The other day I wrote about being all but invisible on a visit with an elderly relative on a trip back to Oklahoma. A good part of the long weekend was spent in high school reunion activities at which I was a spouse. Reunion spouses are not invisible, but they do occupy a position that might be called benevolent marginality at two different levels, BM-1 and BM-2. Many of my wife’s classmates still live in or near their small town, and their spouses, at benevolent marginality level 1, are well integrated into the social life and culture of the place so that, while not classmates, they are friendly with everyone else who is local and considered to be valued auxiliaries needed to make up the whole. I, on the other hand, was a spouse from a distant and unknown land who had met and married this local girl in a large, strange and far away city. That put me in benevolent marginality level 2.
Persons in BM-2 are welcomed but quickly ignored by all except those who are curious about what might have attracted their classmate to this reasonably well groomed and apparently decent alien. Has he shown himself to be worthy of her? Is he close enough to their standards of acceptability to be considered an appropriate mate? Does he have any exotic tales to share? Will he listen to and respect the tales we tell? Do we want to make a place for him as an honorary BM-1 level spouse? Fortunately, my wife has sufficient standing among her classmates, with enough cousins still living nearby, to ease the transition, and I was granted a 3 day pass with an option to renew on a future trip. It might have helped that her brother and sister were also at hand.
I wonder if that is more or less the way that most congregations treat newcomers? I know that every congregation is proud of how open and welcoming they are, but the truth is seen by how strangers and visitors are welcomed at the door, by those sitting nearby, at the Lord’s table, and at coffee hour. And that truth is almost always benevolent marginality. BM-1 may be accorded to those who look and act as much like the respected members of the congregation as is possible for a visitor, especially if they are accompanied by or related to someone. BM-2 will be accorded to most others. A third level, BM-3, will be accorded to those who look and act sufficiently like those we do not want to associate with and whom we hope will quickly leave. I’ve been a visitor in enough congregations to be fairly certain that this is the norm, not the exception.
There is, however, an exception, and I’ve experienced it only a few times because I find it excruciatingly unpleasant. The exception is in congregations with greeters so well trained and organized that I feel like I’ve walked into a used car lot to be hustled by an over eager and hungry sales person.
Good Lord, there has got to be a better way! Which reminds me, I wonder what we might learn about greeting, welcoming and including others by the way Christ did it? I wonder how hard it would be to welcome each person, known or not known, as if he or she was Christ? Wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to try?