On November 27th the Jewish congregation in my neighborhood celebrated the beginning of Hanukkah. They posted an announcement in the local paper inviting community members to come to the library to learn more about the holiday. Fascinated by Jewish culture and eager to learn more, I responded to the invitation and attended the event. I felt comfortable entering the library, having attended many events in the gathering room where the Jews were assembled. But as soon as I opened the door to the celebration I felt like I had gotten off at the wrong subway stop.
Several tables filled the center of the room, with children surrounding each one. Adult women peered over the shoulders of the children as they helped glue and shape various crafts. At one table, children played with a dreidel. At another they created a menorah.
Around the periphery of the room robed men huddled with their heads together. Several had long grey and black beards. All wore a yamaka and many faces were framed with curly peyos. Heads turned and stared at me with such curiosity I wondered if something was hanging from my nose. My palms grew cold and I felt a tinge of fear. What was I doing here? I was completely out of place. Why were there no other gentiles in the room? Wasn’t this event open to the public? I wanted to claim I had made a wrong turn and exit as quickly as possible.
Just then I spotted a woman across the room that I knew from my tennis team. I was as relieved to see her, as a child is to see her mom after being lost at the fair. I practically sprinted over to her, wishing we were better friends than we actually were. As nicely as she could, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I saw your announcement in the paper and thought it would be interesting to find out more about your culture” I responded.
“Well you can see this event is mostly for children,” she apologized.
“I intended to bring my grandchildren, but they cancelled at the last minute,” I offered an apology of my own.
We then exchanged information about our own children and I left as quickly as possible.
No More Strangers
I have never walked into a Latter-day Saint meeting and felt this level of discomfort, however, after this experience I felt a powerful empathy for those who had. Every person in that conference room was anxiously engaged in doing good things. The women were teaching the children. The men were likely discussing doctrine, callings, less-actives, or whatever the equivalent is in a Jewish congregation. None could be faulted for their excellent choices. There was simply no consideration for a newcomer.
On Sundays, I rush around like many Latter-day Saints, setting up my room for a lesson, following through on assignments, greeting those I love so well. If a stranger entered the building, I certainly wouldn’t stare because I would probably be too busy to notice. That was before my Hanukkah experience. I now recognize that if we are going to be good missionaries or even good fellowshippers we can’t let what’s best become obscured by what’s good.
A simple awareness of strangers makes if infinitely easier for them to enter our building and feel a sense of belonging among the Latter-day Saints. A friend of mine was getting out of her car one Sunday when she realized she didn’t know the woman in the car next to her. She waited a few minutes for the stranger to get out of her car and my friend simply smiled. The stranger approached my friend and asked, “Can I walk in the building with you?”
“Of course,” my friend replied. And she invited the stranger to sit with her during sacrament meeting. After sacrament meeting my friend introduced the newcomer to the sister missionaries, and to some Relief Society sisters. On Sunday this newcomer entered the waters of baptism and became a Latter-day Saint. This experience convinced me that some pretty effective fellowshipping takes place in the parking lot.
My son, who is the Elders’ Quorum President in his ward concurs. He claims that the parking lot is often the only place he can pin people down. “Some of my quorum members don’t feel comfortable at church,” my son says. “Sitting through sacrament meeting is as much as they can tolerate and as soon as it’s over they dart out of the building.” Luckily my son is quick and nimble and he can usually catch these folks before they lock themselves in their cars. “At least I can shake their hand, let them know we love them, and they are important to us.”
Recently one of my son’s parking lot pals showed up for a holiday party at his home. The less active brother insisted he was “just in the neighborhood and could only stay for a moment,” but he ended up staying for hours. He met other members of the ward, played games, told stories and for the first time in years felt like he belonged among the Latter-day Saints.
One of the benefits of finding a parking lot pal is nobody has to sit alone in church. Sitting alone in a sacrament meeting full of people can feel far more lonely than sitting alone in front of the television at home. When newcomers look around and see pews full of intact families sitting together on a bench, couples holding hands, or even single mothers surrounded by a passel of children, they can feel like they don’t belong.
On Sunday morning rather than screech into the parking lot, just as the minute hand tops the hour, and breathlessly slip into my accustomed seat in the chapel, I’m determined to give myself enough time to notice those brave souls who have made it as far as the parking lot. They deserve a friend to accompany them to the pews.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at <a href="https://www.
<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />smithfamilytherapy.org”>www.smithfamilytherapy.org and amazon.com.