In my interfaith work, I have taken up a bad habit that I only recently realized is bad. On posters, in newsletters, on Facebook, to colleagues when describing an event, dialogue, or even my office in general, I say, “All Are Welcome.”
It sounds great, in theory. How could you not welcome someone, given your position? Interfaith work is about welcoming those with whom we disagree. And now you’re suggesting this is bad?
I was walking on one of the warmest days of early Summer with a colleague at the university. We were discussing a joint dialogue and the details when we began discussing places of worship and the historical pain many have caused. “You can put your rainbow flag out all you want,” they said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m welcome. Where am I going to sit if there are traditional gendered seating areas. Where am I going to pee? Is everyone going to stare at me because I don’t fit?”
My colleague has a point. Many churches and other places of worship do genuinely want to welcome those whom have historically been rejected- members of the LGBTQ community, for instance. I walked by a large church on Boylston Street a few days ago with a big sign that practically shouted, “Muslims Welcome Here!” I wondered why this church felt compelled to welcome Muslims so aggressively. Moreover, I pondered what it would mean to show, not just state, the welcome.
When students are new to interfaith work, we often talk with them about religious literacy, the deepening of knowledge about rituals, practices and beliefs that are foreign and sometimes in opposition to their own. The basic conversations revolve around knowing what kind of food to provide at an event (no pork, probably good) or how to choose a date and time (Friday evening for Shabbat observant Jews? Not a good plan) or even greetings that will make guests feel welcome (Salaam Aleikum!) These are all wonderful practices, and they catalyze a developing mindset toward religious differences. The goal is to help students eventually deepen their knowledge enough that they do not accept “normal” for them to be “normal” for another.
Still reeling from my deeply meaningful experience at the Beyond Walls Spiritual Writing program at Kenyon College two weeks ago, I have been thinking about a seminar that focused on how we as writers define our audience. Our guide shared with us a helpful catchphrase: “When you write to everyone, you write to no one. But if you write to someone, you write for anyone.” This sounds exclusive. The point is, when we turn our attention to a particular audience, we are intentional and focused. Best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote Between the World and Me to his sons; millions of people have read the book.
Knowing my audience is key in my interfaith work. Saying “all are welcome” negates the sometimes overlooked truth that even in a space open to folks who may disagree, we still all agree on certain norms and values. If a white supremacist, fundamentalist person attended an event and began spouting hateful words, I would ask them to leave. They are not welcome. In interfaith work as in all spaces, it is necessary to demonstrate how certain individuals are welcome, from bathrooms to belief affirmations. It is also crucial that I know my audience, I understand who will come to the space and uphold the values of learning from one another, finding common ground, and respecting their peers. If we welcome all, we welcome no one. If we welcome someone, we welcome anyone.