Saving a Seat at the Welcome Table

Something I am learning about writing sermons is that, in order to preach authentically, I must write about where I am.  It does me no good to know where I want to go if I don’t start from where I am.

So I need to tell you that yesterday was an important day in the life of my family.  My sister flew in from New York; my brother drove in from Madison.  My aunt flew in from Maryland.  Friends came from Illinois and Wisconsin.  And of course there were many from all over Minnesota.

We gathered late in the afternoon at the Minnesota Valley UU Fellowship in Bloomington in order to celebrate the life of my grandmother Phyllis Fairman at her memorial service.

We gathered in a shared spirit to learn about this single amazing human being who had touched all of us with the power of her commitment to life.

We shared our stories together—my grandpa talked about how they’d met and gone for walks on the beaches of Lake Michigan; my mother remembered childhood summers spent picking berries and making jam; and I heard about her role at the church as the “Kitchen Goddess.”

Many people recalled my grandmother talking them into doing something outside their comfort zone (like making phone calls for Planned Parenthood), because when Phyllis asked you to do something, you did not say “no.”

In honorarium, they turned my grandmother’s name into a verb—these people had been “Phyllised.”

And now these stories have become part of our shared narrative, our common history.

We also gathered in song, raising our voices with the words and melodies that had made my grandmother laugh and tap her feet.  In doing so, we connected ourselves to her, and through that connection, she was a little more present, a little less gone.

In the best way we knew how, we designed a service that would be a tribute to the woman we knew and loved.

The ironic part was that my grandmother had forbidden us from having a memorial service for her at all.  But as we know, a memorial is not held for those who have departed; it is held for those left behind, to come together and say goodbye.

Thus there were many friends at the service who did not know my grandmother well (if at all).  Instead, they had come to be present for the family, to stand by us and to help ease the loss of one we loved.

It takes a bit of courage for someone to do that—to come to a church that is not their own, with no one expecting them.  Though they knew someone in the family, we were busy with the service.  We couldn’t sit with them, or keep them company.

I worried that they would feel isolated.  Who would they sit by?  Who would they talk to?  Were they uncomfortable?  Did they know that they were appreciated?  Did they feel welcome?

In showing up, these friends took a risk.

To show up is to risk being unwelcome.

There are a lot of parallels between showing up to a memorial service and showing up to a new church on Sunday.

Just as we gathered with common purpose at the memorial, we gather on a Sunday morning with the intention to talk and sing and build our common narrative together.

At the memorial, we shared stories about someone that most of us knew—but not all of us.  To some in the audience, my grandmother was a stranger and they got to know her by the stories we chose to tell.

In a similar fashion, a visitor who gathers the courage to spend a Sunday morning with a new congregation gets to know them through the stories they tell.

Some of these stories are spoken during the service or over coffee afterwards.

But some of these stories are unspoken in the way members interact with each other, or the way the space is laid out.  Some of these stories are told in the layout of the church website, or in the ease or difficulty of finding the building or a parking spot.

And some of these stories are the ones we tell our friends.

This is a common story, one you’ve probably heard before:

Eileen was discontent with some part of her life.  Perhaps she craved peace, or a new understanding.  Perhaps she was looking for a safe place to voice the secret questions in her heart.  Perhaps she was unfulfilled at her church, or didn’t have a church and wished she did, or was looking for a spiritual home in which to raise her children.

But whatever she was looking for, Eileen told a friend about it over coffee one day.

Now this friend just happened to be a Unitarian Universalist, and this friend heard something in Eileen’s story that made them say,

“Why don’t you check out my church?  I’ll pick you up on Sunday.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

The stories we tell our friends are important.  It is through the stories we share that someone gets to know us, how they learn what is important to us.

Imagine what Eileen’s reaction would have been to her friend’s invitation if, for a long time, Eileen had been hearing about all the things her friend valued about her church: interesting sermon topics, or community outreach programs, or book discussion groups, or potlucks and other fun get-togethers.

And also imagine what Eileen’s reaction would have been if, for the past several months, this friend had been sharing all of her frustrations about the less congenial aspects of the church.

It leads to two very different outcomes to this story.

In the first, Eileen might take the risk of showing up and join her friend that Sunday.

In the second, the risk doesn’t seem worth it; it appears too likely that Eileen won’t feel welcome.

A good portion of visitors come for the first time—take the risk of being unwelcome—because they know someone in the congregation, or otherwise heard good things about it.

Being the stranger walking in the door is like joining a conversation that started while you were out of the room.  Those who have been here a while already share some of the common narrative with each other: you know people’s names; you know some of the songs; you’ve been here for some of the story-telling and maybe for some of the story-making.

A visitor is starting with a blank slate at best.

So I think visiting a new congregation on Sunday is a lot like attending the memorial service of a person you don’t know.

These visitors can come from near or far.  They gather with us in common purpose, but they might not know our stories or our songs.  And as we choose the stories and songs to share, we teach them what is important to us.

But the core similarity is the risk factor: To show up is to risk being unwelcome.

That’s why I think it’s so critical that we save a seat for this visitor.  When they decide that they are ready to come—that they are ready to risk—and they show up, we’d better be ready for them, with a chair pulled out and waiting at the welcome table.

So what does it mean to be welcoming?

I think it means becoming masters of the art of hospitality.

I call it an art because hospitality must be cultivated and practiced.  We won’t always get it right, or reach the audience we wanted to, and there is always room for improvement and growth.

I learned about the art of hospitality when I was in Mexico this summer.

When we visited someone at their office or school, we were always, always offered coffee and a snack.

(That was something, by the way, I noticed right away when I first visited Groveland.)

But in Mexico, it went further than that.

When someone took the time to receive us and teach us, our professors made sure that our speaker was thanked by giving them a gift, thoughtfully chosen for the occasion.

When we went to a restaurant, one of my companions asked if they served beer.  When the waiter said yes, my companion ordered a beer.  The next thing we knew, the waiter had left the restaurant to walk down the street and buy a beer from the corner shop.  He brought it back and opened the bottle at our table.

Upon returning to the States, the lack of pervasive hospitality became suddenly apparent.  It was most apparent to me in places of business.

Where in Mexico shopkeepers greeted us personally, in the States you can walk in and out without ever speaking to another person.

I tried to figure out what role (if any) hospitality played in our marketplace, and I realized we call it by a different name.

We call it “Customer Service,” as though the art of hospitality is one more thing that can be purchased from across a counter.

What concerns me as I delve further into my studies is how many churches are beginning to model themselves after businesses.  And just as our businesses are losing touch with hospitality, the trend seems to be following in many churches, though religious communities were the founders of this art.

In the art of hospitality, there is no bottom line, no formula for success.  It’s not about numbers or attendance or dollar amounts per capita.  When we practice hospitality, we aren’t doing it so that it looks good on someone’s annual report, or so that we can somehow reach a point where we’re done being where we are, or any other foolish reason.

In being welcoming—in practicing the art of hospitality—we are simply being fully human and present while honoring another human for being present.

I’ll say that again.

In being welcoming—in practicing the art of hospitality—we are simply being fully human and present while honoring another human for being present.

One of the ways we can do this is by creating a space that is waiting, gently, ready to be filled by a visitor who comes searching for a place where they will fit.

This is what I mean by saving a seat at the welcome table.

In order to do this, I suggest we explore the possibilities of practicing “radical hospitality.”

When I first heard that term—Radical Hospitality—I was thinking that “radical” meant far-flung, or rebellious, or off the beaten path, and I tried to reconcile that with my idea of the art of hospitality, but it just wasn’t working.

So like any good Unitarian Universalist, I turned to the ultimate source of truth: the dictionary.

Under the definition for “radical,” I found the following synonyms:

  • basic
  • essential
  • complete
  • unqualified
  • thorough

Under antonyms, I found:

  • superficial
  • exclusive

So in practicing radical hospitality, we would be practicing basic, essential hospitality; complete, unqualified, thorough hospitality.  Hospitality that is not superficial or exclusive.

In my studies, the term was directly linked to matters of ethnicity, class, and education.

I suggest that Unitarian Universalists need to be thinking about this now.  As a congregation, but also as an Association, we need to start thinking about what we need to do to become more welcoming to people with which we have less in common.

To practice radical hospitality is to find a way to welcome those who are different from us—either because of the color of their skin, their level of education, or their social or economic class.

It may not seem imperative now.  But consider the following statistic presented at a recent meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association:

Of people in the US over the age of 65, 75% of them are white.

Of people in the US under the age of 10, 75% of them are multiracial.

The face of our nation is changing.  It’s already happening.  The question is how will we change to welcome them?

To practice radical hospitality, we must ask ourselves: How can we save a seat at the welcome table? Who isn’t here, and why aren’t they here?

I know we won’t come up with the answers today.

But I open the floor now for a few minutes of discussion.


This sermon was presented on October 10, 2010 to Groveland Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Paul, Minnesota where I am serving a quarter-time internship.  Readings used during the service included Responsive Reading #658 “To Risk” and Mary Oliver’s poem “Roses, Late Summer.”  Hymns included #1023 “Building Bridges” and #407 “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” from the UU hymnals Singing the Living Tradition and Singing the Journey.


About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
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One Response to Saving a Seat at the Welcome Table

  1. Leaping Loon says:

    A few interesting points I remember from our discussion:

    – Another way to reach out and practice radical hospitality is to figure out a way for you to be the one showing up and taking the risk, rather than waiting for someone else to be ready to visit you.

    – It isn’t just about whether we share positive or negative stories with our friends; a third option is staying silent and not even letting your friends know you have stories to share.

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