When I Hate Greeting People on Sundays

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heather caliri -when i hate greeting people on sundays-3

This is going to make me sound like a misanthrope, but I hate greeting people on Sundays. At my church’s weekly service, a pastor gives the announcements, dismisses the children for Sunday school, and then cheerfully announces that we should greet the people around us in the pews. On the worst days, they give us icebreaker questions.

Ugh. I hate the icebreaker questions.

Those Sundays I often excuse myself to go to the bathroom. That way I don’t have to look anyone in the eye.

I’m not shy, or frightened of people. I just find small talk awkward. If I have a friend to greet, I give them a hug, but then feel awkward if I want to talk to them, instead of turning to greet more people.

Yes, I’m an introvert. Thanks for asking.

So it’s funny to me that I love an even more forced, more prescriptive greeting in church services: passing the peace.

Our church has a small Spanish-language service every Sunday, and when I can, I attend. In the bulletin, there are instructions for passing the peace: a cordial greeting, looking in the EYES. (Capitalization theirs, not mine.)

But you don’t just pass the peace to the people around you. You get up and try to shake hands and say, “The peace of Christ” to every freaking person there.

It shocked me the first time I attended. I could not believe we were actually greeting everyone. It seemed like overkill.

It’s so Latino. Back when I studied abroad in Argentina, arriving at parties felt like wishing “good game” to the other team at the end of a kid’s soccer game. Everyone formed an informal receiving line, then greeted each person with a kiss on the cheek one-by-one, while announcing their name.

Fabi. Peck.

Sole. Peck.

Pedro. Peck.

Quique. Peck.

I was usually hungry when I went places with my Argentine friends, so the ritual felt endless. I’d look around to see where they were hiding the empanadas while pecking my way down the line.

Still though, the longer I went through the greeting ritual, the more I respected it. Greetings were less about learning names or saying hi and more about acknowledgement: You exist, and I welcome you. You are worth my time. The empanadas can wait.

In church, passing the peace spiritualizes greeting. It’s a radical act, proclaiming that others are worthy of blessing. But even more radical: it proclaims that each believer, young, old, poor, rich, has the power to bless.

Even I have that power.

I bless the old woman, the visiting preacher, the withdrawn teenage boy. I greet them cordially and look them in their eyes, not to pretend we’re buddies for 30 seconds, but to do something simpler and more complicated: to acknowledge Christ’s presence within them.

It’s not about sociability. It’s about holiness.

Which brings me to my grumbling about greeting people in the English language service. It strikes me that I probably grumble, because I can afford to be dismissive. It’s my culture, my routine; I can sit at a critical distance and opt out if I want.

In Argentina and in the Spanish-language services, I’m always wary of offending, so I don’t have the luxury of critique. That means I partake fully in rituals I don’t understand and  executeimperfectly; I’m desperate to fit in. When I do, the greetings feel more precious, because they come across distances of culture, ethnicity, language, and socioeconomic status. I’m working harder, and risk more.

But honestly, shouldn’t that preciousness awaken me to more holiness, not less?

In my mind, it’s easy to prize the foreign, the unusual, the “exotic,” but it strikes me, writing this, that I’m cheapening all greetings by writing any off. I may shrug at the forced chumminess of the Anglo ritual, but nothing prevents me from noticing holiness every time I shake someone’s hand.

Introvert or no, there is something holy in every encounter with another person. I only rob myself if I’m not paying attention.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

Latest posts by Heather Caliri (see all)

Heather Caliri
  • I feel very protective of my church family, and so I recognize the need for me to greet visitors and do my part to make our worship services welcoming and warm. I want us to be an open-hearted and friendly church, so it’s in my job description to help to make it that way. But it is not easy. Thank you, Heather, for providing some really good thinking for me to hold in my head while I’m working hard to be cordial during the Sunday morning endurance test.

    • Yeah–I was recently talking to someone new to our church and she mentioned how welcoming it was. I do try, but it was a reminder to me that people NOTICE when we don’t engage. And that it’s worth the effort to welcome people, because they’re often hurting and in need of welcome.

  • Deborah Hudson

    Confession: I hate it too. It’s a chaotic mess of people weaving their way down the aisle while they smile these smiles that make me wonder how they can like this canned happiness so much. I want more form and funciton. Save this stuff for later. So, thank you for calling me out on my high-mindedness. Yes, I have a control issue or two but how I can I not notice every encounter with another can be holy, chaotic mess or not.

    • I have just a few teensy control problems too 🙂 I’m thankful for my time abroad because it cracked it through the center.

  • sandyhay

    Although I’m not an introvert, I’m with you on the ice breaker questions. I do it but don’t really put myself…or God…into it. Now this”… to do something simpler and more complicated: to acknowledge Christ’s presence within them.”… puts an entirely different slant on it. I can’t say I’m excited for this to happen at my church but now I’m ready …thanks Heather.

    • I didn’t want to come to that conclusion at the end of the essay! Argh. I would rather let myself off the hook. I’m trying to be more open to other people rather than using my own feelings of awkwardness to not engage. It’s okay to set boundaries, but it’s also good to gently prod myself to be present.

  • Helene Burns

    This is so insightful Heather – especially in how you have learned about yourself in the context of an English and a Spanish service. Even though I am an extrovert, you have made me more aware of myself and how to engage in each encounter with others.
    Your closing words are gold…’there is something holy in every encounter with another person. I only rob myself if I’m not paying attention.’

    • Thank you, Helene. Between the extroverts AND the introverts we can manage to make fellowship deep and wide 🙂

  • I love how the holy meets us in the ordinary, when we have eyes to see. Thank you for this beautiful reminder.

  • Tasha

    I love this, Heather. Beautiful.