“All Are Welcome”
By Joanne Dingus
Over the years, I’ve tried to be aware of my tendency to make assumptions and judgments about people without even knowing them.
About a year and a half ago, Rev. Millard gave a sermon titled, “Black Lives Matter.” It was a powerful expression of the events at Ferguson, NYC and Cleveland. It could easily be given again today filled in with new names and places where violence towards people of color have occurred; Baton Rouge, St, Anthony and so on and so on. Andrew’s sermon raised up issues of justice, compassion and freedom from fear. He chose music like “We Shall Overcome,” and “Stand,” a folk song by Amy Carol Webb. I just saw Amy at SUUSI where she led worship, the UUA presidential candidate’s forum and performed her own music.
That day of the Black Lives Matter service, Andrew asked me to help lead the congregation in singing Amy’s song “Stand.” The chorus goes like this:
I will stand with you – Will you stand with me?
We will be the change that we hope to see.
In the name of love – in the name of peace,
Will you stand, will you stand with me?
Then, the verses go on to talk about when injustice raises up its fist, when pain and hatred churn up angry noise, and when broken hearts come knocking on our door, lost and hungry and so alone. And it invites us in the name of love and in the name of peace to stand up, to stand together.
I remember that day, the first service went smoothly. The words to “Stand” kept singing in my brain. We had coffee hour and then second service started and after telling a story to the children, I escorted them back to their classes for Religious Education. Since I had heard the sermon at 9:30, I stayed out in the common area and checked in on the classes periodically.
It was probably about half way through the service, when a middle-aged, white man entered the building carrying a medium-sized duffle bag. I had never seen him before. He seemed a little gruff, reminded me of Charles Bronson a bit but he was well dressed and seemed anxious to get into the service. Since the sermon had already started the greeter quickly ushered him into the sanctuary without the usual chit chat.
That’s when my internal alarm began to sound off, Danger, danger and the questions began to swirl around in my brain. Why did he have a bag with him? That seemed odd. And what was in it?
Now, I think one of the joys and one of the curses of a writer is being extraordinarily observant and having an over active imagination. I can go from, “that’s different” to “worst case scenario” in a matter of seconds.
At that moment, I immediately thought about the sign in front of our building. It said, “Black Lives Matter.” That phrase, even among our own church members had been controversial. “Don’t we believe that all lives matter?” Some had asked. I had often wished the statement had been Black Lives Matter, Too. That might have cleared things up from the start. Over a year and a half later, outside these walls many people are still angered by the message Black Lives Matter. The recent safe sanctuary space we created here at UUFP after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths was met with opposition by some of our neighbors. They were unhappy that I had asked that white allies remain outside our sanctuary doors. We had two local news stations and a local minister contact us asking what we were doing!
But back to my story about the man carrying a bag into our sanctuary. At the time I wondered what this man was thinking, what did he think about black lives? Had he seen our sign that week, and decided to do something about it? And my real question was, did he have a gun in that bag? Was he like the man at the UU church in Knoxville a few years back who thought liberals should die? Or the fanatics in New Orleans church who invaded a Sunday morning service carrying anti-abortion signs?
I thought about all these things, but the biggest question in my mind was, what do I do now? My daughter was in there and my friends and my minister. My son and his classmates were in the kitchen area waiting for service to end. There were other children still in their classrooms and babies in the nursery. And soon, I needed to go back into the sanctuary to help sing that song again.
I could feel the adrenalin racing through me, choking me. And all these scenarios came into my head. I peeked through the window of the sanctuary door. My good friend sat in the row behind the man. It was Robert Drees. He’d have to jump him if something went wrong, I thought. Would a wooden pulpit be enough to shield Rev. Millard from a bullet? My daughter was in the front row. Should I go in there and whisper that I needed her to leave, now? Should I start warning everyone else in the other parts of the building that if they heard a gunshot, they should run for their lives?!
I paced back and forth behind the door peering at the man’s back. Then something happened, he slowly reached down and began to unzip the bag. What should I do? What should I do? My heart was pounding. I was in full panic mode ready to push through the doors and shout “Hit the deck!”
But it was a glasses case. He was just getting his glasses to read the words in the hymnal. Phew! I was relieved. And you would think that would have ended it. But you see, that fear had grabbed onto me so hard that I couldn’t shake it. I talked to some of the other people who were also in the common area. I’m not sure if it was to my relief or dismay but they were having similar anxiety. We tried to joke about it but you could feel the tension.
A couple more minutes of pacing went by and I knew I would have to go back in there to sing. I saw my son. And I went over to him and I said, “I know this is probably irrational but could you do me a favor and just sit in that room over there and not hang out by this door?”
The sermon ended, my cue to make my way to the pulpit. A target. I felt like an open target. Then I saw my daughter walk up front to the piano. Oh my God, I had forgotten that she had offered to turn pages for the pianist. Now she was a target, too, I thought.
The song began and I did my best to keep my voice from cracking. “Will you stand,” and not shoot me and not kill me or my daughter or anyone in this room “will you stand with me?” And I was looking straight at him and I mustered a smile.
The song ended and after the benediction, people began to file out of the room. I saw Rev. Millard go up to the man and talk with him briefly.
The soup social was set up and people started to line up for warm bowls of soup and good company. The man and his zipped up duffle bag left the building.
Once all was done for the day, I went up to my minister and told him my experience of the man and the fear and the frenzy I’d felt not knowing what to do. He told me he had noticed the man come in and had been watching him during service.
“You were talking to him afterwards. Did he enjoy the service?” I asked.
“He seemed to. But he was actually looking for money. I invited him to stay for lunch but he left.” Rev. Millard said.
That was when the real sense of relief came. Oh, he was just homeless. What a relief! After all, we’re a church. We get plenty of people asking for money.
And then it hit me, Just homeless? What a way to dismiss someone. Oh just a homeless man, like that was normal. The judgments, the assumptions. I had turned this man into a potential killer without even saying hello. And now he was “just homeless” to me.
“When broken hearts come knocking on our door, lost and hungry and so alone.” Where was my humanity now?
He hadn’t come to harm us. He had come to ask for our help. I thought about our sign once again. Beneath the words, “Black Lives Matter” and under the times of the services it said, “All are Welcome.”
I felt ashamed that I had let fear win that day.
We are a welcoming congregation. All those of good will are welcome to join us. We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We share these gifts not only with ourselves but with the world. These words form who we are as a community. These statements connect us to our wider UU Faith. They support our theology, They’re in our music. Come, come whoever you are. Come as you are, all are welcome.
After that day, I spent a few weeks analyzing my fears and my truths. I asked the Policy Board to work on an emergency response plan and they set up a task force to do so.
The next time the man visited, I made a point to go up to him and say hello and shake his hand. And I felt better. Maybe I had regained a little of my humanity. Maybe I would not be so quick to judge and condemn in the future.
Then on June 17th, 2015 a mass shooting took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. It was during a prayer service, that nine people were killed by a gunman, including the senior pastor, Clementa C. Pinckney. The morning after the attack, police arrested the suspect, a 21year-old white male named Dylann Roof, who confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war.
As I reeled in anger over that tragedy, I felt my fears were realized and my truths were shot to hell.
So, here’s the big question. How do we keep our beliefs sacred and ourselves safe?
Rosa Parks said, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
So, that’s what the task force of the Policy Board has been working on. Knowing what must be done to keep us safe, to diminish our fear. They are committed to developing a plan to prepare us to face an emergency should one arise. They are including a Medical Plan, Fire and Smoke Plan, Building Evacuation Plan, Intruder/Active Shooter Plan, Tornado and Severe Weather Plan, Flood Response Plan, Hazardous Materials Plan, Missing Child Plan, Theft/Vandalism Plan, Cybersecurity Plan. The committee will share this plan with our congregation in the coming months.
At the end of my story I asked this question, “How do we keep our beliefs sacred and ourselves safe?” So let’s think about this.
As you know our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Rev. Victoria Weinstein in her sermon, Practicing Inherent Worth and Dignity: Keeping it Real with the First Principle asks, “What do we mean by “inherent?” she answers, “We mean that every human being is born with a value to them, that each life matters and that no one is born with more potential to inspire, heal or harm the world than any other.”
But what about someone like Dylann Roof who killed 9 innocent people in cold blood? Nine people who welcomed him into their circle of prayer. Does he have worth and dignity? When asked a similar question about other people who committed atrocities, Rev. Weinstein gave this answer. “I believe that they, like every other person, were born with inherent, innate value and that they chose to violate the human covenant so egregiously that I consider them to have negative worth and no remaining dignity. To be a Unitarian Universalist does not mean that we are not allowed to make value judgments or that we have to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every idea or behavior. Evil and badness do exist. I don’t know if they’re genetically programmed or socially induced or brought about by frontal lobe damage or what, I just know – and so do you – that not all people have made good on that original worth they were born with.”
Our first reading, Guest House was meant as a metaphor but if we take it more literally we might ask ourselves have we created a guest house for strangers here at UUFP?
Ron Rolheiser writes, “There is a tradition within Christianity, strong in Scripture and in the early church but now sadly in danger of dying, of welcoming the stranger. In the early church there was a custom of welcoming strangers with the belief that they, being foreigners, were specially privileged in their capacity to bring new promise and fresh revelation from God. It was with this in mind that the author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote: “In welcoming strangers some of you have entertained angels without knowing it.” Thus, every family was encouraged to set aside a room in its house to serve as a guest room, a room within which strangers could be welcomed and hospitality shown to them.
So, our challenge is to create a culture of safety. I encourage the Policy Board’s task force to work diligently on completing this plan and to share this information with our congregation. We must be prepared, so that our UUFP home is not a place of fear but a place of sanctuary. We must know what must be done and do it. All of us can help by staying alert and paying attention to potential threat indicators and reporting potential risks.
We must keep our humanity, our own worth and dignity as we face our fears. We must create a guest house for the stranger that is safe for all of us. We must lift up the truth of this community, that is– All, those of good will, are welcome here.