This past month, in October 2018 we witnessed a very negative letter from an anonymous person in St. Albert to a family of Indigenous neighbours. These words showed up at this family’s door causing enormous hurt and pain, and prompting widespread condemnation across the whole Edmonton Area.
Let’s call it ‘an unwelcome.’
A welcome communicates warmth and openness, hospitality and grace.
An unwelcome is cold and closed, inhospitable and full of judgment.
Discussions around this dynamic are frequently discussed in CRIHI engagements. Sometimes our entry to the discussion is intentional, as we discuss hospitality or neighbouring, or to share an experience of being unwelcome. Very often it simply finds its way forward in different conversations across the city.
Here are a few shared experiences of being unwelcome that have surfaced recently:
- Too athletic to fit with the nerds; too book-smart to fit with the Jocks; facing barriers in both circles.
- Reactions based on Identity: Ie. the barriers of being both White and Catholic and working in the indigenous community; building trust is an uphill battle.
- Facing a strong negative reaction when sharing an unpopular perspective in a town hall community meeting.
- Family gatherings where you no longer feel you belong.
- Newly housed and alone in a community that watches you with suspicion.
- Your position as a police officer, or a faith leader, or a city employee makes you the target of people’s frustration, fear, anger and hurt.
- Landlords who decline to take on riskier tenants because they have been burned in the past.
Listening to some of these examples, let’s ask ourselves: Are people who hand out ‘unwelcomes’ bad people? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The reality is that we are all human and subject to human weakness and failings. An unwelcome often draws it’s strength from roots and experiences of one kind or another. Some are honest and understandable, some are vicious and cruel, and others may simply be selfish and uncaring.
As Affordable housing in various forms take root in communities around the city, we see many responses with varying degrees of welcome and unwelcome. Communities usually have questions they want to talk through, and sometimes that process can help resolve fears and worries, and unravel anger and suspicion. But it does not always do that, and sometimes new tenants will face responses like the letter above; moments of hatred and suspicion that communicate a very strong unwelcome.
One such example took place at a local facility working with people with persistent mental health conditions. A neighbour burst through the door and loudly accused the tenants there of being a bunch of pedophiles. Thankfully, there were no tenants in earshot when this happened, but that kind of accusation hurled at vulnerable populations is real, and it is damaging. But this kind of openly aggressive behavior remains the exception.
The vast majority of unwelcomes are passive and not aggressive.
This is not to say that there is no place for fences or guarding ourselves from potentially harmful situations. But each situation requires a healthy examination; an unravelling of the unwelcome that is an all-too-easy response for all of us.
Here are a few questions to aid us on that journey:
- When I consider engaging with this person/family, what am I afraid of? (Naming our fears is helpful… even better is to talk these through with someone you trust.) Be aware that these fears may be rational or irrational, but don’t let them automatically determine your response.
- Is there something in my past that feeds this fear? (This is very possible, and may be part of the reason you are afraid or reluctant to engage. But challenge yourself with the reality that things could work out very differently this time.)
- Do I see the humanity of the other person? What do I imagine their story to be? (Challenge: now go talk to them and get the real story if they will share it with you.)
- What does your faith require of you? Does your tradition call you to practice a welcome, even if it means risking yourself? (Many traditions emphasize exactly that!)
- When have I experienced a welcome from someone? What did it look like? What did it feel like? How can I pass that gift along in this situation?
Unravelling the unwelcome in us is not an easy task, and we may battle some very strong resistance. In my tradition (Christian Reformed), we are instructed to accompany any such work with prayer; seeking God’s help to overcome cold with warmth, despair with hope, fear with faith, and darkness with light, and for protection, courage and strength if that too is required.
The forces that feed an unwelcome are real and powerful. Let’s fight together for a spirit of welcome to replace the coldness that steals life from our communities.
by Mike Van Boom, Interfaith Network Animator
Capital Region Interfaith Housing Initiative (CRIHI)