I walk into a ballroom filled with 500 strangers and the one person I know – the person who invited me – is in charge and busy with the drama of last minute details.
I feel alone, conspicuous, and try to resist the urge to take out my cell phone and look busy.
At least I have an assigned table so I don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of asking permission to join a group, like a lost dog looking for a handout.
I gulp, sit down, and turn to the first person I see, stick out my hand and say, “Hi, I’m Laura. I don’t think we’ve met.”
Fast forward to more recently. I walk into a large home packed with 300 people, many who are friends I’m excited to talk to. There’s good food and laughter and meaningful conversation, but there are strangers here also – people I see out of the corner of my eye who are on the fringes, feeling uncomfortable and longing for someone to talk to.
I work hard to be present to the person I’m in conversation with, but the connector in me also desperately wants to “rescue” all those uncomfortable folks on the margins.
Introvert or extrovert, we’ve all been in situations where we are the happy Golden Retriever who’s friends with everyone, and the lonely mutt, hungry for a pat on the head.
In the past week we’ve gotten two letters from people who feel like they’re on the outside and can’t get in. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this.
Here are five things I think it’s important for us to remember:
- It takes two. Those with relationships in a community have a responsibility to reach out, but those who are new can’t just sit back and wait for others to do all the work. We heard from someone who had put themselves in environments at church where people were warm and friendly, but then this person never got a follow-up call from people she met. That’s unfortunate, but she could also have reached out and called someone she met to invite them to get together. Even if you’re new, you can be the inviter, not just the invited.
- It may not be you. Unfortunately, here in Minnesota we have a well-deserved reputation for being “Minnesota nice”, but we’re so inbred here that most people already have large relational networks, meaningful community, and just don’t have the margin to add more significant relationships to their life. If it takes awhile to find your niche, don’t take it personally.
- You can set yourself up for success. There are ways to break into any community and find your people. It may be best if you think in terms of felt-needs in your season of life. Those with kids will find it easiest to connect because it’s a stressful time and who doesn’t need more adults to commiserate with? Our church has Sunday morning communities for different seasons of life and maybe yours does too. But if not, what if you took a bold step and started one? What if you begin by taking risk and inviting some folks to your home for dinner that you think you might have something in common with?
- We all need eyes to see. It’s an on-going challenge for those of us who are deep in community to “see” and reach out to those on the fringes in any social situation. Sometimes when I go into a large group I set a goal to stand back and find the most alone person in the room and talk to them before anyone else. Otherwise I get caught up with friends and can be blind to others.
- EVERYONE feels uncomfortable to some degree in social settings. When you walk into a room, instead of focusing on your needs and insecurity, make it your goal to put others at ease. Look for someone else on the fringes and reach out.Think in terms of making others feel welcome and valued.
Above all, grace, grace, and more grace!!! I went up and introduced myself to a woman once and said I didn’t think I had met her. She angrily said, “Yes you have! I’ve been in your home!” Well, she had been in our home with a group of 100 singles who were new to us, two years previous to the time I approached her. I hadn’t seen her since.
I felt bad, but I’m human and so are you. We’re all doing our best.
What’s been your experience being an outsider or insider? What have you learned from it?