The Power Of Community by Chance Hunter


I grew up in Oklahoma City, and if you’ve ever spent any time
there, you’ve experienced Oklahomans’ pure, unadulterated,
overwhelming friendliness. Strangers get bear hugs. People have
wordless arguments trying to wave the other car on ahead at stop
lights. And everyone standing in line with you at the grocery store is
on the short list for your newest best friend.

It was very annoying.

I just wanted to buy my gallon of milk and go home. I didn’t
want to make any new best friends, especially not any who were buying
Count Chocula and bad beer.

It wasn’t until I moved to Boston that I started to appreciate
that overwhelming Oklahoman friendliness. After a few months of New
England stand-off-ish-ness, I started to long for that hug from a
stranger at church. Well, okay, just a handshake.

I was still Boston-ized enough to be freaked out anytime someone
looked me in the eye on the subway, but – on Sunday mornings,
especially – that reluctance to look someone in the eye and
offer a warm handshake made me feel a certain hollowness. Things were
quicker at the grocery store, to be sure, but it was as though people
were afraid of that most basic level of hospitality, that warmness
where we acknowledge that the person in front of us is valuable, and
that we’d like to know they think we’re valuable too.

The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, in his book Exclusion &
Embrace
, lays out what I like to call a “theology of hugs
and handshakes.” Or you could just call it a “spirituality
of welcome.”

He tells us that embrace happens in four acts, and the first act of
embrace, is opening our arms. (Ask everyone to open their arms.)

I happen to know an expert at this first act of embrace. Her name is
Toonces Warrior Princess. Inside the house, our cat Toonces is a
feisty Torty who takes no prisoners. But we found out – after a
while – that outside, Toonces was a one-cat welcome wagon.

What we found out is that Toonces – an Oklahoman, as it turns
out – would sit on the ledge next to the sidewalk and wait for
people to walk by. Once she spotted someone, she would jump down onto
the sidewalk, roll onto her back, and show her big white belly.
(Please, don’t tell Toonces I said she has a big belly.
She’s still a Warrior Princess, after all.)

We found this out because our Boston neighbors – had started to
talk to us! “You have the friendliest cat,” they’d
say. “Are you sure you’re talking about our cat?”
we’d ask. “Is it the Torty with the white boots and
belly?” And all of a sudden, we found we had an all new Toonces
on our hands. And we found we had new neighbors.

What Toonces had done was open herself up to the Stranger, to the
Other. She had put herself in a physically – and, for a cat, if
I could be so bold – a socially vulnerable position in hopes of
a free belly rub. She had no way of knowing who would return her
gesture of embrace. She didn’t know that anyone would return her
gesture of embrace. Yet she did it all the same.

Opening our arms to another is a signal that we would like to embrace
them. And when it’s in public, it’s a signal to everyone
else too. It’s a moment of vulnerability, even of public
vulnerability. They might not return our handshake, and everyone
who’s watching will know. And, worst of all, we’ll know it
too.

But it’s also a signal that we’ve made space for them.
Sometimes they want the embrace, and our open arms or extended hand
tells them we’re up for it.

In congregational life, open arms take the form of welcome ministries.
Ministries like our Sunday morning greeters – and there will be
a training session this Saturday – I have to get my plug in
– and like our “Introducing UUCA” question and
answer sessions – are ways that we as a congregation open our
arms to new people, to new faces.

Now it’s time for our second act. I want everyone to open those
arms back up again… and just hold them… a little more
… And the second piece of embrace … is waiting.

How did that feel? Was it awkward? Did you feel some tension? Did you
feel self-conscious doing that in a room full of people? Did you want
me to stop?

Waiting is hard enough to begin with. I’m not good at waiting. I
want my emails to go out immediately. I want web pages to load up
immediately. And I want traffic on the Connector to clear out
immediately.

Waiting for someone else to extend their hand toward mine or to move
forward for a hug is a different kind of waiting altogether. What if
they leave me hanging? Sometimes I think I’d rather be stuck on
the Connector than to stand there in the social hall with my hand out
there, trying to give someone a handshake – or worse, a hug
– when they ignore me and just walk on by. In front of god and
everyone.

Until we wait, there is no embrace. We know this; this is nothing new.
In fact, we know it so well that it might just be the number one
reason we choose not to even start an embrace. We know we’ll be
putting ourselves out there. We know that for one long, vulnerable
moment, our offer of friendship to another is up for grabs. They might
not take us up on our offer. And then where will we be?

But there is more at stake than our own feelings of vulnerability.
Waiting expresses respect. Waiting tells the other person that the
embrace is a choice, that we will not force it upon them. Waiting is a
recognition of their worth and dignity. It’s a way of saying
that they have every bit as much of a right to be a part of that
embrace as we do. Waiting says to them, “You can say no.”

Maybe that’s why I was so uncomfortable with Oklahoma-style
embrace. It felt like a tiny social assault. “If I don’t
know you, if I’m not looking you in the eye, if I’m even
avoiding your glance, I don’t want to start a get-to-know you
conversation in the checkout line.” It felt as though their
discomfort with silence, their uneasiness, was the reason for their
offer of embrace. It felt as though the embrace was not about me at
all.

(I’m a lot of fun in the checkout line, huh?)

Perhaps part of our reluctance to embrace is a desire to not inflict
people with a “too much information” kind of embrace, with
more friendliness than they’re comfortable with. Our reluctance
can be a sign of respect, an effort to embrace unto others, as we
would have them embrace unto us.

But let me ask you this:

How many people who walk through these sanctuary doors for the first
time are looking to not be looked in the eye, to not be embraced? How
many people make the courageous step of coming to an unknown faith
community a blank slate for the first time or who come here every week
hope that no one will look them in the eye, shake their hands and
introduce them to other people? How many, do you think?

Our third act – and we ‘ve got our outstretched, waiting
hands – takes us to the penultimate act of embrace itself:
closing the arms. Each person holds the other. For a moment, a new
thing has been created, a social – and physical –
“we.”

We speak in our Principles of “the interdependent web of
existence of which we are a part.” Sometimes that feels to me
like the “interdependent web” is something that’s
passive, something that’s there no matter what. Something that I
might be able to protect, or have to protect – through things
like recycling and environmental activism – but not something
that I’ve created or even chosen.

But I believe that the interdependent web is something I can co-create
– that each new embrace, each time I introduce someone to
someone else, each new relationship builds that interdependent web. I
can do more than just protect it. I can weave new strands into that
web. I can create new connections. I can mark off new spaces.

We can, I believe, choose to create a new and re-newed web.

When I was moving into my office, someone had left in there a bumper
sticker – and I’d love to know who left it. The bumper
sticker reads, “The most radical thing we can do is to introduce
people to one another.”

What if on Sunday mornings our social hall and our hallways were
filled with people introducing themselves to each other, even
introducing people to each other. What kind of a place would this
become? Would it be a place you’d want to be a part of?

And finally we find ourselves at the fourth act: Opening the arms back
up again, and letting go. No embrace is complete until it’s
ended.

For one thing, no one wants a creepy embrace: the uncomfortably long
hug – you’ve got to pat it out – or the handshake
that lingers. Letting go can be a way of saying, “We would be
one, but we would also return back to being ourselves.” It
balances our community with our individuality. Even if we don’t
want to let go, it affirms the Other’s wish to let go.
It’s another signal of respect for their worth and dignity.

I’d say it’s a fair guess that all of us here this morning
who have made this our religious community for any length of time have
done so because we found here some small circle of embrace. Some small
group of people who we got to know, who knew our names, and then knew
our stories. A landing pad where we could safely touch down.

It might have been a covenant group, or a social action team, folks
you met in an adult RE class, or parents of your child’s
friends.

For me it was the 20/30s group. A few years back, my wife Emily and I
noticed that there were other folks our age here on Sunday mornings,
but that we all took off right after service. We knew other folks were
here, but we didn’t have an easy to get to know each other.

So we put a notice in the Cliffhanger that we were starting a
“Sunday School class” — that’s kind of old
school for a young adults group – a Sunday School class for
people in their twenties and thirties. Our hope was that a weekly get
together would give us a chance to get to know each other as a group.
There were six or eight of us that first Sunday, and before too long
there were ten or fifteen of us who came who came regularly, as often
as we could.

In time, folks started adding Sunday lunches, trips to the pub,
service projects, parties, and covenant groups. To the point that
today there are dozens of people involved in 20/30s activities. The
group has become a landing pad, a place where people can find their
place at UUCA. It’s their first circle of embrace.

But no embrace is complete until it’s ended, until there’s
a release. It’s hard to leave our first circle of embrace.
It’s warm, it’s familiar, it’s safe. We know we can
rely on it. We know it will be there for us. Why would we ever want to
leave that?

Embrace is a cycle. We begin with an outstretched hand, we wait for
the Other to stretch their hand in return, shake, and let go. And
then, we begin again. Until we let go, we can’t embrace that
person again. Until we let go, we can’t embrace someone else,
and then someone else… Letting go doesn’t have to mean
breaking up. It can mean widening the circle, or even creating new
circles, overlapping circles.

We can never create too many circles of embrace for each other. There
is no shortage of creativity and leadership here. And there’s no
shortage of friendship and hospitality. There is as much here as we
wish to tap into. The interdependent web we weave is as deep and as
wide as we dare to weave it.