateful that San Francisco had become home to a community so long marginalized. To get a closer look at the parade, I found a line of sight from behind a fenced off seating area. It turned out I was standing behind a section set aside for folks in wheelchairs. It seems like just good common sense that persons in wheelchairs will need a large flat space in which to maneuver, and a lower line of site, but in so much of our history, no one bothered to make such a space. It occurred to me that the City of San Francisco was behaving like a loving family who always remembers to pull out a chair for Uncle Bob when he comes to Thanksgiving Dinner.

In the same way that my mother in law carefully makes a huge and luscious fruit salad whenever I come to visit so that I will feel at home each time we break bread together. In the same way that the Athens UU Church recently converted their mail room into a bathroom wide enough for a wheelchair. In the same way that even when we have no young children in our church we keep our nursery full of toys and supplies ready to make new children feel welcome. In the same way that Miss Manners advises us to occasionally spend one night in our guest bed to feel for ourselves the kind of sleep our friends might experience in our homes, we look around our world community with the eyes of a good host, wondering what we could do to make others feel at ease.

What makes this challenging, is that in assuming the role of host, we must view the world through the eyes of others; we must anticipate needs that are not necessarily our own. How do we create a welcoming space for all? This becomes most difficult when we realize that there are many subtle cultural factors which can make a community seem hospitable or hostile. Can we use language, for example, in a way that is understandable to people outside our field, to folks with different kinds of education, to persons who are unfamiliar with our idioms and colloquialisms? Our art, music, theology, all mark us as belonging to one demographic or another, and all have the power to include or exclude. It is one thing to renovate the bathroom or to hang a rainbow flag, but if radical hospitality is not a central value of our culture, our community, then these are merely superficial gestures. We may find ourselves in communities which are both figuratively and literally gated.

How could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the world? Imagine how this radical hospitality would impact our social and political policies if, for example, we considered immigrants to our country to be visitors, and ourselves to be their hosts. Imagine if we challenged ourselves to broadly apply our call to “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free.” Imagine the impact on the doors of “race” or “class” if we approached them with radical hospitality.

Now we move on to a more difficult question: how could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change our congregations? Let’s be clear. When we practiced a truly radical hospitality, it does change us. Members of this church still remember their struggle as they welcomed their first transgender members long before I came to be your minister. As a community and as individuals they had to reexamine their way of looking at gender and see if those old prejudices and taboos could be relinquished so that they might become truly welcoming. It was a time of soul searching for individuals and for the community as a whole. It lead this congregation into the Welcoming Congregation process for the first time. And change we did. Our new members stayed through what must have been a less than open-armed welcome, and continued to bless us with their gifts. A few folks who just could not open their arms to the new members left the congregation, but for all who stayed, being welcoming is now part of their identity, calling them to wonder “what other prejudices or oppressive structures might need to be opened up to make us more welcoming still?”

I can’t help but remember my first days in California when my husband and I were subletting student housing at the Franciscan School. Not knowing a soul in 3000 miles, we were taken completely aback when we opened our apartment door one day at the same moment our neighbor was opening his. He greeted us immediately with a smile and the words “Hello Protestant Neighbor!” He was very friendly, introduced himself, asked how we were settling in, and invited us to coffee “any time.” Eric and I, being from a less outgoing community, couldn’t figure out what his motivation might be. There was something a little weird about someone so friendly. But we eventually became great friends with our Catholic neighbor, and learned that he is indeed a wonderful host.

That summer afternoon in Berkeley our friend took the risk that he might frighten us off with his overture, that we might be more attracted to someone aloof and cool. This is the risk each of us takes when we extend ourselves, when we invite someone into our lives. They might judge us, they might use us, they might ignore us. More likely they will be grateful for the introduction, the generosity of spirit, the attempt to make them feel at ease. This boundary between “me” and “you” is one that must be confronted on both the spiritual and ethical journey. The edge between my ego and the other can be a scary, powerful place where we learn both about the world and ourselves. When we open ourselves to the stranger, the other, the unknown we open ourselves to learning and transformation. By approaching the limits of what is known and comfortable, our universe expands and perhaps our spirits expand as well.

But hospitality in congregations is not just about welcoming strangers and visitors. It is also about welcoming newcomers into the heart of our community, inviting them to “take off your coats and stay a while” as my Grandmother used to stay. Think about the things a good host offers you in their home to make you feel comfortable. For a short stay you need to know where the bathroom is, where to hang your coat. But when you are staying for a few days, you need to know how to get yourself a glass of water, where the towels are kept, how the shower works. You need not just to have someone fussing over you all the time (which works fine for a 3 hour visit). You need the information to really “make yourself to home.” Now what if you were going to stay… well, forever? You would need your own niche. Like when you introduce a new plant to your garden, if it can’t find a niche it will not flourish.

Next Sunday we are welcoming three new members into our community. Our challenge is to offer them not only a friendly smile, and a warm cup of coffee, but a meaningful way to engage in our community. They need a niche. Part of a deep practice of hospitality will be evoking from one another our gifts, Just as an apple tree provides fruit for humans and other critters, and shade for the soil and shade loving plants, some of our members give us the gift of music, others their thoughtful insights, or practical common sense, or warm hearts. We have to be open to the idea that newcomers will bring new gifts we have never experienced before. Just because there has not previously been a knitting group, doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Newcomers bring us gifts that will change us. The other part of our practice of hospitality is to discover and respond to one another’s needs for nourishment. Much as some garden plants need sun and others need shade, some members of our community need quiet private conversations, and others thrive in large, lively groups. Some folks need a way to be in community that involves their children. Others need a way that works around their strenuous works schedule. By being aware of and responsive to newly emerging needs for nourishment, our “Support our aging parents” group was created, and “coming of age” was offered to our youth for the first time.

If we offer truly radical hospitality, we will be changed, we will be transformed as a congregation and as individuals. Let’s try this. Please stand up if you came to this church for the first time in 2011. Now stand up if you came for the first time in 2010. Now stand if you came for the first time since 2000. Imagine how different our congregation would be without these folks. (You can all sit) Now anyone who has been a member for more than 3 years please stand. These folks all stayed because they found a niche, a special unique place in our community where they could share their gifts and also be nourished. In gratitude for the place each of us has found here, we offer the gift of hospitality to all, because and even though it will change our beloved community.

Finally the most difficult question of all: how could a deep and skillful practice of hospitality change the individual who practices it? In his book “The World’s Religions” Huston Smith describes a noble quality of chun tzu. He writes
“Fully adequate, poised, the chun tzu has toward life as a whole the approach of an ideal hostess who is so at home in her surroundings that she is completely realized, and, being so, can turn full attention to putting others at ease…the chun tzu carries these qualities of the ideal host with him through life generally. Armed with a self-respect that generates respect for others, he approaches them wondering not, “What can I get from them” but “What can I do to accommodate them?”
If we engage the world with the quality of Chun tzu, a feeling of always being at home, where might that practice lead? In order to risk extending ourselves, we must first know that we are at home in this world. I believe this logic is reversible as well; if we can act as a host wherever we go, perhaps it will remind us that this world is in fact our home.

This practice of hospitality can be a spiritual one not only in the way it brings us in contact with our own boundaries and limits, but extending the notion one step further, in the way we invite that transcending mystery and wonder into our lives. My seminary professor Yielbanzie used to remind us: “If you want to have spirit in your life, you have to invite spirit into your life.” We treat the ineffable with the same respect and care that we would a neighbor, a guest, a stranger or a friend. Perhaps if we adopt the role of host, it will give us the courage to come closer to God, or if we are an atheist, to whatever is of ultimate concern in our lives.

When I was starting my internship at the Mount Diablo UU Church, I nervous about the many things I would be doing for the first time, but I was most terrified of the coffee hour. Oh the agony of standing on the patio trying not to look uncomfortable, hoping someone would talk with me. I decided, nonetheless, that this was my job now. People expected their minister to make them feel welcome, to play the host. I realized that it was important that I take the risk that visitors might leave saying “boy they would not leave us alone!” rather than wondering why no one had approached them, why they felt more lonely after coming to church than before. And so that first day on the patio I screwed up my courage, deputized myself with the nametag reading “Darcey Laine, Intern Minister” and challenged myself to engage as many strangers as I could. I tried to imagine who might welcome that extra effort. Certainly newcomers deserved a warm welcome. Obviously those who had shared some pain or joy during “caring and sharing” might want a chance to talk further. The children and youth of the congregation needed to feel that the ministers of the congregation are their ministers too. And the list went on. Before long there were so many people I wanted to connect with, that I had hardly gotten started each week before the patio cleared out and I was left to turn out the lights and lock the doors. I understood that hospitality is one of the primary gifts of a church community, one member to another.

Hospitality is not identical to love, because it pays attention to the boundaries between individuals, between peoples. We treat the other with dignity, humble in the awareness that there is much we do not know about one another, yet when we extend ourselves to put another at ease, we act from a position of personal power. We welcome courageously and with skill those who knock at our door.

Today when coffee hour beings, I have my nametag labeling me as “Reverend Laine”, deputizing me officially to act as host for this community. But it is not because I’m a minister of this Church that I have the right and the responsibility to be a host, but because I’m a member of this community. I hereby deputize all of you to be a host at our social hour, and out in the world. Think of your nametag be your deputy’s badge - a symbol of your job as greeter, host, vice-president for east coast introductions and friendliness to strangers. Let this deputy’s badge remind us of one of the oldest and most important religious practices- remembering this world is your home, and so making one another feel welcome in this world.