Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst and Michelle McKenzie-Creech, CDRE
REFLECTION Every Person You Meet Michelle McKenzie-Creech
Together again…welcome friends. Whether you have passed through these doors into this sacred space hundreds of times or for the first time you are welcome here. At this very moment or at some point this morning you are in the company of thousands of Unitarian Universalist being welcomed home. We gather here this morning as a congregation of unique individuals, each of us with a story to tell. Our lives are a journey, a journey filled with achievements, challenges, experiences, lessons learned and gifts. As we go through life encountering others, whether it be a person we meet in a fleeting moment or a lifelong friend, we have an opportunity to be changed, to grow and learn.
I love stories, and I thought I would share with you a very small glimpse of my own story, a tapestry of people and spirit weaving in and out of my life. Raised in Michigan, I have a friend who I have known since I was born. She has taught me loyalty and the importance of lasting friendship.
A best friend from high school, easily one of the most popular girls, taught me that popularity isn’t as important as authenticity and standing up for others.
It was in Las Vegas that I met a friend who taught how to laugh at myself and not to take life so seriously all the time.
In Pennsylvania, a supervisor who taught me how to see the difference I was making in others’ lives. Sometimes in social work, my past career, it is easy to focus on all the people who still need help, and no matter how much you give, it seems like never enough. She helped me understand that although I may not have been able to save the world (at least not yet), I made a difference for those individuals.
In my travels, I met a minister who saw my potential and passion for working with youth. It was my second time crossing the threshold of a UU congregation, but she gave me a chance, and chance that has led to my finding my calling as a UU religious professional.
Oh… let me not forget the women I met at a conference a few years ago. At one point, I was certain that if I had to spend one more minute with her, I might lose my mind. After many chance encounters, after putting my walls down, I was able to see her passion for religious education. We have more in common than I knew, and her dedication to this work often inspires me.
A partner who taught me how to hug; a youth who taught me how to be silly; a friend who gave me courage and strength in difficult times; a child who reminded me to see wonder and awe in every day. A son who continues to inspire me to be a good mom, and when I not being the best I can be, he has a way of telling me that too.
In this congregation alone, I have encountered a congregant who taught me now to be so hard on myself. Another showed that it’s okay to use humor to reach people. Someone else has role modeled kindness and very difficult situations. It was in a local pizza hut where a coworker paid for an elderly couple’s lunch anonymously, because she overheard of their financial troubles and limited income who taught me that I too have enough, I even have enough to give.
The stranger who smiled at me on the worst day reminded me that every action we take is important and could make a difference in someone else’s day. Like in our story of the coyote, we too carry the spirits of those we encounter in life, especially those who we allow to be held in our hearts.
H. Jackson Brown Jr. said “Every person you meet knows something you don't; learn from them.”
I invite you to open yourself up to that possibility. Every interaction an opportunity to grow and perhaps leave a little part of your spirit. Who are the characters in your story that weave the tapestry of life? So many of them we have not meet yet, many of them sitting right here with you today.
Today after service, during the picnic, on your way out…. Wherever you are, make it a point to talk to one person you have never met, even if it’s just a smile and hello. Welcome each other home. You just never know what you will find or who needs you today. The possibilities within this community alone are endless. From me to you, welcome home.
REFLECTION The Spirit of Different Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst
There are so many unacceptable people in this world! You know who I mean… the war mongers, haters and mean-spirited folk, greedy and selfish, noisy and smelly - bullies, burn outs and bores. My list of the unacceptable can go on and on and on. I get annoyed pretty easily, so I have every reason to exclude people like this from my life. And I think I am correct and justified in keeping away from their bad behavior.
As my process of de-selection of potential friends continues, it doesn’t take very long before I find myself all alone. Really, if I try hard enough, I can find something annoying about just about every one… even you! So finally, when I’m really all alone, I get to be with the most annoying person of all - Me.
This is the way it happens. We think someone has different interests, likes different music than we do, speaks differently, eats different food, watches different TV shows and reads different books so it is easy and natural to exclude them from our circle of friends. Sometimes it just makes sense… we are all so different. This is totally true – like snowflakes, each and every person is unique and unrepeatable.
But we are also a little bit the same. We all need love and connection and community in spite of all of our differences. We say these aspirational words of deep welcome every Sunday: Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you arrived at this beloved place, you are welcome here. So much welcome is really extraordinary. And I mean it when I say these words are at best aspirational. Because wherever human beings gather, there is also conflict. On any given Sunday in this Earth Room, there are at least a few people who are hurt by another or in disagreement about an issue. And we have to work really hard at that genuine welcome to each and all, especially those from whom we feel such distance.
So what do we really mean when we say we welcome all? Welcoming is a spiritual practice, and a process more than a destination. We practice welcoming when we wear our nametags and take the courage to speak to someone new, or (shy folk that we are) just look them in the eye and smile. We practice welcoming when we honor the humanity in each person – even those with whom we disagree. Even if we have experience that tells us to keep our distance from someone who has hurt us, we can still welcome them just a little bit! At least we can offer compassion for their suffering… from a distance. Wherever we are gathered, such hurts and distance will be part of our experience.
The fact is, to be a welcoming congregation takes practice. It takes patience with ourselves and with others. And it takes knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our own personal values and experiences in order to not be threatened by difference. We need to examine our own fears and assumptions and accept they might be misleading us. To accept someone who looks, acts or believes differently, we first try to understand them and then to recognize that they too suffer.
This is the hard work of welcoming – trying to give space for each person, whoever you are, whomever you love, no matter how you have arrived in this beloved place. I am sure I often fall short of this ideal. My welcome can occasionally wear out or not be spacious enough. But I come back to this practice of welcoming again and again. And I invite you into the practice with me.
This congregation is our community of practice. We return again and again to practice compassion and understanding and to renew our welcome to one another and the world.
Do we come with unreasonable expectations? Probably! Sometimes we hope for comfort and find challenge instead. Sometimes we want to be stirred up, sometimes we need solace. We are guaranteed to find imperfection right here every single day. But the goal is not to seek our own happiness but to create more happiness in this world. The funny thing is - focusing our efforts outward like that will make us all truly happier in the end.
There are some basic instructions to welcoming. First is to welcome everyone, old and young and in between, whether you know them or not, whether you know their names or not – be ready to extend your welcome. Next, look at them and smile – they are beautiful to behold and you are genuinely happy to see them. Finally, just say, ‘welcome’ to this place, to this day, this hour, right now right here – you are home - welcome. That is all it takes, friends: your presence, your open heart and a generous spirit of welcome.
Because we cannot live all alone in this world, because we are indeed interdependent and connected in mystery and miracle to a oneness, vast and complicated, a oneness of which we are a part. Because of this connection - we practice our welcome to some part of it every day.
I experienced a profound welcome recently that helped me to understand this practice better. A few weeks ago I travelled to a Buddhist Monastery for a retreat. I was new, and everything was strange to me. After driving for several hours on strange roads, around detours and looking for hidden signs, I couldn’t park at the hotel where some of us were staying. So I trudged up a hill with my bags and then I waited in line at the registration desk only to learn that it was the wrong line. Finally I was pointed in the right direction, and a Buddhist Nun stepped forward to greet me. I am sure the look on my face was anything but welcoming at that moment. I was grumpy, frazzled, lost and anxious. She reached out her hand and held mine. Looked me right in the eye and said, “You are here now. Welcome.” And I started to breathe again - which is an essential thing. We need to breathe often. And in that breath I did indeed begin to come home.
Just as we need to know we are here now, at home - in this breath, in this body, in this collection of bodies. We are at home, gathered into one strong body, welcoming this new day, this new year, all these faces and different spirits into a collected and connected community of compassion and growing understanding. We never know what roads and obstacles a person has had to overcome to arrive here today. There is much we cannot know about why they have arrived at this doorstep and why they might be out of sorts, yet we can offer our most genuine welcome – You are here now, welcome, breathe.
And so we begin again. Let’s breathe together again. Welcome home my friends, welcome home.