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Reflections from Rev. Alan Taylor

Cultivating a Community of Welcoming
Rev. Rev. Alan Taylor, Senior Minister

The church didn’t have a parking lot. It was my first visit, and I had to park over four blocks away. An older man also walking to the church greeted me. His name was Willard. We started talking. “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. 

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. At the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, I found a community with a depth spirituality coupled with a commitment to social justice. And as important, 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 Unity Temple. Were you welcomed in a way that you would want to welcome others? Or would you want to improve upon what you encountered?

There are a lot of folks visiting this month. 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, lets practice being a people of welcoming. If you are an introvert, you have the capacity for listening, and listening is one of the greatest characteristics of welcoming. Don’t ask, “Is this your first time” but “How long have you been coming?” Ask the kind of questions that invite sharing. 

Our ministry of hospitality is the first step and foundation on which all of our other ministries may thrive. It all starts with welcoming the strangers among us. So on Sunday mornings, practice curiosity. Wear your name tag. Refrain from church business. Take pause following the service to say hello to someone you don’t know. If you’d like a more formal role in our hospitality of welcoming, talk with Tina! 

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 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.