2 Jun

Welcoming the Stranger, a sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley

Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on May 20, 2012

Listen to the sermon here.  Note: There was a problem with the recording so I spliced two tracks together. The sermon fades out at about 22 minutes, then comes back for the conclusion, having skipped a few minutes. Sorry!

Food for the Spirit, by Robert Eller-Isaacs, based on Matthew 25

Sermon Notes


  • confesses, non-anxiously, that we don’t know
  • faith: we know within
  • what gives us faith? Vision


  • who we are
  • who we want to be

Connect to mission statement

Top of order of service: We are a church of reason and spirit, witnessing for progressive faith, nurturing our community and transforming our world.

  • Vote on this at annual meeting June 3 (2 weeks!)
  • Focus on one way to live into the last two points – Being Welcoming/Offering Hospitality

Come, come whoever you are

  • most socially isolated people in history
  • Duke Study
    • 1985: 10% of Americans had no one to talk to and 15% had only 1 good friend
    • 2004: 25% of Americans had no one to talk to and only 20% had one good friend

Radical Hospitality, by Homan and Pratt:

“We hide out, isolate ourselves, and deny our natural need for others. We erroneously think we need safety the most. What we need most is acceptance. You probably can’t understand me, and I might not understand you, but we can accept each other. We need to connect and feel the deep acceptance of another human being and that will make the world feel safer….

We tend to confuse [acceptance] with tolerance or even approval. But acceptance is about receiving, rather than judging…When we accept, we take an open stance to the other person. It is more than merely piously tolerating them. We stand in the same space and we appreciate who they are, right now at this moment, and affirm the Sacred in them.”

One of the best ways to nurture our community and to transform our world is to accept people where they are, as they are. To welcome each person and affirm the Sacred in them.

People are hurting…

Not about growing the church, this is about saving people, here, and now.

Kaaren Anderson, at General Assembly:

The majority of people newly in our pews are no longer asking, “Do I have to leave my brain outside your doors?” but “Do I have to leave my pain outside your doors?” I don’t hear them emphasizing their primary hunger as helping them explore spiritual depth or build their own theology. No, what we hear them saying is: “There is a world out there, ripping my life apart and I’m wondering if this place can offer me any help? I can’t deal with a materialist, consumerist, shallow, selfish, status obsessed, indifferent, violent, economically unstable culture, a world that threatens to disconnect me from everything I hold dear, everything that truly feeds me, everything that makes me feel whole—on my own. I can’t do it in isolation, I want to know will this place help me stay connected.”

People are wondering: Are these my people? Will this church accept me, help me stay connected? Will this church feed my spirit?

So what do we do?

Member Ministry Reboot:

  • Put some of these systems in place
  • Prepare for GA here next year, which will bring visitors

Starts with saying hello

  • not turning away when we see someone new
  • UUs have a high proportion of introverts. It used to be 64%, which is the opposite of the general population. Means this is something we have to work at, may not come naturally.

Helping them find ways to be involved

  • Morales: “People come to church in order to give of themselves, to get involved, to make a difference.”

Setting healthy boundaries

Helping people know who we are, and who we are not

  • Try not be: oppressive, judgmental, disrespectful
  • Don’t hold all the answers
  • Someone comes in talking God love some people more than others – let them know that this is not what this church is about.

Honoring our own boundaries

  • Don’t gripe to visitors or name our failings! What you don’t like may be what attracted them to us, so how do you think that will make them feel if you complain about it?

See the individual

  • Find out what brought them to us, what they are looking for!
  • Don’t tokenize: Young, kids, person of color

Be real! Rev. Josh Pawelek

“If the welcome we offer is real—that is, if we really feel it, if a spirit of hospitality is pervasive among us, then it must come from some place deep in the heart of our community—and newcomers will know it is genuine. If it’s not real, if we don’t really feel it, if we’re just going through the motions because some authority asked us to, then I’m not sure these small behavioral changes will make any difference.”


Homan and Pratt:

  • affirm the Sacred in them.
  • “Hospitality is not about social graces, but mutual reverence”

Pineda: “When it is most fully realized, hospitality not only welcomes strangers, it also recognizes their holiness. It sees in the stranger a person dear to and made in the image of God, someone bearing distinctive gifts that only he or she can bring.”

20th century theologian Martin Buber: I-Thou.

  • human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships.
  • All of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with the Divine, who is the Eternal Thou.

Radical Hospitality



  • recognizing the sacred nature
  • recognizing the inherent worth and dignity
  • of all who walk through our doors


“Radical hospitality is both a personal and institutional spiritual practice of being curious about and open to new people and to diverse cultures and life-ways. And it’s more. Radical hospitality reflects a willingness and even a hunger to engage across lines of difference. It reflects a willingness and a hunger to offer service, care and love to new and different people, to those who come to us in need, to those who come hurt and afraid…

Homen and Pratt:

“Only in opening yourself wide to another are you transformed by the power of love.”

Key word there: transformed

How will it change us?

New people reconstitute our community. People move or die. If we don’t have new people, the church will die.

But new people change the community as well. We are seeing that now, in the desire for many new families to have more exploration hour opportunities, and to have their children with them in worship. Used to be people would come to church a few times a week, but now we find we have to offer as much as we can for one trip – gas, distances, time.


“Radical hospitality! Sounds great! Sounds like the key to becoming the best congregation we can be. Except…..Except if we, as a spiritual community, cultivate that curious, open, welcoming, serving, caring, loving, transforming identity that gives rise to radical hospitality, and if we practice that radical hospitality…We will change. In five years we won’t be the same congregation we are today.”


Scary – like the church the way it is.

This is what it means to be a living tradition, growing, changing.

Unitarians celebrated the wholeness of life.

Universalists recognized each person as a child of god – loveable. No one was ultimately rejected.

As Unitarian Unviersalists, being welcoming goes beyond bad manners. UU President Peter Morales says

“To ignore the pain and needs of the thousands of people who walk into our churches every week is morally wrong. To ignore the visitor is not bad manners. It is immoral.”

If we are not offering hospitality, we are neither able to nurture our community, or transform our world.  Or don’t vote for the mission statement.



“It is in relationship that we become fully human. It is in relationship that we find fulfillment. Only when we transcend our individuality do we touch the divine. All of the great religious traditions teach the importance of our connection to one another.”

If we are to make the circle of love wider, if we are to live into our vision of ourselves as nurturing our community and transforming our world, we must continue to ask ourselves: How can we practice radical hospitality in our world, and what does it mean to welcome the stranger? Then, we will know better where are are going, and can honestly say: “Come, come, whoever you are.”

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