When I Hate Greeting People on Sundays


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.