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A friend of mine sarcastically commented the other day that it must be the year of hospitality: you can’t go far in a store without seeing all sorts of pineapple-emblazoned products. And yet, this is also the year of attempted travel bans, denial of health care, and walls to keep people out. So what does it mean when seemingly opposing views crop up in our wider U.S. culture? And what cues can we as UUs take from it in dismantling the obstacles to welcoming more people of color into our congregations and faith movement?
Things usually keep cropping up until we take care of the root causes. So, let’s take a look at the roots of the pineapple and its connections to “welcoming.”
What’s the Context?
Pineapples have long been a symbol of hospitality. As commonplace as they might be today, history is very clear about who the hospitality was meant for and who paid for it with their lives. Plucked from the Caribbean, the pineapple’s rare, exotic, and evocative image was the envy of upper-class Europeans. To have it adorn your dining table boasted of the host’s wealth and resourcefulness, and was to be enjoyed only by those who such a host deemed worthy. And, as is often the case, real people were taken advantage of in every way to make this farce a possibility.
Don’t get me wrong. I love pineapples. But every time I see one as a supposed symbol of hospitality, I’m reminded of this history. Sometimes I can let it go as a simple anachronism. Sometimes the spirit of the welcomer is strong enough for me to look past it altogether. But the work of figuring out the host’s intent and its eventual outcome almost always falls on me. Is this someone I can trust to uphold my inherent worth and dignity in the long run? Or am I just another pineapple: someone who looks different, interesting, and can be collected to bump up an image of a diversity-welcoming community?
The very term “welcome” can be problematic, as well. The way we use it today, there’s a connotation that we wish the “comer” well. But when we dig into the etymology, we see another questionable history. “Wilcuma” is the Old English root meaning “one whose coming suits another’s will or wish.” Here again, we see the will or wish of the host centered. And a condition placed on the guest.
This is illustrated by our tendency to wrap collection of contact information and self-identification into the welcoming process. It becomes transactional: you will welcome me if I’ll make it easier for you and agree to receiving more information from you. This is infinitely more difficult for someone who isn’t sure if they can trust you yet – if you imitate or disrupt the white dominant culture. And this is where intent has to match outcome, or you will lose that trust and the welcome never truly happened. This is about being sensitive to the timing. Just as, when dating, you’d look for signs of interest before trying to get someone’s number (at least, I hope you would)!
From Good Intentions to Good Outcomes
I was recently inspired by Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, the UUA’s Director of Multicultural Ministries & Leadership. She said, “We’re in a time that invites us to be welcoming in new ways… to find the ways to be more authentically welcoming.” Authenticity in welcoming relationships requires mutual respect and exchange. It’s not about the host putting on a show, proving themselves, offering diversity bonafides (I’ve been guilty of this!). It’s not about letting guests figure out for themselves whether they’ll fit into the existing culture. It’s all about being aware of the context of systemic oppression that a guest has to endure every day, and doing our work as hosts to make our space not just safer, but also enriching and life-giving.
It’s tricky to formulate what an authentic relationship should or could look like, given the range of cultures, personalities, and communication preferences. In addition to being aware of how systemic oppression works, it includes leaving space for the person to have and possibly tell you their own experience. This might look like training your greeters to remember guests and follow up after the service to hear what they thought and felt and get their contact information if they seem interested in more. It might look like training and reminding your congregants to talk to guests or people they haven’t met yet during coffee hour rather than making guests introduce themselves in the service.
If you’re a white person who’s speaking with a person of color (especially in a social context that is majority white), let your guest lead the conversation and always check for understanding. They may have a completely different experience from what you imagine and be seeking a safe space where they can express it and be their own complex, unique selves. It may involve long-term relationship building rather than expecting someone to trust you immediately. Or, it might involve being ready and flexible to new ideas if someone wants to “dive in.” Really, this is no more of a courtesy than we’d extend to people of a perceived “ingroup.” We need to practice widening this to all guests.
Pineapples can be enjoyed by everyone. And hosts’ intentions don’t have to be at odds with the outcome their guests experience. The nuanced but pivotal difference is authentic relationship and a willingness to be transformed. Dr. Janice Marie Johnson points out that “There’s no common notion of welcome. Wherever we go, it looks different.” I’m interested to see what images of hospitality look like in the next 500 years – ones that don’t have roots in colonialism and white supremacy. May we sow new seeds of welcome that bear fruits for our collective liberation.
Check out Multicultural Welcome: a Resource for Greeters for more depth, including workshop activities you can use for training in your congregation. You can also use the Welcoming versus Othering handout for greeter training and congregational awareness.