I’m Done Being Welcoming: Raising the Bar for Interfaith Engagement

I’m done being welcoming.

“All are welcome to join us.”

“We welcome all visitors.”

“Welcome to our space.”

One of the challenges of engaging with communities of different religious backgrounds is the invisible boundaries that are created between communities. The interfaith movement, including in the Omaha community, has focused deeply on being welcoming.

Welcoming others is a fantastic first step, but is really just a first step.

What I really mean is – we need to move past welcoming into a place where people truly belong.

Focusing on how we can help others feel comfortable often puts the responsibility of comfort on the guest. Yes, the hope is that the visitor enjoys their time, but being welcoming is woefully empty for many well-intentioned communities. It often consists of words of welcome, and maybe some food and drink. There’s nothing wrong with kind words and coffee – but to make a serious change in the way we engage with people, we must do more.

What if we became more introspective about the way we engage with others? Rather than putting the responsibility for feeling comfortable with difference on the guest, what if we focused on a responsibility to prepare ourselves for difference? What if we focused more on learning how to be a better guest? Or how to feel more comfortable with guests?

Religious communities – especially those that are socially privileged in some way – must reflect on what is needed to be a better visitor. What if our religious institutions taught how to be brave and humble in spaces where we are underrepresented?

Significant numbers of people who are engaged with interfaith work hope for a future where people feel comfortable in each others’ spaces, while still retaining their own identities. But very few actually visit each others’ spaces. It doesn’t seem to matter how often the visited space mentions how welcoming they are, the visitor still seems fearful.

It isn’t usually a fear of terrorism or hate or bigotry. It is a fear of offending and a fear of being the “odd one out”. We are so afraid of being wrong that we would rather avoid the “other” than take the risk to build a relationship on someone else’s terms.

In our religious communities, we must start to teach the responsibility we have to engage with those of different religious backgrounds. We must teach bravery, humility, and the religious responsibility to be engaged with other religious backgrounds.

Bravery, to be ok with being an “odd one out”. Those from marginalized religious communities are more likely to spend significant amounts of time already being the “odd one out”. This is not to say that those of us from smaller communities do not have a responsibility to engage with larger religious communities, but that those from white, Christian, and/or secular communities have a particular responsibility to be brave enough to be in spaces in which they are the minority.

Humility, to be ok being corrected, critiqued, or mentored when in a new space. We don’t like to be wrong, and we don’t like to feel uncomfortable, but all of the major religious traditions have clear and repeated lessons on the virtue of humility. While we should be prepared to be a guest, we will not have all the answers, and we should recognize that even within a given community there are differences of opinion of how people should act or speak.

Finally, every religious tradition has teachings that can be understood in the context of interfaith engagement. We are not just talking about how interfaith engagement might be allowed in each tradition, but how it could be understood as a command, an expectation, or even a calling. 

There is conflict and appreciation across religious lines of difference in nearly every scripture. Abraham donated to High Priest Melchizedek, Jesus was greeted by the Zoroastrian Magi, the charters of religious freedom outlined by Muhammad, and many, many other examples. There is an outpouring of examples of how religious diversity is appreciated, encouraged, and respected in the vast majority of traditions and our religious institutions must recognize the responsibility to belong to one another.

I’m done being welcoming, not because it doesn’t matter, but because we need to move toward bravery, humility, and passion for interfaith engagement from the more passive foundation of welcoming.

If you, too, want to learn to be brave, humble, and passionate about interfaith dialogue, come to an event online or in person at trifaith.org

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