I recently had the privilege to speak at the annual conference of early childhood directors and lower school heads sponsored by the New York State Association of Independent Schools where, as it happened, the Reverend Paula Lawrence-Wehmiller also presented.
Taking as her theme “welcoming the stranger,” Paula engaged us in powerful conversations about sustaining inclusive communities.
Diversity, she noted, is a description that lends itself to statistical reports and factual information. Inclusion, on the other hand, is a vocation—not something we do for someone else, but a way of life.
To be inclusive is to practice an embracing hospitality that makes a welcoming place at the table for all, particularly for the stranger. And here’s what really hit home for me: “The invitation to partake of the feast and to be myself is the same thing,” she noted. When I have to “unremember” who I am in order to survive, she reflected, then I am not truly welcome.
Each of us has been or remains that stranger. Each of us can remember a time when we had to put aside or hide a part of ourselves in order to go along, get along, or fit in. Or to be safe—physically, spiritually, or emotionally.
There are also moments, however, when we are encountered as the stranger and yet embraced, or when we create that welcoming table for another. Moments when we do not have to “unremember” who we are in order to survive; indeed, when we can share freely our stories, experiences, and our gifts with others and, in so doing, learn and be transformed together.
Paula reminded us that we each yearn to “live outwardly the gift of who we are inside and give voice to the truth of an unseen self.” How, then, she asked, can we create school communities that do just that? How are we setting the welcome table to make space for people who approach life and problems differently? What “cultural habits stand at the threshold of our good intentions” and prevent us from making real that possibility? And how can we remain open to those “we have not even yet imagined?”
I was reminded once more of the incredible opportunity we have at Episcopal schools to create powerful communities of human formation and transformation and to learn from and with sojourners such as Paula Lawrence-Wehmiller.