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Wednesday Reflections


May 24, 2017
Dear Members and Friends,

Two weeks from Sunday, we gather at Unity Temple for opening worship. I keep running into people who say they will be returning to Unity Temple and others who say they want to join us. This past Sunday I shared a short sermon on Embodying Hospitality. I include it for this week's reflections, since this month we are exploring what it means to be a Community of Embodiment.


Rev. Alan Taylor

"Embodying Hospitality" by Rev. Alan Taylor
The church didn't have a parking lot. It was my first visit, and I had to park over four blocks away. As I walked, an older man also on his way to the church greeted me. His name was Willard. After introducing ourselves to one another, he said "That's a lovely red shirt you're wearing." His comment put me at ease. It's the only thing I remember of our conversation, besides that he cheerfully welcomed me to sit with him during worship and introduced me to others. I sat with him the next few times I returned, for - and I know you're not gonna believe this--I was shy and I was intimidated by the prospect of approaching and talking with others I didn't know. That was  25 years ago. I will never forget Willard. 
I had moved to Berkeley, California a year after college, thinking Berkeley or "Berzerkely" as some of my friends called it, would be a great place to live, that there I would encounter great ideas and find direction for my life. There was only one problem. I didn't know anyone, or perhaps the more emotionally accurate thing to say is, nobody knew me. I was lonely. I longed for connection, for community. I suffered that kind of torment that comes with emotional isolation. Now, I was raised Unitarian Universalist, but my childhood experience didn't make me enthusiastic about going to church. However, my loneliness was so acute, I began attending various congregations. The third congregation I visited was the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. I found a community with a depth spirituality coupled with a commitment to social justice, and it had people who willingly welcomed the stranger. That day when I met Willard was in many respects the first day of the rest of my life.
Take a moment to remember that first time you visited your current spiritual home. Were you welcomed in a way that you would want to welcome others? Or would you want to improve upon what you encountered? I encourage you to share with a few others your own experience and how you can help welcome people who visit us.
In three weeks we will be back at Unity Temple. There are a lot of folks who've said they are seeking a spiritual home and waiting for our congregation to get back to Unity Temple. Those of you who decided to come the past year rather than waiting, I am so glad you got to participate in our congregational life when our community so clearly is more important than the congregation. This has been a rich time here at United Lutheran.
Whether we are new or not, all of us have the opportunity to show those who come in the coming weeks and months that truly, it is the congregation's community and mission that are the heart of who we are; the building is simply a vehicle, a beautiful vehicle, but not who we are at our essence. No, who we are at our essence is defined by the relationships we have with one another and how we treat one another, particularly how we treat strangers among us. 
This month we are exploring what it means to be a community of embodiment. In the coming weeks, as we will have more visitors than we typically do. I challenge you to embody hospitality, the kind of hospitality that Pastor Dennis Bushkovsky and his congregation has shown us here at United Lutheran, the kind of hospitality that Willard showed me twenty-five years ago, the kind of hospitality that Ellen Wehrle showed in her quiet, gentle way to so many among us. Now that Ellen has passed away, her husband Rich tells me he has received a surprising number of cards from people who say that Ellen was the first person to really talk to them, to welcome them, and make them feel at home at Unity Temple. 
For those of you who didn't know Ellen, she was an introvert. She didn't talk a lot. She was about as private as anyone in this congregation. But she noticed who looked a little uncomfortable and went up to them and introduced herself and simply listened to them. She then remembered their name. It doesn't take someone gregarious or outgoing to embody the art of hospitality. Sometimes it is a quiet energy of someone with whom we can find our place. It really takes all types in a church community to practice hospitality. 
Sometimes congregations talk about the Membership Committee as the ones responsible for welcoming visitors. Over twenty years ago members of this congregation recognized that this is a fallacy. By the time I arrived fourteen years ago, this congregation had lots of people like Ellen. But as we grow, we need to re-affirm certain norms.
Our congregation embarked on a visioning process while here at United Lutheran. We identified our four core values as being: Connection, Transformation, Justice and Acceptance. And truly, as we embody hospitality and acceptance, we make way for connection, transformation, and justice. Our ministry of hospitality is the first step and foundation on which all of our other ministries may thrive. For then we invite people into our connection ministries with our various small groups, and through the connections with others, oneself, and the holy, each of us can know transformation, and as we walk with one another as enlightened human beings we move through the world more skillfully for the sake of creating justice. But it all starts with welcoming the strangers among us. 
So this morning, by the power invested in me by this congregation I do hereby deputize each and every member of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation to be a welcoming ambassador of this congregation. What that entails is the following. 
  • Wear your name tag. 
  • Refrain from doing church business just following the service. 
  • Take pause following the service to say hello to someone you don't know. 
And I recommend not asking someone in this huge congregation, "So is this your first time here?" You may find yourself in an awkward moment! No instead, ask, So how long have you been coming? Regardless their answer, then be curious. Make a connection.
Now, for those of you who are willing, consider taking a formal role on our extended hospitality team. There are plenty of small tasks that need attention, like greeting people when they come in, greeting people as they leave, staffing the welcome table, or being a coffee hour ambassador who floats around ensuring that newcomers are being engaged. Contact Tina Lewis or anyone at the welcome table for more details.
Friends, I may not have ever connected with the First Unitarian Church of Oakland or been inspired into the ministry if there weren't people like Willard. I imagine some of you wouldn't be here if it weren't for Ellen welcoming you. Each of us can be that person for others. 
I smile every time I think of that gentleman who was a retired engineer, whose smiled put me at ease, and who died twelve years ago. One of his legacies is he learned how to welcome strangers into his midst. May we all do the same.
Blessed be. Amen.