On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, March 17, 2006

What Are You Doing Here

As I kneaded bread this morning I was pondering the ways in which particular religious communities either do or don't make people feel welcome. I've had enough experience in different places to be able to make at least some observations on the subject. I'd like to offer some tentative conclusions as to the whys of it.

The words, "What are you doing here?" were actually addressed to me when I was in college. I had gone with a friend to the spaghetti dinner that the Catholic Center made available to any student who wished to attend (donations encouraged!) on Sunday nights when the cafeteria didn't serve dinner. I hadn't heard about it my freshman year, but my friend Maryann had been involved with an ecumenical group which met at the Catholic Center, so she was in the know. I was standing with her waiting for time to start lining up when someone I knew walked up to me. She was a girl who'd been in my classroom from first through eighth grade (we moved to another town after eighth grade). She knew that I had not grown up Catholic. The first words out of her mouth were not, "Hey it's nice to see you." or "Longtime, no see." they were, "What are YOU doing here?" said in a very accusatory tone.

What she did not know was that I was feeling some small attraction to the Catholic Church. I was pretty unenchanted with fundamentalism at that point, and a variety of things had happened that were making me give at least a timid glance at the Catholic Church. It was very tentative and it was incredibly timid (after all I'd been brought up to think of the Church as not Christian at all). I'd been to Mass a couple of times (again with Maryann) and there was something there that I couldn't put my finger on.

That encounter with Jane was like a bucket of cold water in the face. For a long, long time after that every time I thought about the Catholic Church, or the possibility of becoming Catholic those words reverberated in my head. Years later I had wondered about becoming Catholic for awhile before reading Rome Sweet Home, but I didn't know how or what the process was, or whether I really needed to do it. It felt like a closed club where perhaps I wasn't welcome. The priests I'd encountered at ecumenical gatherings seemed to be so intent on ecumenism and making people feel good about where they were, that they didn't really seem like people to approach about becoming Catholic. My Catholic friends all seemed to be Protestant wannabees, they couldn't imagine leaving the Church, but they could only gush about how lucky I was to not have been brought up Catholic. They made it seem like a closed club whose members weren't even happy about being in it. Since I also knew a lot of Protestants who used to be Catholic that impression was pretty well reinforced. It was only after reading Rome Sweet Home, that I began to see that a. I needed to seriously consider becoming Catholic and b. there was an actual established process to do it, even if you weren't marrying a Catholic. Fortunately at that moment I had an acquaintance (who became a dear friend), whose attitude was far different than Jane's. When I asked Ellen, again very tentatively, "Have you ever heard of Scott Hahn?" she nearly jumped for joy. Within days she'd introduced me to tapes and books and begun a real process of encouragement. She ultimately was not only my sponsor, but a year later, my daughter's as well.

Now I will not ever say that the Catholic Church is the only place I encountered a less than enthusiastic reception as a newcomer. The Congregationalist Protestant church I attended for years was just as unwelcoming at first, even though I was married to a member of the congregation. I've encountered varying degrees of welcome in evangelical/fundamentalist circles as well. My first encounters with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at UVM put me off the organization for two years (I was from a Pentecostal background and none of them were - there were definite sub-cultures in Protestantism as well!) I've developed a bit tougher skin over the years and am able to go into groups where I don't get an immediate welcome. I've learned to shoehorn myself in and, in doing so, have made new friends.

I don't think that I'm the only one who's ever encountered this sort of reception, however. My kids reception at the Catholic Center was far better, my son did RCIA there and my daughter made it virtually her home away from home her freshman year. Things were different for them, though. They were already at home in the Catholic Church before they got there. However, there have still occasionally been problems with people feeling excluded, even there.

The parish we attend is not intentionally unwelcoming, but a newcomer would find it hard to know that. There are no stuctures in place that immediate help someone connect with other people or feel invited in. As a now longtime member of "the club" I never know just how to be welcoming to new people. In the years after RCIA I tried a few times to go out of my way to connect with some of the catechumens, but most of them didn't seem to welcome that. Perhaps they were simply not interested in anything more than a quiet personal approach to Catholicism. If that's the case they sure found the right place. It's a parish where, if you shoehorn your way in, you are actually quite welcome, but if you don't you will remain on the fringes.

However, I've watched a few people, including one from my RCIA group, leave the parish because it really never made a place for them. Fortunately, there's another parish in the city that is quite welcoming and they've found a home there. The question I have to ask then is: what makes the difference? How can we be welcoming to people without being overwhelming (as some fundamentalists churches can be)? Is it merely a matter of the size of the congregation? After all with four masses a weekend it's sort of difficult to know if this is truly a new person, or if they just usually attend a different mass. The more welcoming parish, however used to have as many masses a weekend and they still seemed to exude welcome.

I've watched my daughter's friends include some rather difficult people in their group and befriend them. They've welcomed people whose social graces left a lot to be desired, not just the golden girls and boys. They've welcomed people who weren't Catholic, or even Christian. Some have stuck around and even joined the Church, others have drifted away.

When I look back on that encounter with Jane from the perspective I have now, I can see some different things than I saw then. First of all she knew me when I was an avid Pentecostal kid. Conversions were not that common in our town, nor I suspect in our state. Even now a significant number of people that go through RCIA do it because they are marrying or are married to a Catholic. I suspect that Jane, like my later Catholic friends, saw no particular reason for a Protestant to become a Catholic. She knew I wasn't part of "the club", she saw the dinner as a benefit of being part of "the club", and she couldn't imagine that I would ever want to join "the club." I don't think she really didn't want me there, she just couldn't figure out why I would be there.

Unenthusiastic, even if habitual, Catholics are not going to go out of their way to welcome people in to the Church. When you are looking, in a certain sense, either at the greener grass on the other side of the fence, or for an exit door to escape, the last thing you are going to do is encourage someone else to join you in your misery. If you don't see the Catholic Church as a treasure house, but instead view it as a prison you aren't even going to see why someone else would want to join.

In general evangelical churches I've attended have a lot of people who are happy to be where they are. The most enthusiastic ones didn't necessarily grow up there, they chose it. Consequently, they have all kinds of understanding about why someone might want to try it out. They regularly invite their friends to church and make sure they feel welcome.

Now interestingly, for some people that very enthusiasm is off-putting. They don't want their presence to be all that noticed, they'd rather acclimate quietly. Of course that sort of person doesn't often change "pews" so to speak. Even they are generally made somewhat more comfortable if they feel at least one person, whether the pastor, or the DRE, or the greeter makes them feel like they are welcome.

No one responds well to a "what are YOU doing here?" No one responds well to a, "Why would you want to leave your lovely green pasture for this prison?" I wonder whether the key to making people feel welcome isn't, in part, to help the people who are already there recognize the treasure they have. If you realize that it's the fullness of the faith, why would you encourage other people to settle for less?

We need our priests to encourage us to explore the depths of the faith. We need to hear homilies that don't just begin and end with "love everybody." We need to hear about the graces we receive and how they strengthen us. We need to hear about how to have a devotional life that nurtures our faith. We need to hear the truths that the early Church fathers taught. Only as Catholics in the pew begin to recognize what they have will they be inspired to "pass it on." As they are inspired to do that the welcome mat will begin to be more apparent to newcomers.

God graced me with the right book being in the right place at the right time. He graced me with a friend who had open arms. I am in the Church now, only because of God's grace. It's not because I was smarter, or holier, or more sincere than my friends. I know that I'm not the only Protestant that's ever felt out of the club, however. My sister told me when I became Catholic that she always thought it was an exclusive club. It's one she never got around to joining. I wonder if there'd been an Ellen in her life if things might have been different.

So, thank you Scott and Kimberly, and thank you, Ellen. Thank you to the Catholics who do treasure their faith and made me feel like it was a great adventure to share. Let's all dig deeper into the treasure store and then offer to share the treasures with the other treasure seekers.

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