Going Home Again for the First Time

by The Rev. Tony Lorenzen

Sunday, September 23, 2007

First Parish Church in Billerica, MA



              “Get outta here, faggot!”  He shouted at me. And he stared at me with one of those stares that says trouble is going to follow if I didn’t do what he said.  Two other young men came out from the shadows of the house and stood behind him in the doorway, one holding a beer bottle, the other with his arms crossed over his chest.

                  I’m a nonviolent type, but I also don’t scare very easily.       They were young. I figured it was worth one more shot to show them I wasn’t intimidated and to find out if they really meant it.

 “This isn’t about whether or not you approve of homosexuality; it’s about equal rights for all citizens in…”

                  “I said GET OUT QUEER BOY!”

                  You don’t have to tell me twice.  Well, sometimes you do.

                  This incident happened to me in the fall of 2005 in a Massachusetts town not too far from here while I was going door-to-door gathering support and passing out information on behalf of Mass Equality’s campaign for equal marriage rights in Massachusetts.  It’s difficult to explain the need for welcoming places for our Lesbian, Gay, BiSexual, Transgender sisters and brothers until you walk a mile in their shoes.  And I walked many miles in their shoes.  Since sexual orientation really isn’t a choice, you can’t really know what it’s like to be gay if you’re straight or straight if you’re gay.  But you can experience just a fraction, and it is just a fraction, of what it’s like to be shunned and made to feel unwelcome and outcast for being gay, by doing something like canvassing door to door for Mass Equality or another Gay Rights group. 

                  I did a lot of door knocking for Mass Equality.  Equal rights for everyone is something I believe in very strongly.  It is a religious belief of mine.  As a Unitarian Universalist, I take our first principle very seriously – that all beings should be treated with dignity and respect. For me, that means equal treatment under the law and no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 

                  While I went door to door for Mass Equality, the people I worked with knew I was a straight male, but I never told anyone I talked to “in the field.”  What did it matter? Let people assume what they will.  A lot of people, both people who signed petitions and post cards and called their legislators in support equal marriage rights and people who told me to get lost, assumed I was gay.  After all, I was working for a “gay” cause.  I heard a lot of “we support your people’s cause” statements and “I’ve got nothing against you gay people.”  I also ran into a few sticky situations such as the rude young men who called me nasty names because they assumed I was gay.  Not very welcoming, those guys. And even though I am not usually afraid for my safety, it is easy to understand, after walking a few miles in gay shoes why it is necessary to be afraid for your safety even in the suburban streets of Massachusetts if you’re gay.

                  Because the world can be an unwelcoming place, it is imperative that church be a welcoming place, for everyone.  Not just in word, but in deed.  It’s one thing to be certified a welcoming congregation, it’s another thing to actively work at being as welcoming as we possibly can be.  It takes constant practice and attention.

                  Let me tell you some other stories.  When I was in college at Fitchburg State I started a chapter of Amnesty International there.  Through those efforts I met a student on campus from Pinville, Soweto, South Africa.  Eventually, through my friendship with her I was invited to the International Student Union meetings.  I had never thought of going, I wasn’t an International Student.  So one winter day, I attended.  It was one of the most memorable days of my life.  You see, no one there looked like me.  There were black people and brown people and yellow people.  People speaking Spanish and Portuguese and Chinese and Japanese and Korean and Arabic and not one person with light skin who spoke English as a first language.  “So this is what it feels like.” I remember thinking.  I remember that moment as clearly as any one moment of my life.  The only people I knew in the room were my friend from South Africa and one other student from a Spanish class, but then grace and blessing kicked in and I was welcomed and made to feel as at home as if I had belonged there all along.  Everyone introduced himself or herself to me.  I had an experience that virtually NEVER happens in America. I was the token white person for two hours.

                  We live in a racist culture.  Being welcoming sometimes isn’t enough on it’s own, we also have to be inviting.  The invitation can’t be “you are welcome to come be like us,” but “we invite you to come bring your contribution to our community and help it grow and learn and develop and even change.”

                  When you’re different, when you’re lesbian, sit in a wheelchair, Black, have a learning disability, Latino all people see are the differences.  They don’t see who you really are beyond  the politics of identity and thus you can’t ever be at home.  You’ve probably been wondering why there are two nametag stickers on your seats this morning. They’re for a little experiment.  On one sticker write down three things you like about yourself - positives qualities you think you have.  On the other, write down three things you don’t like about yourself; three negative qualities you think you have…  Finished…?  Good.  Now remove the “negatives” sticker and stick it on the middle of your chest and leave the positive sticker on your chair. Now get up and greet the people around you.  Go ahead.

                  This exercise represents what it’s like for people who are different.  All the world sees is the negative stereotype or the difference or a disability.  All the best qualities never seem to come through the difference or the disability and thus it’s hard to feel at home or to feel welcomed.

                  Robert Frost said, “Home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”  I’ve always wondered, who would want to go home to such a place?  A home is place where when you have to go there they want to take you in - and welcome you with open arms, celebrating your arrival.  For a church community, the question we must ask ourselves is “How can we continue to make our church such a place for people who have made this their home already and for people who haven’t found us yet, but might in the future?”

                  The most important thing we can do is avoid the Third Little Pig’s mistake.  Walls don’t just keep others out, they also keep us in.  What walls, conscious or unconscious, exist as barriers that might be keeping people out?  Sure, people are welcome to come to church, but are they welcome to get involved, to try new ideas, to have a hand in running a ministry or a committee in way that would mean not doing something the “way its always been done?”  Do our actions speak louder than our words when it comes to welcoming new members to the congregation?

                  Yes, people are friendly, very much so at church, and especially towards new people, but do we follow up with new comers, explain membership, all the activities, how to get plugged into email and other mailing lists and extend invitations to social events – or do you have to be “in the know” to be included in anything other than Sunday morning?

                  When we welcome new people and new ideas, truly extend ourselves and open ourselves and our home, because our church is our spiritual home, we have to risk change and change is frightening. It’s just plain scary.  It’s frought with self-doubt.  We question:  If we have to change, does that mean the way we used to think or the way we used to do things or the way we used to BE was wrong?  NO!

                  When a person or a community makes a decision to become more open, it is a decision to make a change, but that change means things will be different than they used to be, not that they way things used to be was wrong or bad.  Often the change is seen as a positive and at the same time as difficult.  Growth usually is. Most things worthwhile usually are.

                  I have a confession to make. A confession of faith, actually.  I am a heretic.  So are you, truth be told, seeing as you here this morning in a Unitarian Universalist church.  The word heretic comes from a Greek word meaning to choose.  Heretics are people who have not given up the right to choose what to think and what to believe.  This simple fact makes me proud to be a heretic.  This simple fact also makes First Parish Church, as a Unitarian Universalist congregation quite different from every single other church in town.  As nice as every single other church in town is, they all have some type of creed or dogma that limits in some way who is welcome in their congregations.  Even if everyone is welcome socially, for example I doubt there’s a church that would turn refuse someone because of the color of their skin or the level of their income, there are churches that have set theological limits.  If you are gay, you will not be welcome in some churches.  If you are a neo pagan or a modern wiccan, you will not be welcome in some churches.  We Unitarian Universalists, however, are heretics. We retain the right to choose our beliefs and practices and our belief and practice centers on reason, freedom and tolerance in matters of religion.  We do welcome those that others do not and others should feel welcome here that may not feel welcome elsewhere, if we are alert to our responsibilities of hospitality.

                  Many Unitarian Universalists were not raised UU, but came to our faith as adults, drawn by a liberal religion built on reason, freedom and tolerance and by our principles and purposes, excited to be heretics; to have the freedom of choice in matters of the spirit.  If you listen to enough stories, if you hear enough people tell you their faith journeys, a common theme emerges – homecoming.  Many converts to Unitarian Universalism will tell you that when they entered their first UU church or joined their first UU congregation it was like coming home or finding a home they never knew they had or thought possible.

                  Dr. Rebecca Parker, President of Starr King School for the Ministry, one of our UU theological schools, uses the term Our Theological House to describe UU theology.  It’s appropriate, as heretics, with our theological and spiritual choice, that so many of us have a room in the house.  If one looks at this from the perspective of a church or congregation, we also have many rooms in the house, we are at the same time host and guest.

                  George Steiner said,

                  “I believe we are still here to help men and women to learn to live as each other's guests. We are guests of this life. We are guests of this planet, and we are almost destroying it. … People should learn a new language, a new way of life, learn to be guests and let others be their guest.[1]

                  Don C. Skinner puts it this way in A Passage through Sacred History: “The scope of who it is that God means to invite to the feast, you see, is not ours to define. We are not put in charge of the guest list.

                  And we are not in charge of the guest list here at First Parish Church.  In order to be truly welcoming our invitation must be all-inclusive and always open.    We must also be willing to go beyond thinking of newcomers as visitors and guests. Visitors are only stopping by and guests aren’t staying for the long haul. Guests stay in the guest room. We don’t have to make a permanent space available to them.  When we delve deeply into hospitality and open our hearts to being a welcoming community we make space for new people to be themselves.  We create a place where new people can really be at home, where they will be changed by us and we will be changed by them, all of us better for the new relationships. 

                  There are people out there seeking what First Parish Church and Unitarian Universalism has to offer, waiting to go home again, some for the first time.  And in welcoming the stranger, the other, the new friend we may be changed – if we allow ourselves to be.  Even if we have lived in this spiritual home of First Parish Church for years, in welcoming others, we too may find ourselves going home again for the first time.

[1] George Steiner, literary critic, quoted in personal correspondence by humanitarian-aid executive Tom Getman