Many years ago, I served as a surrogate grandfather for my second-grade neighbor Elijah on Grandparents Day at his school.
Elijah and his little sister, for some reason, thought that I was quite humorous. On the day of my visit to his class, he introduced me, saying, “This is my friend Dave.”
And, turning to me, he continued, “Say something funny.”
As someone who has not been back in this neighborhood for long, I feel now a bit like I did in that schoolroom as I am asked to write an article to and for a community that I am still getting familiar with.
Although human nature is fairly consistent from one place to another, I do not yet presume to know what folks in this time and place might want or need to hear from me.
So, I will share with you what I try to learn as I enter a new congregation, new town and new part of the state.
One question always is about history. Where did people come from? How long have they been here? What brought them here? What have been the formative events or influences here? What are people’s stories? How do they see themselves, their churches, their communities? Do people know and understand their history?
As a pastor, I am interested in the ecumenical nature of a place. Do congregations connect in any way? Are there joint projects and concerns? Are churches cooperative or competitive — or simply ignoring each other? What degree of unity is there among people of faith?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches about the last judgment. He said what we do to the least of his brothers and sisters, we do to him.
I look around and seek to understand how people’s need are taken care of, whether they are spiritual, educational, emotional, or physical. Where do people go for help? Who is there for them? Who can guide them? Who cares?
How are newcomers to a community received? Are they resented? Tolerated? Welcomed and embraced? Are they incorporated into things or left to themselves? Are they seen as enriching us or threatening us?
Does a congregation or community look outward as well as inward? Does it see itself as part of a larger world, or does it try to insulate itself from that world? What are its hopes and vision? Does it always look backward to a time past, or forward to what may be? What — or who—guides it?
These are some of the things I think about — when I’m not trying to think of something funny to say to second-graders.