A diverse, welcoming community of open hearts and minds since 1948
From the Board of Trustees-
Being the Stranger
By Natty Averett, Alex Roth, David Shilton, MJ Schmelzer-Hoekstra
[as printed in The Arlingtarian, January 2011]
For the January Board meeting, we will be focusing on inclusion and diversity and the theme of “Being the
Stranger.” Discussions of this theme at a conference attended by UUCAers last spring reminded us that in order to welcome visitors, we have to remember and understand what it feels like to be a guest. It called on us to consider our own and others’ stories of feeling new or strange as a visitor or member in our church, as a member of a church that has changed significantly since we first arrived, or in other instances in life. Below, some Trustees share their stories of “being the stranger.”
Fate conspired to limit my access to church on several Sunday mornings in a row this fall. I tried to stay
connected by listening to sermons and reading posts online. I came to church on other days and spent time outside of church with UUCA folks. It seems hard to stay connected if you can’t get to church on Sundays and you aren’t “weeknight folk,” if you don’t feel comfortable using the website or you don’t feel a part of all of the conversations going on in that space. It’s even harder if you haven’t made enough connections at church that people would reach out to you to help create community where you are in the event that you are away from church for a while. I appreciate the people and experiences that kept me connected and I hope that we all will continue to extend ourselves to those less active within the walls of the church.
When I arrived at college for my freshman year, I was so frightened of academic, or even worse, social, failure that I could barely interact with people. I was also convinced that the worst possible thing would be for anyone to know how scared I was. I tried to act confident, but I think I probably came off as desperate and slightly insane. The first semester was terrible because I didn't connect with anyone. Then at the beginning of second semester, I walked into my computer programming class and laid eyes on David and instantly recognized him as the person I could talk to. He became my first real college friend and my best friend for many years. I've always found that making one good connection is what helps me over my
anxiety about being a stranger.
One summer when in college, friends and I travelled to what was then Yugoslavia. It was a place we heard where there was excellent canoeing on the Drina River. We wandered through the nearby remote Bosnian mountain town of Foca, noticing the presence of several beautiful mosques and wondering how we would find canoes and a place to camp since it appeared we had no way to communicate with the townspeople. Finally, one of my friends tried speaking German, remembered from high school, and it turned out that many of the older residents remembered German from the time of World War II. Suddenly we were no longer strangers, and within hours we had been introduced to the head of the local canoe club, given a nice yard to camp in, and the next day we began our canoe trip down the Drina River.
I retained a strong memory of Foca as a place where strangers from a different country and culture were
warmly welcomed. In 1992, I was horrified to read that Foca was the scene of some of the most terrible events of the Serbian/Bosnian conflict. The majority Muslim population of the town was expelled with terrible atrocities. Since then, I have often wondered how people who had lived together for generations as neighbors could suddenly become such strangers to each other that
these events could occur.
“Poor, little sick girl,” the kids yelled from across the street as I walked to school alone. This was my re-entry to school in sixth grade after two years at home in a hospital bed. The diagnosis had been rheumatic fever. Never mind that I felt fine the entire time. I asked advice from my parents: “What should I say when people yell at me that way?” Just tell them, “I’m fine,” said my Mom.
It was a lesson: Kids you have known all your life will turn on you in a heartbeat even if the thing that made them turn does no harm to them whatsoever and is not related to them personally. It was not my fault and it was something over which I had absolutely no control. But that did not soften the judgment: I was the Other. I would walk alone.
As lessons go, it was not a bad one. It deepened my sympathy for people who were “different,” and lowered my expectations of the “common wisdom” to about zero. This was to come in handy during the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement. And, it is still handy. It is useful now as I look at the machinations of the political right and the absurdities and cruelties masquerading as current immigration policy.
We hope that each of us in the UUCA community will take a moment to think of times we have been the stranger, times when we have been welcomed and affirmed, and ways to create a welcoming and affirming environment for others.
Natty Averett, Alex Roth, David Shilton,
On Behalf of the Board of Trustees