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I’ve always found the “saying grace” portion of large family gatherings deeply awkward.
We didn’t do that in my house as a kid. We didn’t do it at my grandparents’ house either, but for some reason whenever we had a big gathering one of my uncles would make a big deal of how important it was that we say grace before anyone be so much as permitted a roll.
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?” I would think as people bowed their head and my uncle thanked God for food and togetherness. Is it respectful to bow your head even if you don’t believe what’s being said? Often I would stare awkwardly at my dad, trying desperately to communicate “why are we doing this?” without doing anything too obvious with my face.
After a year of seminary, I feel confident in my ability to roll my eyes in a way that looks prayerful and have actually come to really love saying grace. I’ve even offered to say it for my family, which, if nothing else keeps me from making weird faces at my dad.
What hasn’t changed is my memory of how awkward many of my early experiences with religion were, and how alienated from my friends and family that awkwardness made me feel.
I don’t think I know anyone who has never had one of those experiences and as a person both deeply invested in my own faith and with a large number of non-religious friends, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to balance my practice, my desire to share, and my desire to never make anyone feel like that. I’ve seen rooms full of people of a wide variety of faiths (and not-faiths) pray and worship together, so, it must be possible to have my friends over for dinner and say grace without freaking anyone out.
Not knowing what all us religious types do that freaks out our non-religious friends, I turned to Facebook and decided to let my non-religious friends have their say on what in particular has made them feel weird/uncomfortable/out of place with religious folks.
My friends being my friends -- and the question coming on the heels of the SCOTUS Hobby Lobby decision -- a lot of the responses were about the political and cultural structures within the United States that privilege a very particular type of Christianity over all other faith traditions and over science, but some interesting patterns did start to emerge.
Grace was difficult for some, the sentence “I’ll pray for you” made others cringe, many resented times in the past when they had been invited to an event at a friend’s congregation and had a sermon unexpectedly sprung on them.
Based on this totally unscientific survey of non-religious people who are willing to tell a seminarian what people like her do wrong, I’ve come up with a few tips for people who, like me, are religious/spiritual and would prefer to not make their non-religious/spiritual friends, family, and neighbors feel super awkward (this also works for interfaith friendships).
1) Make sure your friends know what they’re getting into.
I love all kinds of worship and even I would be pissed at you if you took me somewhere and suddenly, SURPRISE! A WORSHIP SERVICE. Don’t do that. You would feel pretty upset if someone took you to -- I don’t know -- a surprise goat sacrifice, yeah? It’s super impolite, erodes trust, and is about the worst possible way to get someone interested in something you love.
If you want someone to join you for an event at your place of worship, it is your responsibility to let them know what they’re getting into so that they can make an informed decision about if they might be interested.
Does that potluck you want to take them to include a Bible study? Tell them. Will there be prayer at that choir concert? Tell them. Do you want them to join you for worship? Tell them what that entails and give them at least some idea of the sort of community they’re walking into.
2) Clarify expectations.
Not only should you prepare people for what is going to happen -- you should also let them know what is expected of them in that context.
There is nothing quite like going to a Catholic mass and having literally no idea when or why you’re supposed to kneel or stand or what any of the prayers are. Not to mention the number of people who have no clue what their options are as far as the whole communion thing goes.
I pick Catholicism there because I know an awful lot of non-Catholics who are perpetually confused when they find themselves in Catholic services -- but, really, we all have some stuff that is so normal to us that we could easily forget that other people just don’t know what to do.
Often when I say a blessing before a meal I will say something like “if you would like to bow your head” which is an invitation rather than a demand. Younger me would have loved to have been told that participation in saying grace was voluntary.
Don’t expect that your friend knows the prayers you do or has ever sung your hymns. You don’t need to treat them like a child and hold their hand through everything, but a quick heads up and making sure they’ve got what they need (hymnals, for example) will go a long way to making the situation more comfortable.
3) Speak their language.
Within our religious communities it is fantastically easy to get kind of lost in difficult-to-penetrate jargon. We make shorthand reference to this organization, that thing, this person, and that text without the names, functions, or meanings of these things being in anyway obvious.
This is ridiculously alienating even to someone who is very interested in getting involved, much less to your friend who is really only there because you asked.
Similarly, some of the language of belief can be awkward and off-putting for others. Hell, some of the language of belief is awkward and off-putting for people who are deeply religious.
As much as possible, try to use the “language” your friend speaks instead of the language of your particular faith system. Many non-religious folks find statements that are meant to be loving and supportive, such as “I’m praying for you” and “sending you light,” off-putting and insincere.
Though you may well be praying for them or sending them light, if you aren’t super close with someone or know that they’re not religious, it may be easier for everyone if you just say “I’m thinking of you.”
Finding friendship, family bonds, and love across the lines of our various faith traditions can be difficult -- doubly so for non-religious/spiritual folks and those of us who participate -- but they’re hardly impossible to cross.
Be considerate, be kind, be open.
Everything else will follow.