“The Gift of Welcome”
Imagine it if you can. Wandering for days or weeks or more down dusty paths worn by those who came before. Your only home, your body. All your possessions pressed into a pack weighing heavy on your shoulders. The occasional river crossing, the only bath you’ve known. Exposed to the elements as day rolls into night and into day again. As evening begins to fall one more time a distant glow appears on the horizon, beckoning you onward. Your legs are weary but still it calls to you. You trudge on, closer and closer and can make out a humble abode at the edge of a distant village. The flickering of lantern light warms the interior in a gentle golden wash. Making your way, uncertain, but something of it brings you peace, the courage to knock and to trust. The door opens revealing a modest space of comfort. Invited in without question, you are given a soft place to land. Sustenance for your weakened body. Nourishment for your shattered spirit. No judgement levied. No sense that you are interrupting a more important journey than your own. Welcome.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Red Brocade” paints an exquisite portrait of welcome on the canvas of our lives. It is ripe with selflessness, with generosity, with joy that erupts in moments of true grace. If we could imagine being that wanderer – and I suspect that most of us cannot truly do so, but we all have our stories – we feel the embrace of compassion envelop us like a warm blanket on a cold early fall night. The exhale is almost audible as we picture the stranger settling in, the tension in their bones easing. This is the welcome we would hope for were we in those worn-out shoes. It is a gift because it comes with no expectation of anything in return. It is offered out of a love for all humanity.
Recently a colleague shared about the heated debate in Quincy over migrants being housed at a local college – people who are here legally and have traveled for years sometimes in order to get to the US – given health screenings and food and shelter. It isn’t permanent, but it is a start. A woman refugee who came from Viet Nam eight years ago, fleeing violence there, spending 10 days on a boat in the Pacific, shared that these people are literally running for their lives. It is through the kindness and generosity of people here in the US that she has made her way. Some residents spoke out against the aid being offered, issued threats to officials, shouted slurs. A neo-Nazi group protested outside and were met by counter protesters the following day. Here on the Cape at Joint Base Cape Cod immigrant families are being granted similar services and in like fashion, there are those who come out against the idea.
It is complicated, I will grant you – the sudden appearance of strangers in our midst – promised help and support by those who only hope to rid their streets, their states of any responsibility for welcome. We pick up the burden where others have fallen short. Bound by progressive legislation we do our best in Massachusetts to provide a way forward for those who arrive here with need and a desire to have a life that is safe more than anything else. Some of us feel threatened by those we call “other.” Fear of losing what we have worked for – privilege mostly – having to “share the wealth” – a scarcity mentality.
It remains though, that we are that humble abode in the distance, that warm glow in the window, the promise of sustenance for body and soul. However unrealistic some expectations around that idea may be, it is what those who flee see in us here. The mayor of Quincy pointed out that their city has always been a city of immigrants, thirty percent of their population coming from other countries. We are that beacon, for better or for worse, always have been, it is in our DNA as a nation.
Franciscan scholar, Ilia Dileo, talks about compassion being at the heart of connection. They say that the need to love and be loved, to give ourselves nobly to another coexists alongside our fear of what that love might cost us. We have this deep yearning to be joined with others, but we choose separation instead out of that fear, becoming isolated. Compassion rejects that isolation.i Like the person who welcomes the wanderer in Shihab Nye’s poem, we spend those days together and come to a place where the differences no longer matter. Theologian and author Joan Chittester says that “Hospitality is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around one heart at a time.”
We will have the opportunity to hear from local migrants in the coming weeks and months at three talks sponsored by the Refugee Support Team of the Nauset Interfaith Association. Migrant students later this month, a couple from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who some of you have met in October and an author, a writer, and an artist from Afghanistan in November. I encourage you to take this time to get to know more fully the migrants in our midst. The information is in our eblast, and I’ll put the poster up as well. When we welcome these voices among us, we are taking steps to dismantle barriers.
There are other barriers, too. Those we have built up or bought into or have so very easily fallen into – the chasm that divides growing wider each day it seems in our culture, our world. It’s not hard to convince ourselves that we could be doing more to engage immigrants and folks often labeled as marginalized, more to get ourselves out among the people, more to create relationships full of meaning and depth where none had existed before. But what about those folks who stand outside the shelter, signs in hand, protesting the use of US dollars and resources to assist the stranger, folks caught up in the fear? There is no excuse for violence in word or deed, and we stand against those types of response. But beneath that rough façade lies something really quite fragile, something that cries out for tending, to be heard. Humanity includes all of us and so when we say we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it means we need to do the hard work of seeing that where it is less evident. We say we believe in acceptance of one another – not just those who agree with us.
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg suggests that when we think about others, whether personal acquaintances or government officials, we often think of them as totally disconnected from ourselves, and that this activates our brains toward anxiety, guilt, fear and rumination. She says that we don’t need to demonize in order to counteract what we see as injustices. For her, the simple truth is that all of humanity is already connected and to recognize that connection is to dispel “us and them” thinking. From there the next step is to live into that fundamental truth.ii We are of one humanity – those we agree with and those we don’t. What affects one, affects all.
Our principles invite us into bridge building. Recently some ways of going about that have come across my desk and have had me thinking more and more along these lines. My colleague, the Rev. Tania Yadira Marquez shared about attending a poetry writing class and therein she noticed a beauty in the words expressed that differed from her world beyond the classroom. And she began to think about approaching conflict as if she were writing a poem – carefully choosing precise and beautiful words with intentionality about how they are delivered, pausing for a breath in between. She began to think about conflict transformation as a craft that creates beauty. Slowing down to connect with what we are feeling allows space to share that experience and silence where another’s poem can be heard.iii These are valuable skills to develop and practice whether the conflict is small and personal, local and familial, or when we need to engage strangers with whom we disagree. As that chasm widens in our world, I see us having the opportunity to use these tools more and more frequently, the need for us to learn and grow in ways that draw humanity back to center.
The Interfaith Alliance that we heard from this summer has suggestions for us in partnering against hate. In a conversation with Rev. Raushenbush he expressed the importance of being in relationship with those from whom we differ, and I know he spoke here about a reliance on love and inclusivity to build those kinds of bridges as well. Their roadmap asks us to reflect on our own biases. It is easy to become self-righteous when we are convinced that our way is the truly right way. The very thing we oppose in so much of our world has a way of creeping into our own beliefs about ourselves and our way forward. Bridge building means listening and reflecting with curiosity. So much of this work is geared toward acceptance of the so-called marginalized, but as the minority rapidly becomes the majority there will be more and more fear bubbling up among those who stand to lose the most. Do we have a role to play here?
One of the first courses I took at Hartford Seminary so many years ago was called “Dialogue in a World of Difference.” It was required no matter what your focus or degree program. Hartford Seminary placed itself on the map as a school set up for peace building and understanding among different religions and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to study with folks from all over the world, all of us very different. From an early age we are taught that the two things you don’t talk about in public are religion and politics! And look at us now. The two most hotly contested areas of conversation in our world! My thinking is that these are exactly the two things we should be talking about in public! Without that open give and take, I fear we will not have much of a world left to be conversing in.
The gift of welcome is an invitation to welcome the stranger in our midst, but also the hurt and the fearful, the uncertain and those so very sure of themselves, the like minded and the like valued who just see another way. The gift of welcome is an opportunity to offer from our abundance a place of respite for the soul, be it bountiful or troubled. May we be open this week to difference that presents itself, listen to it, nourish it with compassion, slow our need to react. May we seek to build bridges, to build relationships, to build up our world.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
September 24, 2023, UUMH Chatham
i Ilia Delio, Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), xvi. From the Center for action and Contemplation Daily Meditations, September 21, 2023.
i From Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and Our World by Sharon Salzberg, Flatiron Books, New York, 2020.