Friday, July 30, 2010

Faith Works 7-31

Faith Works 7-31-10

Jeff Gill


A Helping Hand, Or Shutter Finger




What is it that communicates these things?


Our family is just back from a vacation that meandered through our nation's capitol, among other things, and we experienced something that always amuses and pleases me.


All of my adult life, I can be in a strange city or on familiar terrain, all alone on a dark night or in the middle of a huge heterogenous crowd, and a person will walk up to me and ask for directions.


The corollary of this is that the same thing is true for "will you take a picture of me and my family?"


Is it that I'm tall? Is it the big round clueless face that perches up there so high? Do I have a particular expression or appearance that says "he won't mind if you're asking him a silly question," and if so, what is it?


Being in Washington, DC this past week means that the interchange has often been with a minimum of English involved, which makes it even more interesting and/or puzzling. Hindu, Chinese, Brazilian, British, Swedish, Mexican, and Korean families just begin to scratch the surface of our international interactions this week.


To give the Lovely Wife credit, she got approached by a group of four French college students, took their picture, and then as I wandered over from where I was taking pictures myself, they insisted on taking a picture of our family as well (which turned out very nicely).


On a couple of the digital cameras I handled last week, it's quite a sight to see the screen fill with incomprehensibility after you push the button, but when on handing it back, they glance at it (Mandarin? Sinhalese?) and beamingly nod vigorously up and down, and you know all is well.


Doubly fascinatingly, the most dense pack of international interactions was next to the Zero Milestone on the Ellipse, where you traditionally take your or your families' picture against the White House fence with the fountain and South Portico in the background, flag flying high to show that the President is in residence. It seemed like all the world was there in that cluster of humanity . . . and once you start taking people's pictures, you get shyly or bluntly "asked" to take others.


But of a dozen, there wasn't an English speaker in the bunch.


How do you present yourself as someone willing to be approached? And I will quickly add that there is a downside to this quality, which is that you also can get approached by scam artists and street hustlers with increased frequency, too; this is where being five foot seventeen inches tall comes in handy, and at least the semblance of a steely gaze.


Many churches and faith communities struggle with this, and I wish I had a quick, directive payoff from my vacation observation to offer them. Some congregations just exude a vibe of "don't even think about getting close to us," and others have a sense of "ask me anything, and I'll try to help" that starts out in the parking lot. There is no magic cookbook for this atmosphere.


I've known churches with warm, loving hearts after you get to know them (or perhaps more to the point, when they get to know you), but they have this very icy exterior. Is it architecture? Is it local culture and congregational history? And yes, you can have a welcoming exterior but really be deeply cliquish and stand-offish . . . but not often.


How do you intentionally put off that feeling of welcoming, of acceptance, of simple friendliness? Smiles and an internal sense of confidence have much to do with it, I'm sure, but there's a bit more you have to experiment with.


Excuse me, I have to stop typing this in a hotel lobby and take a snapshot of a group of Taiwanese businessmen . . . and I wasn't even looking up and smiling at them! Who knows what it is, but it's worth consideration. How do we project our values and our selves to the world around us?


And which button do I push on this one?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has mastered many varieties of digital camera this past week. Forward him a picture at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.