Another Holiday Party

77906706_230622b507_oCarefully making my way in the dark, I climb a steep set of cement steps to a glowing house and my fifth of seven holiday parties. Entering a home unannounced goes against all my parents taught me—ring the doorbell, knock, don’t walk in as if you own the place, be a good guest—but at this house I know I am simply expected to enter. My hand on the doorknob, I hesitate. Without someone there to greet me and pull me inside I am offered a moment to reconsider, to imagine myself on my couch at home, under a fleece blanket, reading a novel, sipping a steaming mug of ginger lemongrass tea. Mmmm. The thought that I am expected here is the only thing that pushes this isolationist urge from my mind. I turn the brass doorknob, open the door, and walk myself into the party.

A pile of shoes lay strewn by the door. I add mine even though my stocking feet feel cold and insecure on the hard wood floor. I scan the room of partygoers, clumped like grapes in threes and fours around the living and dining rooms. A woman approaches me. I know her. I like her. I feel myself both welcome and recoil from her company. I need a party partner. It’s too awkward to stand alone. But I just don’t feel like carrying on a conversation about anything to anyone. My introvert switch keeps getting flipped at these parties, leaving me to shut down socially like a robot that is unceremoniously unplugged. I do my best to chat with the woman for a while. I feign interest until an appropriate moment arises to excuse myself, saying I need a drink. The kitchen is crowded. Lots of people need a drink, apparently, or need to be near the drinks. After a brief search, I find a clean glass and a half empty bottle of white and take my time pouring.

Now that I have a glass in my hand, I feel myself relaxing a bit. Maybe it’s the alcohol. Or maybe it’s just having something for my hands to hold—like a magic party feather. The wine buoys me enough to mill about, move in and out of a few clusters and search for my husband who I know is here somewhere.

When I find him I am not surprised that he has removed himself from the crowd. I sit down next to him on a soft, two-seater couch in a far corner of the living room and am rewarded with a rare gesture of affection as he stretches his arm across the back of my shoulders. We are not alone for long. Others eventually move to sit with us, in our cozy removed corner. But the warmth of my husband’s body next to mine softens my jangled, need-to-escape nerves. The golden liquid in my glass reflects the light in the room. Laughter and conversation bubbles up and breaks around me in a spirit of merriment.

Our host calls for our attention so he can make a toast. I admire the beauty of his dark, Pakistani skin—extremely rare in our small, central Illinois part of the world. Joy radiates from his face in the form of tears that silently, yet without shame, escape to streak his cheeks. He lifts his glass to friendship, to the tiny midwestern community that welcomed him, to love offered and accepted, and to the hope born within all of us whenever we are received as a cherished guest.

 

[Feature Image: Tony Blay]

 

The Hard Work of Welcoming

4344878104_e746795618_oI have three fantastic student interns this year who are learning about the hard work of welcoming. At our college’s Presbyterian House we host a “Dinner and Devotion” program every Sunday that we advertise as “All Students Welcome.” Of course, not all students feel welcome attending a religious and spiritual life program, unless you work hard to let them know that you mean it—that they really are all welcome.

On their own, my student interns have come up with some great ideas about how to welcome people to the Presbyterian House and help students feel comfortable. Read this post, “Getting Comfortable” by my student intern, Angela, to learn more about their great work.

Typically, though, about twenty to thirty students show up at our Presbyterian House each Sunday. My students and I greet everyone at the door as they arrive. We insist on nametags (knowing someone’s name is a crucial step in welcoming) and we never relax as the hosts. We are always circling the group, reaching out to students on the margins, making conversation with those who look uncomfortable, introducing students to other students.

After each program we take time to debrief—to discuss what went well and what we could improve upon. This is when the challenge of “all welcome” becomes abundantly clear because the group we have successfully welcomed to the Presbyterian House is diverse. Predominantly, the students who attend are Christian. But we are also excited to have some non-religious students; students who are questioning; students who are Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish; students who are gay, straight, transgender; students who are conservative, moderate and liberal. It’s an eclectic mix—which offers the potential for great discussions—but also makes the work of welcoming that much more difficult.

Lots of questions arise for us such as: Can our Presbyterian House program be explicitly Christian and yet still be welcoming to students of other religions or no religion? How do we pray without making our non-religious students uncomfortable? What kind of food should we serve given different dietary needs? How do we acknowledge and value the perspective of the three or four minority students without singling them out? Honestly, our questions about how to welcome just lead to more questions—which sometimes lead to feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty and complexity of the task.

I think my understanding of the biblical practice of hospitality has been overly nostalgic. The theme of welcoming the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, runs throughout the bible giving our scriptures a beautiful “all welcome” feel. Never have I stopped to consider, though, that such beautiful hospitality would, practically speaking, be so difficult. But how could it not? Jews were expected to make space for strangers and share limited resources. Jesus and his disciples relied on the cultural expectation of hospitality as they traveled from town to town. With no way to make call-ahead reservations, just imagine what it took to welcome this unexpected crowd of thirteen! Practicing hospitality in biblical times meant practicing inconvenience; it involved some serious self-sacrifice. So I’m sure all sorts of questions arose in the first century too about the difficulty and complexity of this task.

But as my social media feeds blow up with haunting images of the refugee crisis, dismissive statements about the #blacklivesmatter movement, and Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about Mexican immigrants, I am reminded that these are questions worth asking. Yes, welcoming others is hard work. It’s overwhelming and exhausting. But when I think about the kind of community we are seeking to create at our college’s Presbyterian House, and the kind of hospitality we are teaching our students, I cannot help but wish more would commit themselves to this beautiful, biblical practice. I wish we could hang a sign out on the front door of God’s house saying, “All are Welcomeand then work hard to let every person know that we mean it.

 

[Feature Image: Nathan]