Years ago, I served a congregation in central Massachusetts and I lived in the neighboring town of Clinton, Massachusetts. New England is the only place in the country where Unitarian Universalists are commonly found in small towns, the kinds of places where white steeples break through the trees. One of my congregants owned a styling salon only two blocks from my apartment so I regularly walked two blocks to have my hair cut by Ann. We had the kinds of conversations that people normally have while the shears are clipping. One day I told Ann that I was always surprised by the friendliness that I encountered in Clinton. Strangers said, "Hello," when passing each other in the streets. Business owners downtown welcomed strangers when they walked into their shops. Despite the fact that the mills in town had drawn immigrants from Brazil and other places, people seemed to get along. This was in sharp contrast to the other small New England towns in which I had lived before—where "good fences make good neighbors," and attitudes excluded new people.
"What," I asked, makes Clinton different?" Ann paused a moment and said, "We remember what it means to be Irish." It took me a minute or two of silence to ruminate on what Ann said to understand what she meant. When the Irish first came to this country they were welcomed nowhere. Before the Irish potato famine began the exodus of Irish people out of Ireland into this nation, this country, with a few exceptional spots, was almost entirely English Protestant. No place in the United States was more Protestant than New England, where staunch Calvinists had settled centuries earlier to evade the imagined Roman Catholic practices of the Church of England. Their descendants, mostly Congregationalists and Unitarians, were not particularly pleased when Irish Roman Catholics were pouring into Boston. Signs went up in shop windows that read, "Help wanted, Irish need not apply." Fearing that they would be overrun by this foreign element, the native New Englanders enacted laws to deprive the Irish of jobs and access to power. The Irish were made to feel unwelcome.
The Irish at that time were not considered white. That seems such a strange thing of a group of people known for their pallor, but they were not considered part of white America. To many in the United States then they seemed poor, lawless, bad tempered, superstitious, illiterate, lazy, and that is just the beginning. They were probably the first emigrants from Europe not to be quickly assimilated into this nation. For more than a century in New England, Yankee families would not permit their children to marry the Irish.
As Ann said though, "We remember what it means to be Irish." She meant, "We remember what it means not to be welcomed and to struggle to find a place in the larger community. We remember what it means not to be accepted, let alone affirmed, for who we are." Ann felt that the memory of alienation stayed with the people in that town and moved them to welcome the stranger, to extend a welcome because they remembered its absence in their history. What does it mean to be hospitable? What does it mean to welcome the stranger? On this day, St. Patrick's Day, we remember that he was, by his own description, "despised in the eyes of many." He valued the hospitality and taught that such was a spiritual value, except for the snakes, of course.
In our times our faith also teaches us that hospitality is a spiritual value. The Unitarian Universalist welcome at its best is extended to groups of people not welcomed into many other religious movements, people who do not fit the normal stereotype of "church folk." We might think of those on independent journeys, those who are mixed in their theological views, those who are decidedly skeptics. All are worthy and all are welcome. We are committed to an open and fair society. We welcome theological and human diversity.
This welcome means that we are actively welcoming the stranger and advocating for his or her needs. We are making a place at the welcome table for the stranger. That means that we are advocating for a just and equitable society–and that is not a passive undertaking. We are here, in this welcome, to speak for those who cannot speak, to make the chair fit at the crowded table. This is the love that we show to those who are oppressed, it is our duty to press further and not to accept that this is the way things are nor to believe ourselves better because we have been blessed. As New Testament scholar, Victor Furnish, writes:
To love an oppressed neighbor surely means not to take advantage of his voiceless, powerless condition. But it means far more than that. And it even means more than acting in kindness. It means raising up those who have been put down and including those who have been left out. It means making sure that the unseen become visible, that the voiceless find speech, that the powerless are given power. There is no doubt that this is a radical love. It attacks the well-kept notion that only the competent and successful are worthy of inclusion and authority.
Are we welcoming in this way? Have we made sure that the unseen became visible? Have we made sure that the voiceless found speech? Are the powerless given power through our efforts? This is what love means in our movement. These are the kinds of welcomes that need to be given by all of us individually and as a religious community. We, who have presence, voice and power must offer our gifts to those who are not at the table.
We live in difficult times. These times are even more difficult for those who found the best of times a struggle. The poor and the hungry are in our neighborhood. Those who were invisible are even more so in times like these. What ways can we offer hospitality to those for whom the door is not opened? How can we raise up those who feel downtrodden?
If we remember the past, when we felt powerless and unwelcomed, how might we welcome the stranger? What might we do to extend ourselves to welcome the hungry, the powerless, the jobless, or the student? What hospitality might we extend further to those communities? Do we practice this spiritual path? Do we remember what it means to be Irish or atheist or African American or gay or a woman or poor? Do we let such labels define us in ways that cause us to forget that we must constantly reach out to the sacred other? Do we accept that we have made a success in our struggle and forget the struggles of others?
These are questions that I can only ask. I do not know the answers to them. I know that remembering our roots can enable us to reach out to other people more actively.
This welcome requires sincerely committed hospitality as a spiritual discipline. The English writer and playwright, Alan Bennett writes about his unusual hospitality to Miss Sheppard. Miss Sheppard was an elderly, mentally disabled woman who lived in a van in Alan Bennett's front yard for years. Bennett never gave the reason why he permitted Miss Sheppard to live on his front yard but he does write in other essays about his religious commitment.
As former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association and President of Amnesty International, William Schultz, wrote in the chalice lighting today:
This is the mission of our faith:
To teach the fragile art of hospitality;
To revere both the critical mind and the generous heart;
To prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness;
And to witness to all that we must hold the whole world in our hands.
This affirmation tells us that the art of hospitality is "fragile"—something delicate, easily broken. It is something that we need to remember time after time and to become more deliberate and imaginative about.
Hospitality is not only a value for our community but also for us as individuals. In the first ministry I served after seminary, I was the half-time interim minister to a congregation in central Massachusetts. I lived in the Boston area so I commuted to the church. Though it was not that far from my apartment, it was more practical for me to travel to that small, rural town and stay two or three days each week. The parsonage was occupied by the widow of the previous minister. No inexpensive rooms could be taken nearby so, I stayed often in the homes of congregants, usually when they were out of town. Because no restaurants were nearby, I often ate at congregant’s homes as well. Keeping an interim minister meant more for that congregation than just paying a salary. It meant that they had to practice hospitality. I remember staying one week in a twenty seven-room mansion then sleeping in an only slightly converted barn the next week. I ate with the poor farmer who talked about his apple orchard and the very wealthy, prominent lawyer in his weekend mansion. Being New Englanders, congregants' hospitality was initially reserved. Later, as they knew me, they became more relaxed and some did not even bother to put on their shoes when the minister came to supper.
I still remember the hospitality offered to me by a three-year girl named Estelle while her mother made supper in the kitchen. We talked for a few minutes in their family room. The conversation tapered off and she asked me, "Do you want to watch a potty-training video?" So, we watched a clown happily doing all the right things in the video. It struck me that she was sharing where she was that evening, complete with what she thought was good entertainment; that her hospitality was real.
Hospitality was just as important in the early Christian churches. The early churches met in the homes of the wealthier members in those days. Those who offered their homes as "house churches" were usually women. In those times, one of the few skills that women were permitted was that of hospitality. It was more through hospitality that the early church thrived and grew than the permutations of Christian theology. The early Christians believed that it was their duty to recognize the sacredness in every human being who joined with them. They shared the food and wine that they had with strangers and even more radically, the rich sat at the table with the poor. Nowadays, given the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, that would still be radical. Two thousand years later we are still endeavoring to create the spirit that was with those early Christians in our own culture—even if we are not Christians theologically. Those early Christians flung open the doors of their house churches and invited people to attend. They fed the hungry. They clothed the naked. They visited the prisoner. They treated every person as sacred. Though they were challenged by a government that feared their spirit, they won converts. Their success did not come through strength of arms or wealth and publicity. It came because they practiced their faith—and their faith taught them to welcome the stranger as a child of God.
Now, you might be thinking, "Why is Larry telling us about the early Christians?" After all, most Unitarian Universalists do not consider themselves Christians. But being a Christian is only secondary to the description of the early Christians. The important element to their progress was that they lived their faith in practice more than in theory. For a Unitarian Universalist congregation to thrive it must welcome the stranger and offer its bounty to the larger community. It must open the doors of its church to those seeking relationship and people living out their values.
We cannot do so with pride. Otherwise, our efforts will seem condescending and our hospitality will fail. Rather, we must remember what it means to be Irish, to be Black, to be poor, to be gay, to be an atheist, to be a woman. Hospitality offered that remembers our own alienation from power or community, hospitality that comes from our own recollection of what it means to be the stranger will authentically guide the spirit of our faith.
In our own lives, the spirit of hospitality might also be welcomed, sharing our lives and our bounty with others, opening ourselves to others different from ourselves, insuring that no one is a stranger for long.
The early Christians were warned about welcoming the stranger into their communities. They knew that the stranger offered the opportunity for their community to be changed, for them to be changed. They knew that the stranger could challenge them. Conversely, they knew that the stranger might also be offering up a blessing unto their lives. Let us end today with a warning given by Paul of Tarsus telling us of a possible consequence of hospitality. Know that this is the risk that you take when you remember what it means to be Irish. Paul writes:
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that without knowing it some have entertained angels. (Heb.13: 1&2)