How to Be a Perfect Stranger


Rev. Douglas Taylor

As I shared with the children during the story, we’re moving for a bit. As in the story, we are going away from home on a journey of several months, and then coming back to discover our treasure. And, like in the story, in order to find the treasure here at home, we need to go away for a bit. So that’s what we’ll do.

And, this morning I will bring us up to date with some details about this. I’ll share the plans as they currently stand. But I also want to talk about what this means, why it’s important and valuable for us to do it like this, and what is at risk for us in this passage.

And to offer some context for my remarks, the Soul Matters monthly worship theme for October is “Belonging.” So, let’s talk about leaving our home for several months in the context of belonging. How shall we ‘belong’ in a space that belongs to someone else? How are we to maintain our sense of belonging when we are away from home?  

Some of the answer to that is personal, and I’ll talk more about that next week. There is a way of being in the world in which by belonging nowhere, you can belong anywhere. But that’s for next week. Today, let’s consider the more communal element of this. How shall we ‘belong’ in a space that belongs to someone else? Some of the answer is: that being a good guest is its own way of belonging.

Everything that will happen for us during these few months away is both temporary and by our choice. This is an opportunity to rely on the generous hosting of another community. So often the conversation about hospitality is about how we offer it. We spend time talking about the value of being generous, of hosting space, of opening ourselves so others can also be here. Today, we’re talking about the art of receiving that generosity. The art of being a good guest. Or to name with a common religious phrasing: they are going to “welcome the stranger.” We get to work on being good strangers.

The United Presbyterian Church will be opening its building to us starting January 1st, 2020. We will be their guests for about 8 months. We will worship in their space; we will establish an office and move our copy machine and phone number over there. We’ll have meetings there and classes and almost everything we might have done here, within reason.

Their building is at 42 Chenango street in downtown Binghamton, just above the courthouse traffic circle and below the bus station. Fun fact: they are about a block north of where our Universalist Church building had been in the 1800’s.

United Presbyterian is a congregation that grew from the merger of two other Presbyterian congregations a few years back: First & West. Full disclosure: one of the rumors floating around their place is that we’re merging with them. I’ve been talking about our anxiety over these months; their anxiety looks different from ours. So, if you hear me emphasizing the temporary element of this a lot, now you know why. They have a big merger in their recent history and that colors much of their view of a conversation like this.

But they are not merging with us. They are opening their space in hospitality to us. The Hebrews epistle in Christian Scripture advises the people to be hospitable. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” This, perhaps is a guiding passage for them. They are entertaining strangers and perhaps angels unaware. So, the inversion of that – for us – might be: “Be not forgetful that you may unknowingly be as an angel to those who entertain you.”

This passage refers to a couple of times in Genesis when angels have visited Abraham or Lot or Jacob, and while they were not recognized as angels at first or even at all, the people received a blessing for offering hospitality. The lesson is usually: be hospitable. You’re probably just being kind to some random, normal person. And you might win the angel lottery!

Today, we are the ones looking for hospitality. And this Christian congregation is opening its doors to us. The ministers of that congregation, Rev. Kimberly Chastain and Rev. Becky Kindig have shared with me that opening their building to people from the community in need is part of their mission as a congregation. They house several community organizations and activities in their building.

The Binghamton GED program has space in their building. Both Truth Pharm and VINES have an office there. NAACP has some meetings in their space and the Urban League runs an after-school program in the basement. And that’s just a first brush of groups that are regularly in the building each week. And as a side note, that list reveals the similar values we have in common between our congregations.

They open their building to the community. That’s part of their purpose and their mission. That’s a key part of why they said ‘yes’ to us. Our work is to let them welcome us and host us. This harkens to some of what was shared in our reading from Jeffery Lockwood, The fine Art of the Good Guest.

“One begins by demanding nothing more than the bare elements of life and dignity, which every host is more than delighted to exceed. The good guest then simply allows the other person to be a good host—to share [their] gifts.

The leadership of this Presbyterian congregation are not forgetful to entertain strangers. So, how do we enter into this with the possibility that we may unknowingly be as angels to them, that we may unknowingly end up blessing them. I mean, the trick in that way of framing it is we won’t know what we might do to be a blessing to them. But let’s enter into this knowing that from their perspective, welcoming us is part of their holy work.

Let me give you a few of the details of the plan as it is so far. We’re still negotiating, so there are some gaps and open-ended pieces here and there. But we have a general sense of what this is going to be like. A central question has been, “When will we have our worship services each Sunday?’

They worship from 10:00 to 11:15 and then go into a social hour. They are inviting us to come in to share social hour, say around 11:30. We would do our social hour before our worship service. We would begin workshop at 12:30. This timing is the most significant compromise we’ve made here. We wanted to maintain our regular worship time but as we explored places to meet, keeping our 10:30 worship time became less and less realistic. It’s not what we wanted, but we can make it work.

Many of you I am sure recall that we were also considering a Jewish congregation as a location. The Board decided to go with United Presbyterian for a few reasons such as accessibility, cost, and parking.

Let me tell you about how lucky we are with our current parking situation as a congregation. We never have to worry about parking here. When we come back from our journey, I suspect we will be overjoyed not only with the renovations but also to have out parking lot again.

Anyway, at United Presbyterian, there is street parking and a good-sized parking garage half a block from the church. All of that parking is free on Sundays. We’re still negotiating how we’ll use the small parking lot behind the church.

We’re also considering how we might establish a Sunday morning shuttle from the garage to the church door (and vice versa) for folks who need extra help, especially in the winter months; like shuttle-ushers. Watch for a sign-up sheet if you think you’ll want that shuttling support or if you think you might offer that shuttling. This is an example of how we turn a potential problem into an opportunity. 

There are various lists floating around the internet, advice columns about how to be a good guest. They generally have tips like: arrive with a gift, ask about house rules, give you host personal space, keep the common areas clean, strip you bed when upon departure, and leave a parting gift. [For example:] I’m not sure that one about stripping the bed is applicable, but many other suggestions can translate.

With such advice in mind, we can turn our attention away from what might be a problem for us, to how might we bring a gift to them or lend a hand where needed.

I will share that we are planning to keep our custodial staff employed while we are visiting United Presbyterian, to lighten the cleaning load our presence will create. We are looking into snow removal options – they usually just plow their back lot but that leaves the snow piled up and in the way. Parking matters to us so we’re looking into a snow-removal company. In other words, one way we are going to be good guests is to share the work of keeping the common spaces clean and in good repair (and clear of snow).

The leaders of United Presbyterian were excited about the possibility of hosting Cranberry Coffeehouse in their space. Our two congregations took a little too long getting to the negotiation table, and the leadership of Cranberry Coffeehouse chose to not sit on their hands waiting. They looked around and found a community center called The Mansion on Walnut street just above Main where they will host their events through this winter and spring. And before you ask, Yes, they are intending to return to this building when our renovations are done. But Cranberry will not be travelling with us on our treasure-seeking journey away from home. They will have their own adventures.

We will be taking our pagans with us, though. Our CUUPs (Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) group asked us to check in about this specifically. There’s some tension between Christians and Pagans from way back. Our pagan group wondered if they would be welcomed by the Presbyterians. So, we checked.  

The Presbyterian leaders said, “Oh that’s no problem, in fact there are some of our folks here who are very interested in that kind of spirituality and would want to learn more.” They also shared an interesting connection from their recent experiences. United Presb. was a host site for LUMA a few months back. [LUMA is the public art event using 3D light displays.] There was one installation set up inside their sanctuary. It was a large statue, a representation of some ancient pagan god, as it happened; set up right there in the sanctuary for the weekend.

Well on Sunday morning, that statue was still there, off to the side waiting to be picked up after the event. Some conservative Presbyterians from out of town got wind of this and someone wrote a scathing tell-all about how the Binghamton Presbyterians were worshiping a pagan god in their sanctuary! You know how social media can be … the story travelled … things escalated. This was all just last month.

So, then we show up and we’re like, “Are you okay with our pagans using your space for discussions and rituals?” And they said, “Yes. That’s fine.” Someone had accused them falsely of cavorting with paganism and they respond with “Oh, we’ll get some real pagans in here, just you wait.”

I’m not suggesting this will be a perfect fit. Our 8-month stay with them will be bumpy. Some among us will probably stay away because 12:30 is too late, because their sanctuary is too Christian, because the community is too downtown, or it’s all just too different. And perhaps other people will start showing up more because 12:30 works, because their sanctuary is Christian, because the community is downtown, or simply because it’s all just different. We’ll see. 

I will mention we will set up some tours in the next few months. It’d be nice to get to know the space. We have plans to host and co-host some potlucks, forums, and other such activities. And, this year our annual Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” Radio Play will be performed over at United Presbyterian. We’ll open the casting up to their congregation as well. That will be Sunday December 22nd in the afternoon. That will be a chance to meet some of them and visit the space.

How shall we ‘belong’ in a space that belongs to someone else? While we love our current building, we are looking forward to the new space we will have when we return. But consider the value of traveling for a time among people of a different community.

May our adventuresome travels away from home serve to heighten our awareness and appreciation of the treasure we may discover upon returning home. May our time among others serve as a blessing to us and to them. May we experience the virtue of expanding the circle of our care, of being good guests, of being perfect strangers. And may we discover what it is like to be entertained as if we might be angels unaware – that we may be better ready to do the same when we our turn arrives. 

In a world without end, may it be so.