Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Only One in the Room

     It can be one of the most uncomfortable things a person can experience being ‘the only one in the room.’ In this case, the only one in the room refers not to a person walking into a space empty of others. Rather, it’s being in a place filled with folks who are different from you.

     Last Sunday, I was the only one in the room. At least it felt like that. I was invited to church service by a close colleague. We both serve on the board of an agency he wanted to strengthen awareness of among his congregation. But something else was going on in my mind as I pulled into the church parking lot: I would most likely be the only one of my kind at the service. My anxiety grew when I exited my vehicle and approached the entry way.

     I was pretty sure there’d be a person or two there that I’d know, which helped some. But I still felt apprehensive. I knew I was being irrational. After all, I was entering a place of worship; a sanctuary. Nevertheless, the nervousness was present.

     What made me different from the rest of the people that morning was that I am of the Episcopal faith and the church I was entering was Methodist. And aside from being in a room full of strangers, my concern was this: at my church I know when to stand, when to sit, when to pray – in short, what to expect. No surprises. But here, there were nine way to Sunday that I could embarrass myself. Or worse, unintentionally offend someone.

     As it turned out, the only thing I had to fear was if I had left my cell phone on or not. When I reached the church doors, two little kids with big smiles swung open the doors to greet me. The adult ushers welcomed me, handed me a program and, well, ushered me into the beautiful sanctuary. Still worried about making mistakes, I selected a seat in a row well toward the rear of the church. Within seconds I was welcomed by a stranger, then another. Then a colleague welcomed me warmly. And although I was ‘forced’ closer to the front, I felt ‘held’ by parishioners. Choir members smiled. Behind me was a woman in a wheelchair. As far as I could tell, she was the only one in the room too.

     Long story short, I was made to feel welcome. And although there were some who ‘kept their distance,’ I reflected on how many times when somebody else was the only one in the room, how I held my own distance. Not intentionally, mind you; I might have been too involved in my thoughts or ‘just not in the mood’ that day to reach out.

     My relatively mild anxiety as the lone Episcopalian that Sunday morning pales in comparison to situations in which more significant social situations might exist within the mind of the only one in the room: a poor person among the well-to-do; a blind person in a crowded room of the sighted; a white person in a space filled with persons of color. For some, the experience can be traumatic.

     Short of making direct contact, offering a smile or nod can go a long way in making someone feel welcome. Simply having an awareness of another person’s situation can often make the difference between fellowship and fear.

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