Welcoming: September is a time of welcoming and beginning.The school year begins for our children and youth. Both Rosh Hashanah and Muharram, the Jewish and Islamic New Year respectively, are in September. Mabon, or the autumnal equinox, recognizes that the Earth is in balance for the day with equal number of hours of light and dark and welcomes the change as we switch to more darkness. Here at UU Schenectady, we traditionally welcome our full congregation back after summer vacations. And of course, this year we welcome Rev. Wendy Bartel and Rev. Lynn Gardner as our new settled ministers.
Coupled with Rosh Hashanah is Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and one of the holiest days in the Jewish year. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, reflecting, and repenting one’s sins. Growing up, Yom Kippur was just that day Dad fasted and was really quiet. Now I recognize its holiness and its significance at the beginning of a year. As we start our new year here at UU Schenectady, it’s important for us to reflect on how we’ve been acting, what we’ve been saying, and how we’ve been treating ourselves and others.
While welcoming the new year and our new ministers, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on how welcoming we truly are. In the 1980s and 90s, the word “welcoming” was a code for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and the UUA adopted that word to create the Welcoming Congregations Program. The Welcoming Congregations Program helps us learn how to undo homophobia—and later, transphobia (prejudice against transgender people)—in our hearts and minds, our congregations, and our communities. Becoming a Welcoming Congregation is not a small feat. It includes intentional learning about experiences of the LGBTQ+ community- barriers trans people face, the discrimination and stigma that come with a queer identity, and more. UU Schenectady is proudly one of the many Welcoming Congregations within our Unitarian Universalist Association.
We should be proud of the hard work we have done with the Welcoming Congregations Program, and I wonder how else we can be welcoming to those with different abilities, both physical and mental, people of color, people in different classes, and more. While I believe we are tolerant, open minded, good intentioned people who would gladly accept people from all paths of life into our congregation, is that the message people are getting when they first come in the door? Is that what our members who identify with one of these groups feel in this community?
When it comes to our welcoming and celebration of all identities who join our community, for the day or longer, it is important to remember that intention and impact are not necessarily the same thing. If someone’s intention is to welcome you, but they use language that makes you uncomfortable or offends you and effectively does not welcome you, does it matter if they intended to welcome you?
Let me give you an example of what this looks like. Miguel is a newcomer to our congregation and has been attending for a few weeks. He walks in and at the Welcome Table, he is greeted by being asked if it’s his first time at the congregation. Having attended for the past few weeks, Miguel is taken back by the question. Apparently, he hasn’t made the impression he thought he had on his new community. During the worship service, someone argues that we need to do a better job on racial justice as a white congregation. Miguel looks around and sees more than a few people of color and feels excluded from the “white congregation.” After the service during coffee hour, someone comes up to Miguel and says, “Hey, Sebastían!” Miguel feels awkward and corrects them. “Sorry, you look just like Sebastian,” the person explains. As they talk, Miguel says he enjoys singing. “You’ve got to join the choir! They’re singing Feliz Navidad for Christmas this year!”
While some of these actions and behaviors were meant to be welcoming, the result is not welcoming. Miguel has been forgotten, erased, mistaken for a different person of color, and reduced. None of these are feelings of being welcomed, accepted, and celebrated. Good intentions are nice, but good impact is the goal. We need to learn how to make our impact match our intention. We have work to do. Julie Rigano, DLRE