welcoming the other

75 men gathered in the Hall at Bethany United Church last night. Dave and Tim cooked a yummy turkey meal, the Salvation Army band played Christmas carols and I witnessed countless conversations going on, some between long-time friends and many involving people who had never met. The man who drove me home told me he met someone for the first time who knew virtually everyone he knew and the two could not explain how they did not know each other. I was watching for two things, 1) were there people standing or sitting alone and 2) were the small minority of younger men integrating into the mix. On the former the results were mixed, I saw some sitting/standing alone engaged by familiar faces but others whom I recognized as new were left by themselves. The younger men did seem to all have a conversation partner.

I was not sure how the balance of the evening would evolve. Apparently years ago there was always a speaker. For two years the Men’s club was in “hiatus”, largely the result of men saying they would show up for the dinner and then either forgetting or having other plans. The result was lots of extra food, empty seats and a bill to pay the cook for the food that brought the event an unexpected deficit. The organizers, Gordon, eventually got tired of this result and paid off the accumulated debt and walked away. But this fall an epiphany came to him, what if all the men paid $60 up front and then the money would be there for 5 meals, whether the men showed up or not. If you already paid your incentive to show up would be much, much greater. But here we were, 75 strong, all paid up, but no speaker.

After the carols and the dinner and the conversations Gordon stepped up the microphone. He thanked everyone for coming and explained the genesis of his renewed interest in starting the Men’s club again. There was also a call for the program committee, which is a fancy way of saying there is a need for a group to go out into the community and find speakers. I feel the critical decision by our younger men, as to whether they join and stay with our group, will largely be determined by the selection of speakers we bring. There is a type of speaker who lend themselves to an older audience. My concern is that we do not go down the road of finding speaker who suit just our own interests, forgetting there are many who have different tastes.

Gordon was the speaker. He surprised me by referencing word for word my “repetitive” messages about welcoming others. I could tell from the nervous laughter that some of the men did not know if this was a criticism at me. But Gordon is correct, I do repeat myself, often, on the topic of welcoming. It is a critical question for groups like churches, how we make people welcome. There is this strange lack of self-awareness whereby we all want to be welcomed and yet fail to welcome others. Time and again I have met people who have quit groups because no one spoke to them but when asked if they speak to newcomers the answer is no.

Gordon went through the specific, the details, of how you actually walk up to someone and engage them in conversation. With the exception of his suggestion that you ask the other what s/he does for a living, it was word for word what any quality hospitality workshop would include. Gordon is the living embodiment of what hospitality looks like, no one at this church does it better and more effectively. He is the reason 75 men paid $60 to join a group no one knows yet how it will evolve.

A wise person once said, “It’s all about relationships”. As someone who believes passionately in the power of ideas I tend to think that is an over-statement. But not by much…