The newcomer’s class at church has finally ended. This has had two repercussions:
1. I arrived at church half an hour late, since the classes started half an hour after the 9am service and I was used to the earlier time. (D’oh!)
2. I have begun attending the 9am service (at least, the second half of it…) instead of the 7:30am or the 11am, which means I didn’t know most of the people there.
After services, there is always a gathering time outside on this wonderful pavilion beside the church. They serve coffee, tea, and bagels, and ask people to give if they can. I’m a huge fan of this approach, because I think communal gathering around food is a great way to build community and to make people feel welcome.
Even so, I tend to get a little bit nervous (cagey?) in large crowds. Most people wouldn’t suspect this; years of training in public speaking helped me to overcome my instinctive shyness. Lately this church has been drawing it out of me, though. The priests are very nice and welcoming as they shake your hand on the way out, but once you walk out, it’s an invariable no man’s land.
1. The circle formed around one of the priests or deacons. They have to be polite to you, but they also seem to try to talk to more people, so you’re only guaranteed a short conversation before you’ll be cast into the sea again.
2. The circle with the one person you know. Of course, the one person you know is always in charge of something or another (kids, greetings), so they’re most likely talking to someone about something more important than you have to say.
3. The dozen circles with no one that you know. They’re at church, so they probably be nice to you. But they also probably already know each other. So if you go up, you’ll have to introduce yourself to all of them. Then you’ll ask them to tell you a little bit about themselves, and as you do, one by one they’ll dwindle off, since they know each other’s stories. Then you may get stuck again.
4. The line for coffee / tea. This can be a good one, since you can generally pick off people one-by-one. Of course, you risk them immediately bee-lining for a circle after they’ve picked up their beverage. But maybe by telling them that you’re new, you generally can make them feel sorry enough for you to stay for a bit.
5. The other few stragglers. One is at a table, on her phone. Is she doing something important? Playing Clash of Clans? Trying to look busy so she doesn’t feel awkward about being the only person not talking to anyone else? It’s probably not worth interrupting. Another is lurking just a pace from the group, gazing at it with some mixture of confusion and disdain. Is he an introvert, too? Simply misanthropic? An unrepentant serial murderer?
The last time I faced this, I just left. I couldn’t handle the pressure of re-introducing myself again, and I was going to a movie event for the ladies’ group, so I figured I’d break even for my church social time.
This Sunday, I decided to strike up a conversation with the other lurker standing by the coffee table. He was an older gentleman, and seemed more introverted, so I thought it wouldn’t be too bad. He ended up being one of the older science-y types. The conversation was saved when his wife came over – she was also a scientist! – and we had a long chat about science and faith and philosophy. I always end up with a bit of terror at the start of these things, but once the talking begins, I find myself glad for having overcome it. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
It is, however, a lesson that even when the church isn’t really clique-y, it can still be very alienating to introverts. I’m sure if you introduced yourself to the people in any of the circles, they would be friendly and welcoming. But even so, it takes a great deal of courage and dedication for an introvert to begin the process of joining the community in this type of setting.