Entertaining Angels by Rev. Taryn Strauss

For many children in DeKalb County, this was the first week of school.   In my household, this was one of the biggest weeks of our lives.  After four years of cobbling together childcare, straining both the boundaries of friendship and the goodwill of employers, hiring nannies and sitters, rushing home to drive the boys home from their ½ day preschool in the middle of the day, the day came when we finally had to push our twin boys towards the towering, impossibly institutional school building.  Where, for the first time, they would be in separate classrooms.  Alone.

It could have been a tragedy, or a terror.  Instead, the first day of school at this public pre-K was one of the sweetest experiences in recent memory.  From the beautifully manicured entrance, blooming with vibrant floral glory, to the gym teacher, a laughing, hi-fiving Coach Everett, and his colorful socks featuring a familiar Sesame Street character.  I could feel my son’s hand beginning to loosen its iron grip as he waved back at the friendly teachers, each of them stationed so as to ensure a hearty welcoming presence every ten feet as parents brought their children into the building and left them at the final drop off destination.  One of the first to greet them was the therapy dog, a fluffy little poodle mix who they were invited to cuddle as needed.

By the time we arrived at the cafeteria, where their teachers and class were waiting for them, they also arrived to clear directions for where to put their belongings, with a simple puzzle to engage them immediately on the table.  By that point, we had experienced almost ten points of contact, each of them welcoming us inside, learning our names, smiling and wearing welcoming name tags so we could know them in return.   By the time they sat at the table with toys, next to their new classmates, our children were fully disengaged from us, comfortable and at ease.  They felt like they belonged.

Imagine the extent of our relief as we walked to our car, releasing our own first-day jitters, the weight lifted so palpably we wiped tears from our eyes.

It occurred to me this school has a philosophy of welcome more clearly defined and expertly activated than well, UUCA.  We do a great job, and we are so grateful for all of our wonderful volunteers, but what if we treated each Sunday like the first day of school?

These days, it is vital that we understand how providing a powerful ministry of welcome is directly responding not only to our theological call as Unitarian Universalists who honor the individual’s search for truth, wherever you are on your journey, but also our call to respond to the xenophobia and state-sponsored racism that is becoming a hallmark of this era.

On November 16, 2016, Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of our time who died this past week, wrote an editorial in the New Yorker magazine:

“This is a serious project. All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color.

Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.”

That same week after November 9, 2016, someone very wise said to me in response to my lamentation, you know, Trump is not the president of your family.  This administration is not the government of your family, nor your congregation.  This is still true today.

I have lived in Mexico, amongst a family who welcomed me as their own, offered me their bedroom for five months, made me dinner every single evening and called me “daughter.”  Their hospitality was authentic, unwavering, and for everyone I met while I lived abroad, there was no higher value than staying close with family.

This week, in America del Norte, like you, I opened the paper to discover a fresh horror amidst horrors, the news that a shooter had driven to a Walmart supercenter in El Paso, a destination for people on both sides of our border, specifically to target Latinos.  Another day in North America, another horror: I opened to paper to learn over 600 people had been taken from their place of work, instantly orphaning hundreds of children.  Apparently, this raid on a chicken processing plant had been planned for months, though no one thought to contact the dept of family services.  I learned Mississippi is one of the only states without an immigration court, therefore it is unclear how these Americans, yes, I am calling them Americans because they contribute to our economy, they raise their families here, they send their children to our schools and they probably even paid taxes, it is unclear how these Americans will be able to seek representation and ever return from their detainment.

At this point in the dismantling of our democracy and the American dream, though I am an optimist by nature, I cannot with certainty say that Love Wins.  I cannot say that Love Wins.  I simply know that Love Is.  Love is.  It is always present, and that is enough.

With every passing day we are made to believe we are more powerless to resist the onslaught of injustices.  But we do have agency here.  We have the power to respond with Love, to remember that whenever we are told to build a wall, or keep a gate, we proclaim Love there.  What is Love calling you to do, right now?

There are so many barriers being erected.  Barriers of language, and we heard earlier how the poet Naomi Shye made a way through that barrier.  It’s those small opportunities, and we must notice them.

Just the other day, I decided that whenever I wanted to cater a meeting with congregants here at UUCA, I would use it as an opportunity to support a family who has resettled here from Syria.  They recently started an informal catering business called Aleppo Kitchen.  This was a small, easy decision.  And yet, there were so many small barriers.  Little American assumptions I brought to the interaction.  They have four children and they are trying to establish a life here in Decatur.  It would be cheaper, and much easier to just use Moe’s, which has been my habit at UUCA.  My friend built a Facebook page for them, but no menu!  What will they serve us at our meeting?  What is it called?  What is the price?

I looked for a number and found it.  The hours of availability:  Literally anytime, it said.

I called the number, and found myself talking to Barwin, the mom, owner and chef, on her personal phone.   She answered, and when I asked what she would serve, she listed a number of things I did not understand.  She gave the price.  Far too expensive!  I thought and started to give up.  Memories of my time living in Mexico flooded to me, and I realized she was not expecting me to accept the price.  I asked for a menu.  She texted me pictures of the dishes.  They look delicious.  I asked if I could use a credit card.  No, was her reply.  Ugh, this means I have to pay out of pocket.  I should give up.  I asked if she could go cheaper still.  She offered a new price.  This was all over text message, with anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes in between correspondence.  The entire process was taking hours.  We finally settled on a menu, well I think, we’ll see how it all comes out in a couple of hours.  Then I asked if she can give me a receipt, and she replies no.  This was where I really had to wrestle with my decision.   I called her on the phone, and somehow through our broken English, we are able to communicate better than the text.  Yes, was what she meant.

Would you have given up?  When communication becomes confusing, time consuming, when people do not respond according to your culture, do you give up?  Or, can you rearrange your expectations, your priorities?  Can you get a little powdered sugar on your face?

At UUCA, if you have found belonging here, are you gatekeeping the culture that comforts you?  Or are you staying flexible, dynamic, open, attentive to the angels who are coming into our doors.

What do we have to lose when we practice radical hospitality?

A few months ago, at my ordination, Rev. Jake Morrill gave us a charge: he told us to Never quench our thirst.  Seek comfort, and once you have found it, do not settle for comfort.  Stay thirsty.  Find comfort, and then grow, and stretch.

Imagine if my kids have entered their school, and for the most part, the students and faculty largely stuck to talking only to people they already knew.  My kids are attending an immersion school, meaning about ? or more of the student body are children with severe disabilities.  This is part of the rationalization for radical welcome.  This is why they have not one, but two cute therapy dogs, why so much of the feeling of the school and the design of the building is open, easy, and welcoming.  Because if the building and the programs are designed for those who struggle with moving through the outside world, then everyone will find ease of access, and be welcomed with sweetness and extra care.

Love Is.  We must never quench our thirst.

There is more that we can do now, to respond to the moral degradation of our society with love.

I have spent the summer praying and researching the best way to respond with Love to this inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers.

I would like us to consider two paths.  As a faith community, we have resources of time, talent, money, power, agency.  Let us use them wisely, and carefully.  I would like to suggest we gather once per week, for a letter-writing party.  We can meet during the day or during the evening, sharing food and playing music.  Let’s write letters to our congresspeople each week, our senators, and others in our government.  Let them know we oppose the family separation policy, and it’s heartless enforcement.  Let them know we demand children be released from detention.  Meanwhile, we can partner with a Georgia organization to write letters to people detained in Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, and we can write letters to children in detention, letting them know we are thinking of them, and we send them our love and our prayers.   Once per month, a small group of us will go to Stewart Detention Center to deliver the letters, and anything else we can.  It’s a couple of hours away from us, and it is one of the worst detention centers in the country in terms of the facility and the treatment of detainees.  We must bear witness to this atrocity.  Who knows what will come of this action.  We cannot know yet.  I also think that if this administration wants to separate families, then it is our religious and moral call to reunite families.  Which brings me to the next strand of our two-pronged response.

I call on us to get intimately involved in reuniting families.  Catholic Social Services may be one partner for us, but we need to find partners and sponsor a family’s reunification.  It may require bailing someone out of detention, or finding housing for someone, but if we can sponsor just one family reuniting, we will have done something to add to the forces of love in this time of hate and injustice.

This may not be your calling.  It is enough to practice the ministry of radical hospitality right here at UUCA.

Together, we can learn to practice radical welcome to newcomers in our midst, to people in our congregation who don’t know the ropes around here.  The benefit of our wilderness experience is that we are all learners now.  We have held each other resiliently during our transition to this Tree House, and now to a new ministry.

Unitarian Universalism tends to have a big theological tent, yet its culture, the way it feels can be very small and insular.  We are poised in Atlanta to be different.  Let someone new into your heart, for the way they challenge you may be a true gift to your life.

Whether this radical hospitality comes naturally to you, or it is a learning curve.

Perhaps you are sitting here wondering if you are the stranger?  Guess what?  You belong here!  No one belongs here more than anyone else!  We all belong, whether we speak in worship, or we never do.  Whether we sit in the back or the front, whether we feel out of place, or at home.

Jesus, in his time, traversed political borders as a nomad, not only to spread his message of revolutionary love, and to escape persecution, but also as a lifelong commitment to the idea that borders are not real.  Not the political borders, and not the social borders we construct to feel safe.  Let’s all get a little bit of powdered sugar on our faces, like the strangers in the airport, like the sparkling sweetness of true connection, and true community.

In her commencement speech to Bard College in 1979, Toni Morrison wrote that The function of freedom is to free somebody else.”  She was using the allegory of Cinderella and her stepsisters.  Freedom is not finite.  Power is not finite either, and if we can use our individual power to welcome people, imagining them as angels among us, then we can use our collective power to reunite a family, and proclaim love and freedom in a world that desperately needs us to act.  Now.