Saturday, May 25, 2024 #54

 Whether ‘newness’ is a qualifying ‘filter’ for anyone attempting to ‘enter’ a new group, is, of course, an almost imperceptible and highly nuanced issue. Who is going to suggest that someone’s newness, as expressed in their unfamiliarity and even awkwardness in attempting to enter seamlessly, without making a fuss, a disturbance or especially a ‘scene,’ is what makes them a long-term outsider. And yet, outsiders are so visible, and so audible and so highly recognizable, especially by those whose tenure within the group is the longest, that, almost as if ‘we’ were of another race, or ethnicity, from the majority in the group, we are scrutinized and sanctioned, in the hope that, somehow, if we comply with those sanctions, we will eventually ‘merit’ or ‘warrant’ a place of minimal respect.

Let’s pause and reflect on the moment if and when a newcomer crosses the ‘threshold’ of a new group. It could be a new nation, or a new community, a school, a church, or even a workplace. And, even after hours of serious reflection, planning, and possibly even researching, by the neophyte, of the group, including its history, its purpose or mission, its foundational ideas, principles, goals and organization, those first steps, ‘into’ the domain of that group are, to some degree filled with tension and apprehension. (No, this is not a foreshadowing of a narcissistic ‘pity party’.)  At the same time, the group has already put in place some steps, processes and persons to offer a ‘welcome’ to any who venture within. And underlying this dynamic, there are the group’s attitudes to new entries, whether as staff, volunteer, or even as a passive participant. A ‘welcoming’ handbook, of some kind, with suggested gestures, words, tones and even possible orientating and welcoming ‘script’ along with some potential ‘training’ and familiarity for the HR professional, or the volunteer responsible for hospitality, has been thought through, discussed, written and revised, after experience in its application. If all of this sounds over-done, like an over-done round roast of beef, and far too micro-managing, especially given that we are talking here about adults (not kindergarten children coming to school on their very first day), perhaps it is not over-done at all.

Welcoming a new person into any group, (think of the adage, we have only the first thirty seconds to make a first impression) is more than vital, both to the individual and to the way the group sees itself, respects itself, and seeks to sustain itself. And while the anecdote comes from a personal experience on entering a retreat centre operated by a disciplined, committed and highly intelligent and emotionally intelligent group of women, it serves here as a model for others.

This scribe, ‘in another life,’ requested a time in retreat from a Benedictine centre, some full day’s drive distant from where I was working. And, upon receipt of acceptance, I began to plan for the needed respite, reflection and serious consideration of whether or not I could continue to serve in a ‘wild-west,’ ‘frontier,’ and alpha-male dominated town of cattle farmers, sheep herders, a massive coal-fired electricity plant and near-by open pit and underground coal mines. Not only did I know nothing about such a culture and life-style, I was so steeped in my perception of my ‘outsider’ status, perception and distance from the norms of the community, that my estrangement had two foster parents: the community’s history and tradition and my formal and bookish education and training. Keeping my distance took several forms.

·        Staying inside and refraining from too much visiting, so that the circle in which I was working would not ‘feel’ exposed and vulnerable to ‘talking’ given how averse to any kind of structured conversation about their personal lives they were.

·        Addressing a service club about the history of adolescent alcohol-related accidents, especially after the local prom, through a proposal for a teen-help-line with trained volunteers sponsored by the local McDonald’s franchisor who immediately offered his support.

·        Preparing and presenting vocal music that was both foreign and ‘too eastern’ for their palate (they preferred anything ‘western and gospel’)

·        Tentatively inviting a very small number to reflection-meditation sessions, without offending the majority of others who considered such activities unwanted and unwelcome

·        Expecting no prospects for any formal or even informal orientation or training that might be considered.

Somewhere deep inside my ‘gut’ (certainly not my brain, or ‘head’ or even ‘heart’ given that I had already shielded these from whatever the oncoming, unexpected, yet inevitable harshness that accompanied the arrival, and especially the protracted stay of an ‘alien’), I knew that I did not belong here and try as I might, I never would, even at a superficial and reciprocally respectful level. I was seeking both clarity and support from a mature, experienced, possibly trained and certainly insightful counsellor, director, or even pastoral friend. Deeply committed to ‘taking care’ of myself, however that process might unfold, I was also looking forward with both anticipation and confidence to this ‘time apart’ but not alone.

When the time came to make the trek, one that promised both length, considerable traffic on extended freeways, and unpredictable weather, I rose, showered, pack a few things I thought I might need, and set off in a Pathfinder, whose vehicle name most appropriately identified its driver. Only this ‘path-search’ was not for the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National, or the Grand Tetons; rather it was for next steps in my personal spiritual and professional path. Had I taken a detour from who I was, in even venturing into a staunchly traditional, staunchly politically correct/incorrect, and even more staunchly ‘stiff-upper-lip,’ (“The Frozen Chosen,” by Guy Richard), and fossilized frontier cowboy-outlaw geography and culture?

*    Paradoxes, like the convergence of art and design with the Smith-and-Wesson ‘insured’ half-ton trucks that roared through the streets of town with their rifles hanging in the cab rear window,

*    Paradoxes of beautiful, awe-inspiring mini-mountains and river valleys cohabiting with the Butch-Cassidy-and the Sundance Kid myth along the Green River,

These images and paradoxes were and remain, all of them, new and somewhat extreme, in proportion, in temperament and in their combined impact on a middle-aged, single, naïve, idealistic and somewhat adolescent (in perceptions) school-teacher-cleric from north of the 49th parallel. Movies of cowboys and ‘frontiers’ had crossed the local movie theatre screen of my youth, and had left an imprint of a ‘foreign’ culture and time, into which I had inadvertently, innocently, and somewhat unconsciously lived and worked for over three years. The ‘interloper’ (as I quickly came to believe I was in the eyes of the originals), was an identity with which I was totally unfamiliar. The ‘foreigner’ the stranger, the dangerous man, who, although dutifully clad in a white alb on Sundays, never lost the gut-sense that I was wearing black, in the eyes of these people. Tree-huggers, and ‘effete’ intellectuals, and gays and lesbians and blacks and socialists and environmentalists, and death-penalty abolitionists, and unionists, democrats and even city-slickers were all on an unwritten, and even unvoiced ‘enemies list’ for many of the men, and likely also many of the women in the country. The word ‘woke’ was not in parlance, back in the nineties as it is today; nevertheless, the soil from which it emerged comprised, at least in part, this frontier county, on the western side of the Continental Divide. The town was comprised of two dozen churches among some 10,000 population, merged with at least the same number of liquor outlets, many of them drive-through, a small community college, a high school and a middle and elementary school, and a small privately-owned and operated hospital, a few restaurants and a weekly newspaper, a single mortuary, a couple of banks and a cluster of Basque immigrants who worked for the local landowning cattle and sheep ranchers. And the tumble-weed blew through the intersecting main road, from the scrub brush surrounding hills and valleys, dusting what looked like papier mache store fronts to some forgotten movie set. There was always hanging over the town a vision of a dream that this town was still fully engaged in the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as if they were self-selected from ‘central casting’ to perpetuate the myth as a badge of pride. They were damned well determined to preserve, protect, defend and incarnate the myth of the anti-hero as their badge of honour, ready at any given moment to ‘fire’ any invading newcomer.

Although I desperately wanted ‘out’ of this encasement in a culture of my undoing, I nevertheless was groping for some guidance and perspective in my ‘escape. And this day-long drive would/could be critical to my future. The Benedictine retreat centre beckoned, opened its arms and doors to my plea for a listening ear, and a clear-thinking observer-friend. I could hardly wait to make the trip, having dotted the ‘I’s’ and crossed the ‘t’s’ of duties to be covered by willing surrogates.

I knew that the drive would have to start early, if I were to arrive in a timely manner. As nature would have it, in late winter in the central U.S., the forecast voiced both winds and heavy snowfall throughout the day and night of this trip. Beginning at 8:00 a.m. and travelling some six hours, I found myself both slowed and tiring from the treacherous drive on U.S. freeways, as the snow continued to fall. Nearing 4:00 p.m., and anticipating that my hosts would be expecting me, I pulled off into a truck stop and phoned ahead, to tell them I was still ‘coming’. The snow continued, and by the time darkness had descended, I was still some sixty miles from my destination, and the snow was now some 8-10 inches deep on the roads, slowing my pace to 30-40 miles per hour. Coffee, from a purchased insulted cup, and a few sandwiches I had prepared for the trip were keeping my energy from flailing into dreariness. Nevertheless, both fatigue and anxiety were creeping into my mind, body and spirit. Was this trip proving This scribe had requested a three-to-four-day retreat within the Benedictine Centre. Living some eight hours (by road) from the centre, to be ill-advised? Should I even continue driving through this storm? Was this a venture far beyond my physical, emotional and personal capacity to complete? As one drives more slowly, through blinding large snow flakes in the dark, one’s thoughts tend to race, as one expends energy better suited to paying attention to the road, the road conditions, the traffic, and the wiper blades that were becoming covered with snow and ice. At approximately, 9:45 p.m. after the last 50 miles of heavy driving, I pulled into the parking lot of the centre. Turning the key off, I pulled by bag from the back seat of the SUV, a Pathfinder, ironically, and found my way to the front door of the large, brick three-storey building, opened it, an noticed a single light bulb hanging in the opening of the small office up the dozen stairs, and off to the right. Slowly, I climbed those stairs, and presented at the front desk as I heard these words: “You must be John!”

They still ring in my heart, as four of the most welcoming, heartfelt, connecting and reviving words I have ever heard. The tiny, bespectacled mid-sixties lady behind the desk announced her name, “Bridget” who had been charged with the responsibility of hospitality for the centre and had waited up for my arrival. “I will be happy to show you to your room; you must be exhausted after such a trip!” were the next words from her mouth. And, for each of the days of my retreat, at every single moment when I was wondering what I was expected to do next, I would open the door to my room and several feet down the hall, as if in full anticipation and full expectation and full readiness, I would look up to see Bridget standing waiting for me. She intimately seemed to know every need I might have, the moment when I would have each need, and how to usher me into each of the activities, meals, chapel services, and free time at my disposal.
As Joe Biden frequently explains, “Please don’t compare me to or with the Almighty; please compare me with the alternative!” Similarly, I am not attempting to exhort all members of a group, when facing and welcoming newcomers, to imitate or even to be compared with Bridget. She is, however, my lasting image of the ‘angel’ of welcome in my life, welcoming a total stranger, in the darkness of night, into the warmth of the retreat centre, without asking or expecting anything by way of compensation, reward or even of recognition, except the engagement and the curiosity and the imagination of the reciprocal encounter, over a matter of only three days. And, whether we consider the rising tide of refugees, immigrants, homeless, and even jobless in our respective cultures, the soul and the spirit of Bridget, (who knows which images, models and stories she took as her guiding lights for her profound hospitality?) is desperately needed, as much or more than the kind of overt, public, high profile and committed, and authentic leadership that is found in people like Mandela and Gandhi.

Indeed, there is a plausible and necessary case to be made that in and through encounters like the one I had the honour and the humility to experience with Bridget, and potentially exclusively in and through such encounters, that the world will come to its senses and begin to see the sunrise of a new and different and hopeful morning on the horizon….not the current inflamed, burning, destructive, implacable, narcissistic, deceptive, and absolutist both religious and nationalist demagoguery that the world is currently facing.

Nothing that Bridget did, said or even felt is beyond the range, imaginatively and cognitively and emotionally, of each of us. And nothing of her example, here so briefly honoured, is also outside of the personal need and desire of each of us. I write here as the recipient of Bridget’s hospitality, empathy, curiosity, and eagerness to help in a most unobtrusive, effective, meaningful, purposeful and connecting manner. Doubtless, Bridget also experienced considerable fulfilment, value, respect, and profound honour, both from her community and from here guests, like this one, for her dedication, commitment, conviction and delivery of a profound need.

And while my need was obvious, stated, acknowledged and met, so often we are hesitant or even resistant to having and to expressing a need, in a social, group, or even work situation. And, perhaps our shared need for ‘being seen, heard, respected and valued,’ not by those who walk and eat in hallowed and powerful halls, but along the same streets and cafes we walk and visit, but by those walking the same streets and visiting the same cafes, is what is hampering the unleashing of the kind of imaginative, creative and engaging energies of the many Bridget’s among us.


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