When I was a stranger

By Heather Grennan Gary| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Parish Life

Editors' note: Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

. . . you sent me a box of envelopes. Surely we need to warm up the welcome at our parishes, lest we become St. Mary of the Cold Shoulder.

One place we can and should be reminded of what true hospitality is—and given a chance to practice it—is in our parish.

I learned this lesson the hard way when my husband and I moved with our young family to a new town several years back.

While we were sad to say goodbye to our old parish and the community we’d built, we were eager to move. And when we met people in our new town, one of the first questions they’d ask was, “Have you found a church yet?” Our answer was pretty straightforward: We were Catholics, and there was one Catholic parish in town, so that was that.

During our first year there, we attended the big Sunday morning Mass, the bilingual Mass, and the Saturday vigil. We volunteered to be lectors, to teach English to Spanish-speaking parishioners, and to help with the parish website. We took part in a reading group and contributed financially to the parish. Our daughter was too young for the regular religious ed program, but she made the age cutoff for Vacation Bible School, so she went.

We tried our best to find ways to connect with others in the parish and put our faith in action. But months later when people asked, “Have you found a church yet?” we weren’t so sure. No one really seemed to care that we were there.

Most times, no one talked to us after Mass. The ushers, while efficient, rarely cracked a smile. The pastor stuck around after Mass for a couple minutes, tops. There was no coffee time, no welcome committee. At the parish picnic and Lenten fish fries, it always fell on us to ask to join people at a table, to introduce ourselves, to try to make small talk. Upon registration, our welcome was a box of collection envelopes that arrived in the mail.

We eventually cobbled together some Catholic community, but the people we connected with were similarly frustrated by parish life. Often they were new to the community or otherwise a bit on the outside. And while we knew that going to Mass was about more than our interaction with the congregation or whether the pastor greeted us, our attempts to be a part of the parish felt more futile week after week.

If you’re thinking, “This doesn’t sound at all like my parish,” I’m glad. But maybe it’s worth considering again. I’ll admit I never thought much about how welcoming my parish was until I landed somewhere I felt so very unwelcomed. After settling into a parish, it can be easy not to notice things that a visitor might.

Almost 1,500 years ago St. Benedict wrote in his rule for monastic life: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received me’ ” (Matt. 25:35).

Not many of us live in monasteries these days—or even visit them—but Benedict offers a directive that is good for all Catholics, in all circumstances, in all walks of life, but particularly in the parish.

True hospitality can seem elusive. In an era of Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray, of Pampered Chef gadgets and Waterford goblets, of the Food Network and HGTV, it can be hard to remember that hospitality does not equal entertaining. Similarly, when smiling Walmart employees greet shoppers as they enter the store—and when the very term “hospitality” is better recognized as the name of an industry rather than that of a practice—it can be easy to forget that hospitality is more than a business tactic.

At its root, true hospitality is a spiritual discipline that reminds us of how we ourselves have been received by Christ. Hospitality can be extended in countless ways: A smile, an introduction, an invitation are all small exercises that, as with any exercise, are building blocks to something greater. The more one practices hospitality, the better one can welcome and receive others.

In a perfect world parish leadership would set the tone for welcoming visitors through programs and structures. But individuals who are part of a less-hospitable parish don’t have an excuse: It’s the job of each one of us to reach out, even just a little bit, to the people around us, both those we recognize and those we don’t. Even if there’s no social time after Mass, it’s still possible to strike up a conversation or introduce oneself to someone sitting in the next pew.

For visitors and newcomers, for non-Catholics and those returning after a long absence, the people in the pews with them during Mass are not an insignificant part of their worship experience. The Catholic Church may have the Eucharist and the fullness of truth and grace, but it can be difficult to focus on those things when one feels uninvited. And precisely because the Catholic Church has these things, sometimes parishes and the individuals in them seem like they don’t feel they need to do much more.

Eventually, after my husband and I were fed up with feeling like the appendix of the Body of Christ—unwanted, unnecessary—we started visiting other churches. We encountered a remarkable array of hospitality efforts, some effective, some not.

At one church where we were clearly visitors, we were put in the uncomfortable position of being “welcomed” by being handed a microphone and having to stand up, say our names, and tell a little about ourselves.

At another, we were presented with a loaf of bread and a brochure about the congregation. Nothing like carrying around a loaf of bread to mark you as an outsider.

It became clear from our visits that hospitality is relative. What is too much for some is not enough for others. But there are some gestures of hospitality that are always appropriate at Mass: a smile, a nod, an offer to make space for another person, a “good morning”—none of these could be construed as excessive or intrusive.

The final church we visited had the magic touch. An acquaintance joined us in the pew and answered our questions before we asked them. We weren’t asked to publicly introduce ourselves or given anything, but a few folks did approach us afterward and looked us in the eye, shook our hands, and learned our names. They invited us to coffee time and to a religious education hour. They talked to our kids. Nothing was heavy handed—just a considerate, welcoming invitation into the life of the community.

We stayed.

And we stayed in large part because of their intentional practices of hospitality. “Intentional” sometimes meant formal, like the greeters at the door, organized coffee time, an invitation to join a small group, a pastor who took time to get to know us, the chance to introduce ourselves in the “newcomers” column in the bulletin.

But some intentional practices of hospitality were very informal and extended by individuals rather than the church itself: dinner invitations and baby hand-me-downs and offers to help pack and load the truck when we moved. On a Sunday morning when my 4-year-old threw up in the aisle right after the closing song, two women I barely knew told me to take care of my daughter and they’d clean the carpet. That’s hospitality.

These extensions of hospitality yielded benefits for all of us. We got to know the church community and were able to share our gifts. We were buoyed up with moral support and friendship and thoughtfulness. And we felt compelled to do the same for others.

While that church gave me a vision of what a truly hospitable congregation is, it’s what happened on the individual level that taught me the most. As an introvert, reaching out to others in the name of hospitality can be an uncomfortable stretch for me.

But now I better recognize true hospitality: It’s more than a tactic of getting people in the door, or getting them to stay. It’s not just for extroverts. And it’s more than a fancy gala or a blow-out parish festival. It’s a spiritual discipline of recognizing others, making space for them, and communicating their significance.

Mother Teresa has a quote that’s made the rounds on the Internet: “The biggest disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.” A nod and a smile and a kind word might not solve all the world’s problems, but it would be a start—both for the giver and the recipient.

Through the discipline of hospitality, every one of us can remedy that disease with those we encounter.

"And the survey says..."

1. My parish’s level of hospitality to visitors and newcomers:

31% - Is adequate.
26% - Is ideal.
25% - Needs a major overhaul.
14% - Is non-existent
4% - other

2. Parish hospitality efforts need to come from the pastor or other staff.

40% - Agree
25% - Disagree
35% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“The pastor and staff should lead the way, but the entire community should be involved.”

3. Most parishes I know seem to have an “in” crowd that can be hard to crack.

55% - Agree, and I’m not part of it.
19% - Agree, and I think I might be a part of it.
13% - Disagree.
13% - Other

4. If there is coffee or social time after Mass, I usually stay and socialize. 

59% - Agree
26% - Disagree
15% - Other

5. It is up to newcomers to get involved in order to become a part of the community.

41% - Agree
34% - Disagree
26% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“People will become involved when they are made to feel a part of the community.”

6. I have heard a sermon about hospitality in the past year. 

35% - Agree
59% - Disagree
6% - Other

7. It makes me uncomfortable to:

21% - Introduce myself to parishioners I’ve recognized for a long time but have never spoken with.
19% - Introduce myself to visitors and parishioners I don’t know.
3% - Be greeted at church by people I don’t know.
67% - I don’t get uncomfortable meeting new people at church.
5% - Other

This article appeared in the March 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 3, pages 22-26).

Results are based on survey responses from 155 USCatholic.org visitors.

Image: Darren Thompson