On Welcoming Congregations and Radical Hospitality

In the current issue of the UU World magazine, Unitarian Universalist Association president, the Rev. Peter Morales, tells the story of a friend who visited one of our congregations. “When she arrived for the Sunday morning service, no one greeted her warmly. She sat alone during the service. After the service, she had difficulty finding the coffee hour. The invitation … said to ‘follow the crowd,’ but people scattered in several directions. When she finally found the coffee hour, she eventually did strike up a conversation—with another visitor. No member of the congregation spoke to her.” Upon hearing this story, Rev. Morales says, “I winced.”[1]

I wince when I hear such stories; I imagine you do too. I like to think our congregation offers a warm Sunday morning greeting to visitors and long-time members alike. And since we lack a parish hall, our coffee hour is hard to miss. Just turn around. You can sort of miss it if you scoot to the garden level to get your children, but we serve coffee there too. You can’t escape!

Rev. Morales remembers a time when he believed his congregation offered a warm Sunday morning greeting to visitors and did all the right things to let everyone know they are welcome. But, “when we looked carefully at the reality of what our guests experienced,” he says, “we were appalled.” They weren’t as welcoming as he thought. He says, “the difference between our self-image of hospitality and the reality of our behavior was shocking…. We were embarrassed, even a little ashamed.”[2] They changed their practices to be more welcoming and the congregation grew from 400 to 750 members. He concludes with these words: “Hundreds of thousands of people will visit our congregations this year. They are looking for a religious home, for spiritual sustenance. They want to be accepted, to be engaged, to be loved. Smile. Say good morning. Start a conversation. You are about to meet some wonderful people.”[3]

These are good words. I’m sure I’ve offered similar words multiple times over the years. Many ministers do. Our Sunday morning welcome is immensely important. But let’s be clear: the capacity to authentically offer, as I like to say, a warm, hearty, heart-felt, enthusiastic, joy-filled welcome is not simply a matter of agreeing to smile, say hello and start a conversation with someone we don’t know, as important as those practices are. If the welcome we offer is real—that is, if we really feel it, if a spirit of hospitality is pervasive among us, then it must come from some place deep in the heart of our community—and newcomers will know it is genuine. If it’s not real, if we don’t really feel it, if we’re just going through the motions because some authority asked us to, then I’m not sure these small behavioral changes will make any difference. If we don’t feel it—if being welcoming isn’t a central part of who we are—then I’m not sure any lasting behavioral change is possible.

So too with this notion of radical hospitality, which has become a buzzword in recent years. Radical hospitality is both a personal and institutional spiritual practice of being curious about and open to new people and to diverse cultures and life-ways. And it’s more. Radical hospitality reflects a willingness and even a hunger to engage across lines of difference. It reflects a willingness and a hunger to offer service, care and love to new and different people, to those who come to us in need, to those “who come hurt and afraid,”[4] as we said in our opening words. Radical hospitality is impatient. It reflects a willingness and a hunger to go out into the larger community to offer service, care and love rather than waiting for people to visit on Sunday morning. And more than that, radical hospitality reflects a willingness and a hunger to challenge and transform systems of injustice and oppression in solidarity with others who feel similarly called, whether or not they ever decide to visit us on Sunday morning.

Cultivating radical hospitality is not simply a matter of agreeing to smile, say hello and engage in conversation on Sunday morning. Radical hospitality springs from an identity—a  community identity—marked by that desire to serve, to care and to love—all people; a desire not to shut ourselves off from the world (as so many congregations do), but to enter fully into the world, responding to its pain and suffering in healing, life-giving ways; a desire to, as we sang earlier, “break not the circle of enabling love,” and to live as if it is entirely possible to make that circle “wider still, till it includes, embraces all the living.”[5] With such an identity, a spiritual community is poised not only to offer an authentic welcome; it is poised to change the world. With such an identity, a spiritual community will naturally offer an authentic welcome; it will naturally establish ministries that serve, care for and love the world.

Radical hospitality! Sounds great!  Sounds like the key to becoming the best congregation we can be. Except . . . . hmmm. Except if we, as a spiritual community, cultivate that curious, open, welcoming, serving, caring, loving, transforming identity that gives rise to radical hospitality, and if we practice that radical hospitality, I guarantee we will grow. We will change. In five years we won’t be the same congregation we are today.

But—and I’m being completely honest here—I kinda like us the way we are. Don’t you? I’m serious. This is a great congregation. It’s very welcoming. It’s very engaged in the wider world. And while we can always find something about it that could be better, so many of you experience this community—this liberal religious, Unitarian Universalist congregation, east of the Connecticut River on Elm Hill in Manchester—as your spiritual home. It’s not necessarily because of the programs we offer, though those matter—worship, religious education for kids and adults, sustainable living practices, music, tutoring, social justice organizing, family events, small group ministry, mental health ministry, the women’s sacred singing circle and much more. It’s your spiritual home because you can rest here; you can breathe here; you find your voice here. It’s your spiritual home because of the connections and friendships you make here. It’s your spiritual home because it provides comfort, support and hopefully challenge. It’s your spiritual home because the values it professes—freedom, reason, tolerance, justice, equity, compassion, human worth, interdependence, sustainability—are your values, and something in you believes the survival and flourishing of these values is critical to the survival and flourishing of society, critical to the survival and flourishing of humanity, critical to the survival and flourishing of all life on the planet; and you’ve recognized that together, as a spiritual community, we have the power to proclaim these values and manifest them in the world. That’s what makes it a spiritual home. Those of you who go all the way back to the beginning of this congregation and to its earlier generations—you had a vision that led us to who we are today. All of us are grateful. We cannot thank you enough. You collectively invested millions of volunteer hours and millions of dollars to grow this congregation into what it is today—here and now—our spiritual home. So why open ourselves to change?

I’m trying to tease out the tension that exists at the heart of any thriving spiritual community: the tension between the community we are—here and now—and the community we aspire to be. Both sides of this tension matter immensely. The dilemma is that they never quite agree with each other. Occasionally they’re in open conflict. The dilemma is that as we establish a community, we automatically create a “we,” an “us.” I like us the way we are. Even if we don’t mean to, even if it’s not our intent, we set ourselves apart from those outside our community. It’s normal. It’s unavoidable. I suspect this creation of a “we” explains, at least in part, those unwelcoming patterns Rev. Morales describes. Sometimes we become so focused on us that we forget to extend a welcome to those who are not us. We forget what should come naturally to a liberal religious community: radical hospitality.

No human community is perfect. No human community completely lives up to its own ideals. No human community is free from contradictions. In particular, in a liberal spiritual community like this, where we talk about the inherent worth and dignity of every person, where we proclaim a vision of inclusion, where we say there is no theological litmus test for belonging, where we say all are welcome, it sometimes becomes painfully obvious that some are missing, that the circle of enabling love about which we sing is not cast as widely as it ought to be.

Recall the story of the ‘Great Dinner’ from Luke. A man plans a dinner. The context suggests he is wealthy. He invites his friends, the members of his community—his we—but none can attend; they all have excuses. Instead of canceling, he expands the invitation. He says, “bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” And when that is done and there is still room, he says “go out into the roads and lanes and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”[6] He engages in radical hospitality.

So too with us. We like us the way we are and our values compel us to engage in radical hospitality. We’ve worked hard to build our spiritual home and our values demand that we not shut ourselves off from the world, but engage it fully. We like us the way we are and until this house is filled to overflowing with a rich diversity of people mirroring the rich diversity of humanity, we will not have lived up to our highest aspirations. This is our beloved spiritual community and our values inform us not only that all are welcome, but that it is our responsibility to make the invitation, to make space, to make room.

The tension is real, but it ought not to be cause for alarm. When we change in response to our values, the change is invariably good. I’m mindful of how, in the 1970s, the larger Unitarian Universalist community came to a collective, values-based understanding that we were living a contradiction: only five percent of our clergy were women. We needed to examine our sexism.[7] We needed to change. Twenty years later, women made up fifty percent of the clergy. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened through deep, collective soul-searching, a willingness to have healthy conflict and to engage in sustained organizing. It happened through radical hospitality. It has transformed our faith, and we are better for it.

I’m mindful of how, in the early 1980s, the larger Unitarian Universalist community began coming to a collective, values-based understanding that we were living a contradiction: gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were closeted in our congregations and among our clergy. We needed to examine our homophobia and heterosexism. We needed to change. That change took decades, and we are still changing. But today Unitarian Universalism is steadfast in its commitment to welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender-queer and all questioning people into our congregations and our ministry at a time when many religions are undergoing gut-wrenching conflict. Today we are steadfast in our commitment to working for the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and gender-queer people. Remember, for us, the term Welcoming Congregation refers to a congregation whose members have voted to make and keep these very commitments.[8] We did not make these commitments by accident. We made them as a result of deep, collective soul-searching, a willingness to have healthy conflict and to engage in sustained organizing. It happened through radical hospitality. It has transformed our faith, and we are so much better for it.

This is our spiritual community, and we ought not to feel any guilt or shame that we are who we are or that we never quite live up to our aspirations. We ought to be proud. I certainly am. We have worked hard to become who we are. And our values demand that we pay attention to who is not here, that we purposefully and intentionally make the circle wider still, that our dinner—our meal, our feast, our table—be one at which all are truly welcome, that we practice radical hospitality, that we make ourselves always ready for change.

We print it right in our order of service: “We invite you to take a moment at the end of the service to greet someone you do not know.” I ask you to take that message seriously. Trust that it isn’t a purely cosmetic message. Trust that it comes from a deeply-held conviction that all are welcome.

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Morales, Rev. Peter, “Religious Hospitality,” UU World, Vol. XXVI No. 1, Spring 2012, p. 5.  Or see: http://www.uuworld.org/spirit/articles/192460.shtml

[2] Morales, “Religious Hospitality, p. 5.

[3]Morales, “Religious Hospitality, p. 5.

[4] Gilbert, Rev. Richard S., “We Bid You Welcome” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #442.

[5]Kaan, Fred, “Break Not the Circle” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #323.

[6] Luke 14: 16-24.

[7] The Text to the UUA’s 1977 General Assembly Business Resolution entitled “Women and Religion” can be found at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/20280.shtml.

[8] For more information on the Unitarian Universalists Welcoming Congregation program and history, see: http://www.uua.org/lgbt/welcoming/program/index.shtml