What Constitutes a Welcoming Faith Community Part 3: Being welcoming to those who already call the community home

This is the third part of my series on what constitutes a welcoming community.  In this instalment I’m going to be talking about the importance of being welcoming to those who are already part of the community.

It might be easy to say, “oh, they’re already coming regularly, they know they’re welcome here!” My answer to that is, “really? Does every person who comes regularly know that? Have you asked everyone?”  One of the interesting things about being welcoming to people already in one’s community is that it will naturally lead to a community also being inclusive. Further, when we are welcoming of those already in our midst those who are new will also pick up on it. People also pick up on it when we are not welcoming of people in our own community.

So what does this mean on a practical level?  I’m going to start with some examples of what is not welcoming followed by possible solutions to the situation.  A member of the community has or develops a requirement that means they need some extra help.  This could be any one of a number of things, getting to services, help with hearing what is being said, some patience on the part of those they are interacting with.  In many cases the response to these requests and needs is, “well, that’s not our problem, you seem to be managing okay.” Not the response of a community that is supposed to be welcoming and caring.

So what would a positive response look like? For those who are having difficulty getting to services find out why they have trouble. Arrange rides so that they can get to services more easily.  For those who have problems with hearing or seeing during services, find out what would make them more comfortable in the services. In some cases this might mean FM or infrared hearing assist devices, possibly ASL interpreters.  For people with cognitive disabilities, Asperger’s / Autism and other mental health issues it may mean taking the opportunity to educate the congregation on the challenges they are facing.

Then there are more blatant things that are done within and by communities as a whole that just scream, “YOU’RE NOT WELCOME”.  One example would be when a meal is being held and someone presents their dietary needs and then gets brushed off with something along the lines of, “oh, that’s too difficult. You can bring your own food or just don’t eat the parts of the meal you can’t have.”  Another example would be when someone brings their partner to an event and people are openly derisive about their appearance or gender presentation. Then there’s the ever popular ask someone, or a group of people for input on something and then totally disregard the feedback and information they provide, particularly when the person asked has expertise and knowledge of the topic where feedback is sought. Then, when asked why this was ignored just say the equivalent of, “we couldn’t be bothered as it required extra thought and a bit of extra work.” These are only a few examples of statements and behaviours that tell people that they are not welcome.

So, what can be done about these problems? Every community I’ve been involved with, as well as communities I’ve heard about from others have demonstrated behaviour as a community, or by groups or individuals within the community that are not welcoming to people already in the community. The first step that a community can take towards being more welcoming to those already part of the community is to be open to the fact that they likely exhibit some of these behaviours. Once this is accepted then look for these behaviours.  If the people doing the looking don’t see any, start to ask around, ask questions of people. Engage them, possibly with a survey.

Once the information is compiled, do something positive with it.  Let people know they were listened to. Form a plan for positive action and communicate the plan.  Bring in a diverse group of people to help form the plan; a group that is representative of the community, diverse and represents those who may be marginalized in the community. Show concrete steps that are planned, and communicate when they are accomplished. Try to build some excitement. Overall this is not an easy process.  Examining one’s flaws and shortcomings never is. However, the rewards that can come from positive change can be more than we can ask or imagine.

Next in the series: Welcoming the person new to faith

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