I hope that each of you has, at some point in your life, experienced skillful hospitality; that you have been welcomed by a 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 thing 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?”
In this past year I have served as your minister, you have shown me that hospitality is one of the strengths of this congregation. Could we host and feed 30 people for a workshop on congregational preparedness? No problem. Not only did we put together a feast for all the UUs overflowing our social hall, but the cooks put careful thought into how to make sure there were plenty of delicious choices for vegetarians, folks who needed to avoid gluten, people allergic to nightshades, and guests who just really hate onions. Everyone who attended felt welcomed and nourished by your hospitality.
Could we host the first ever interfaith pride service in our town? Of course we would! For a number of years this congregation has been working to become 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 Transgender persons.) I’m sure being officially recognized as “welcoming” 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. I wasn’t here when you all began your work, 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. Being a “Welcoming Congregation” takes commitment and self awareness and hospitality.
I am proud to say that just last week the Director of LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs at the UUA sent us a letter congratulating us as the newest Welcoming congregation in the UUA. I am proud of our work together, and on our commitment to being welcoming. He also let us know that although he will be sending us to beautiful color posters in honor of this accomplishment, this achievement is not like a merit badge; we are invited to continue our work as a welcoming congregation and to renew it each year, through worship, learning and acts of advocacy in the larger community. I will be bringing these commitments to the board next week, and together we will consider how to keep welcoming in the coming year.
Hospitality, loving radical hospitality, is a living thing -- an awareness, a way of being in the world. And because you are so good at it, I think this is a great place for us to focus our loving attention. It is easy for a caring and close-knit community to focus on meeting the needs of folks already in the community and to not be aware of the needs of folks just outside our door. For example, when folks came to that Congregational preparedness workshop, they literally didn’t know how to get in the building. We, who have made it inside, all know that there is a side entrance that we use on most occasions, but to a newcomer, if the front doors are locked, it’s not clear that you are welcome. All we need to do to fix that is make a little sign to let folks know what to do if the doors are locked. An easy fix that just requires us expanding our awareness.
When we hosted in the Interfaith Pride service, however, my eyes were opened to some other ways in which we aren’t welcoming. Yes, we prepared a lovely worship, and spread out a warm and charming feast downstairs in the social hall afterwards. We opened our home, we opened our hearts. But it wasn’t until I invited colleagues up to the microphone to speak (please use the one at the pulpit, I said, it’s much better) that I realized how hard it is to get up these stairs to the pulpit. I mean, I myself had joked about how one of these days I was going to look out the wrong part of my glasses and tumble off the side of the stairs here, but it never occurred to me to think, how does that affect our guests? Guest speakers walked all the way around the wall using the railing, and then hung on this chair here for balance while waiting to speak. My eyes and ears opened, I watched folks nervously navigate the steps down to the social hall after the service, and then heard other guests say “the ones in front of the church are the most difficult.” I bravely asked if there was anything we could do to help short of installing a lift. “A railing” they said “would help a lot.” I noticed as folks walked out the back door newcomers stopped at the threshold of that vestibule, and realized that it’s quite a dark spot there, and folks who can’t see well were confused about whether it was safe to step into, or whether there would be a drop. A light in that spot could make us more welcoming to visitors of all ages and abilities.
Being honored as a Welcoming congregation is not the end of our journey to be welcoming, but perhaps a deputizing to becoming more welcoming still. 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. It is one thing to hang a rainbow flag, but if we’re not willing to learn each other’s pronouns, how welcoming are we? If radical hospitality is not a central value of our culture as a 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 guests, and ourselves to be their hosts, to welcome them as the family did in our children's story. 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 walls of “race” or “class” of religious and political difference if we approached them with radical hospitality.
I use the phrase radical hospitality first because I want us to be radical about the extent of hospitality, extending it to affirm the worth and dignity of each and every person. But I also use the word “radical” because I believe such hospitality is radical in its capacity to change us and the world. When we welcome someone new into our lives, into our congregaton, into our country or community, that meeting is a powerful place where we learn both about the world and ourselves. When we open ourselves to the stranger, to 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.
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.
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. And by stepping boldly into the web of relationships as a host, I felt I truly belonged.
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.