We didn’t know what to expect from one another. As theme speaker and facilitator, I stood in front of 80 strangers gathered for a three-day clergy conference. Would my offering meet their need?
Normally, my retreat participants know what to expect and have chosen to be there. This group, by contrast, had no idea what they were getting into and felt obliged to attend. The pressure was on to make this time worthy of their participation.
I began with a poem by Jane Hooper. “Please come home” is her poetic refrain. Flowing from one stanza to the next, the recited invitation becomes slower and deeper: a call to come home to ourselves, to others and to whom we truly are as people who belong to God and Earth.
After some small-group discussion, I invited comments. Susan was one of the first to speak. She talked about how hard it was to contemplate words inviting her to “come home” when in fact, she remarked frankly, she’d much rather be at home.
My heart sank. Then I had a flashback to the many times I’ve been tempted to reject whatever gift was being offered in the present moment because I was preoccupied with what I’d rather be receiving elsewhere. Home is my favourite place too; I’m drawn to what is familiar. John L. Bell’s hymn We Will Take What You Offer started circling my heart as I considered how I might respond to Susan’s resistance. What might I offer — and receive — in this moment?
But then Susan’s remarks took a positive turn. She recalled being moved by the musical Come From Away and wondered aloud about the choice 7,000 travellers were faced with on Sept. 11, 2001, when they landed unexpectedly in Gander, N.L. Some were returning from travels abroad, and many were worried about family members back home. Would they focus on being stuck on the Rock when they would rather be at home themselves — or would they receive what was being offered in Gander? Would they choose there or here?
Many of us have heard stories of the lifelong friendships begun in Gander over those dramatic days. The “plane people,” as they were called, arrived from more than 90 countries and had diverse dietary needs and religious practices. As Claude Elliott, the mayor of Gander, told The New Yorker, “We started off with 7,000 strangers, but we finished with 7,000 family members.”
There’s nothing better than Newfoundland hospitality for transforming strangers into family. And yet every day, I miss opportunities to accept such hospitality. Every smile or invitation presents me with a choice: will I receive what’s offered with gratitude or wish for something else?
Susan articulated her choice that day: she would be here rather than there, and she would receive what was offered. She made it possible for each of us to accept the invitation to be with one another in a more open, gracious way than we might otherwise have been. We became grateful for our time together. It taught us something about being more grateful at home too.
Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.
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