24 Jun Strangers in a Strange Land: Welcoming Seekers
Do not be content with friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving-kindness for all who may cross your path. // ‘Abdu’l-Baha
Strangers in a strange land
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were invited out to a local church by someone we had met at a coffee shop a few days prior. Since it was a faith I didn’t know much about (Unitarian Universalism), I was curious and decided to make a trip over on a subsequent Sunday morning (unfortunately our new friend was out of town). Of course, being the nerd I am, I did a bit of research on UUism and I was surprised how similar on the surface it seemed to the Baha’i Faith. Obviously, I was excited to meet with people who we probably shared more in common with than most.
Upon entering the church we noticed some striking features: First, the congregation was very diverse. Charlottesville is in the South, so there’s obviously more diversity than most other parts of the US, but here there were whites, blacks, Latinos, Sikhs, Asians, you name it. Women were prominent in clergy roles. The crowd (and there was a crowd) skewed a bit old, but there were plenty of youth as well.
We also noticed from the walk in that many of the cars had bumper stickers strongly espousing progressive causes. While Baha’is aren’t overtly political, many of us would have found the direction that the congregants leaned reassuring.
The sermon was modern, relevant (though I don’t think the word God ever came up), and the readings pulled from many faith traditions. Indeed, there was even a nine-pointed Baha’i star representing our Faith up in the rafters among symbols of other world religions.
With all of these factors in play, I felt like we were walking into a warm, welcoming experience. After the service, we stood up and followed the mass into the nearby fellowship hall, eager to connect with some of the members.
We stood around in the middle of the hall hoping to catch someone’s gaze or at least making it easy for someone to talk to us. No one stopped to talk. No one even looked. Disheartened, we waited. After about half an hour of this, we sadly crept out the back door to go home.
Despite seeming very friendly (from a distance), diverse, and even progressive, they did not have an outward facing orientation. They weren’t welcoming. In marketing-speak, we would say that they have a customer service problem. How do you think your Local Baha’i Community would fare if a visitor dropped by?
So, what does it mean to be welcoming?
Dictionary.com defines it as to greet the arrival of (guests) with pleasure or kindly courtesy. Do we truly greet every guest to our Local Baha’i Communities with pleasure? Are we truly glad that they are here sharing this experience with us? Are we courteous? Do we introduce them to others, show them where the bathroom is, ask if they’d like refreshments?
Anyone in the Baha’i community can be representing the Faith at any moment. Have you ever had first-time visitors show up at a fireside, be greeted warmly at first, but have their beliefs challenged way too strongly (and needlessly) by a well-meaning Baha’i teaching the Faith, and they leave in a bad mood? They probably won’t even remember anything positive about the Lord of this Age or the principles of the Faith, but they’ll definitely remember how you made them feel. In order to be a truly welcoming community, the Baha’is have to be truly focused on treating guests warmly and kindly across the board.
If you were new to your Baha’i Community, would you feel comfortable?