Where Logic Meets Love

Unhugged: The Importance of Mindfully Creating Community

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

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Unhugged: The Importance of Mindfully Creating Community | Faith Permeating Life

When I was in college, there were several Masses to choose from on Sunday in the main chapel. There was also one Mass at night closer to where the upperclassmen lived that was far more laid-back; students sat on the floor and there was a student band that played high-energy music for the Mass.

One of the defining features of this Mass was how the Sign of Peace was handled. At a typical Mass, you shake the hands of the people around you and say, "Peace be with you." You might hug any friends and family you're with rather than shaking their hand. At this Mass, everyone hugged for the Sign of Peace. It was a big free-for-all of people running around the room, hugging each other.

When I was a freshman, I would sometimes go with a group of girls from my floor to this Mass. My impression was that it was great how everyone just let loose and loved on everyone; I'd gets hugs from my floormates, from Campus Ministry folks I knew, from other friends from different parts of campus. It made me feel part of a close-knit, loving community.

A lot had changed by my last year of college. I was in graduate school and almost all my friends had graduated except my roommate (not Catholic) and my friends in the gay-straight alliance (mostly not Catholic), plus a few friends who lived on the other side of campus whom I rarely saw. I don't remember which Mass I normally went to, but it was one of the ones in the main chapel or at the church right near campus.

For whatever reason, one Sunday I didn't make it to Mass during the day, which meant the only option left was to go to the night Mass. I saw someone I knew from classes on the way in, and so she invited me to come sit on the floor by her and her friends.

At the Sign of Peace, something odd happened. The girl I knew gave me a hug, and then I turned to the people around me. Everyone was hugging each other... and carefully avoiding eye contact with me. There was a hugging storm whirling around me, but I was the eye of the storm, the solitary unknown person that no one knew what to do with.

I understood exactly what had happened. At this particular Mass, it would have been out of the ordinary to stop and shake someone's hand after hugging everyone else. It would have felt oddly formal and distant, not in keeping with the character of the Mass. But a hug is still an intimate thing, something you don't usually share with a complete stranger.

So people chose to avoid having to make a decision by just pretending they didn't see me.

I had forgotten about this experience until this week, when the residence hall where we live hosted its weekly Mass. This Mass had the same laid-back attitude of the night Mass at my college, with people coming down from their rooms in their pajama pants, talking and laughing with friends before Mass started.

And at the Sign of Peace, everyone hugged.

Some people here know me. The RAs gave me hugs, as well as a few other students who we'd gotten to know before school started. And Mike did, of course. But the rest of the students in front of and behind me carefully averted their eyes and found other people to share their peace with.

It made me think about the importance of mindfulness in building communities. It seems that the more close-knit and comfortable a group becomes, the harder it is for others to be welcomed into that group unless the group specifically makes an effort to make new people comfortable.

Have you ever been invited to hang out with someone's group of friends and felt a palpable barrier between you and everyone else, made of laughter and inside jokes? But what a difference it makes when someone stops and tells you the backstory before the conversation goes any farther.

When I was in Chicago, I volunteered with an amazing group of people, and one of the things that helped me feel I belonged was that at the first meeting I attended, everyone took the time to ask me questions about myself and learn more about me, and then filled me in on what they were working on and the usual format of their meetings. They did the same when another volunteer joined later on. It was a concrete way of indicating that they wanted new people to feel comfortable and welcome there.

In cases like these, all it may take is any individual being mindful of the need to make someone comfortable. But with larger groups, I think explicit guidance from a leader can be helpful. At this Mass, for instance, people are operating on two different heuristics: (1) Everyone hugs at this Mass and (2) Hugging someone you don't know is socially awkward. What a difference it could make for the priest to say something like, "At this Mass we often share with one another a sign of peace through a hug, but if you don't know someone well enough for that, please extend them a handshake."

The idea of welcoming newcomers is something I've heard come up more than once in connection with churches, and it's something that Catholics, specifically, are not known for doing particularly well. However, I know from visiting friends' churches that sometimes when people are assigned to a "welcome ministry" it can end up feeling a little overbearing and like a sales pitch for joining the church, and that's not exactly what I'm talking about.

I don't want to be sold to or interrogated -- just noticed and acknowledged positively. Sometimes that's just a friendly person turning around to say hello. But if that isn't a part of the culture, it may take a bigger push from leadership -- not so much by assigning specific people to be friendly, but by regularly encouraging people to greet someone they don't know, until a new habit and culture is formed.

There's something wonderful about feeling part of a close community of people. But if you want to leave the door open to new people, it's worth taking the time to think about how to ensure that new people feel welcome and included.

When have you had trouble becoming part of an established group? What do you think would have helped you feel more included?


  1. This is something I struggle with ALL OF THE TIME. It's actually been a huge issue for the youth group. Balancing the line of creating a community where people feel like they belong, being comfortable with one another, but also with open arms to new comers. It's a tough line to straddle. Reading this though reminded me of the Prayer and Praise service at Concordia. Sunday night we would have praise and worship and at the end we would "greet each other with a holy kiss." Which wasn't kissing at all - just people running around giving hugs. I rememeber my first time there and it was exactly what I needed. It was my favorite time. But then I remember as I got to my senior year, a new batch of students took over P&P and it started to change. There were so many times my senior year I just wanted to sit in back, listen to the music, pray, and then leave. Simply because that was what I needed. But then they would tell me no one was allowed to sit in back, I had to sit with everyone else and it made it difficult for me to sneak out. It was supposed to make me feel like part of the group, but it actually made me feel more isolated because I wasn't allowed to feel how I wanted to feel and worship the way I felt I needed to.

    1. That's an excellent point. Making someone feel welcome to join in is different from forcing someone to join in. I always have mixed feelings about groups that go around a circle and make everyone talk. I understand the idea of making sure everyone's voice is heard and not letting a few voices dominate the conversation, but it can also be nerve-wracking to be put on the spot, and I know some people are much more painfully shy than I am. So the trick is, how do you create an atmosphere in which people feel welcome, but not forced, to participate in a group?

  2. This is so true- members need to consider how they are welcoming new visitors. Personally, I would be incredibly uncomfortable with all that hugging- I have a policy against hugging boys (with a few exceptions...). Also, because of everything the church told me about "purity" as a teenager, I tend to view boys that try to hug me as trying to "take away part of my heart." Yeah...

    1. I hadn't thought about the fact that some people may not want to hug others, period, whether they know them or not. That could make a social norm like this awkward even if you're already part of the group.

      What you said about your church made me think of the book Dianna E. Anderson is working on. She's writing on the different impacts those kinds of teachings -- about purity, sex, gender roles, etc. -- have on Christian women, whether they hear them at church, home, in the media, wherever.

  3. I've felt that awkwardness in communities before. The Catholic church I used to go to was very large and shaking hands was definitely the norm but I still used to get ignored sometimes. It was so isolating! I recently started attending a local chapter of Dignity USA, the LGBT Catholic organization, and it is a very small community; I was nervous about the Sign of Peace (I figured it would all be friends hugging and I'd be on the outside!) and when it began I instinctively extended my hand but everyone came up to hug me and introduce themselves. It's the most inclusive community I've ever known and I love it. I'm not even usually much of a hugger but I will hug everyone during the Sign of Peace now, especially when I see a new face! I absolutely agree that we need to make a point of including and welcoming people into a community.

    1. I'm glad you had such a positive experience with Dignity! As I wrote in a previous post, I've found that LGBTQ groups are often more welcoming than other groups because of (I think) the need to preserve a completely safe and judgment-free environment that sometimes can't be found elsewhere. In my opinion, it's something we should see more often in Christian churches if we're really trying to follow Jesus' example; perhaps groups like Dignity can help model what a truly welcoming Christian community looks like.

  4. Trying to fit in with an established group is THE WORST. I've done it a ton of times, whether it was moving internationally and changing schools yet again, or coming into a close-knit workplace and having people six months later be surprised when they mention an employee who left three years earlier and I have no idea who they're talking about...

    The particular example you've used definitely seems like something that should be addressed - as awkward as it would be to be hugged by strangers, it's almost worse to be standing there with everyone avoiding you!!

    Pointless story of the day: my cousin went to a Catholic wedding at some point, and when it came to the Sign of Peace she had no idea what was happening, and misheard, and so was shaking hands with all the people around her and saying "Pleased to meet you!".

    1. I had experiences like that at work too. I chose to take it as a compliment that people didn't remember I was so new, but I don't think I ever succeeded in really "fitting in" with the staff as a whole, given how awkward my going-away party was. I would love to find a job out here that was part of a close-knit team of people... but only if it's possible for me to really feel part of that team.

      That's pretty funny about your cousin. That's one of the reasons we passed out a detailed worship aide at our wedding along with the program; it had all the songs but also explanations about when to stand or kneel and what to expect during the Sign of Peace, communion, etc. We didn't want anyone to feel left out just because they weren't Catholic, even though most of our friends and family members are.


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