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In praise of Coffee Hour

Last night I had the great opportunity to visit an Orthodox church in the suburbs, Saints Peter and Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Glenview. I was there to hear one of my favorite living theologians speak, the awesome Met. Kallistos Ware. If you’ve never had the chance to hear him speak, do it. I confess that when I saw him I just wanted to run up to him and hug him. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it. Probably it’s because I came with a pal who is more sensible than myself. Thanks, Anna. 🙂

After Vespers and the talk by Met. Kallistos we all shuffled downstairs for what was a pretty fabulous spread. It was generous and delicious, especially in light of the current Apostle’s fast we are rockin these days.

Obviously, I was focused on the food. I love food. I love it a whole lot.

In a quiet moment as I sat with my plate of lovely goodies, my friend Anna mentioned that it felt like weekly coffee hour on a bigger scale to which I said, “I love Coffee Hour.” And I do, because for one thing, as we’ve already established, I love food. I love it a whole lot.

But that isn’t the only reason I love Coffee Hour. For me, a convert who knew nobody at all in a new parish at the start of my Orthodox path, toting along smallish crazy kids, it was an opportunity. It was a terrifying opportunity, but an opportunity nonetheless.

It’s not possible to really meet and get to know people just at Liturgy. There is always something happening and most of us converts are just trying to keep up. Some of us are also trying to parent kids who have zero interest in keeping up with Liturgy. They just want to go home or go outside or eat cookies. Coffee Hour affords us a chance to connect and also eat cookies.

So here’s the thing. Cookies are great but connecting is hard and weird and scary. Coming into Orthodoxy is difficult enough without having to figure in the whole “meet new people” part but meeting people and having conversations and participating in the life of the body of Christ is vital.

I mean that. It is vital.

Without that bit, we’re all just going through the motions. We have to do the hard work of relationships or we simply will not last against the pull of all the other stuff we could be doing when Liturgy is happening.

I suffer from some social anxiety. You can believe me when I say that meeting people felt like torture as I visited churches while on the road to becoming Orthodox. I was sure that if only I could have a sponsor assigned to me I could get further faster. I wished I could convert online or by mail. But, that’s not how it happens. I had to meet people. I had to reach my hand out in hello.

Coffee hour is how I got there.

It began with one visit where finally, against my nature, I sat at a table in the middle of the room that already had a couple of occupants who all seemed to know one another. If you’ve read, “Nearly Orthodox” you might recall that I still am doing self-therapy getting over a certain High School lunch table rejection fiasco. Needless to say, it took some courage to ask to sit down there.

What was necessary for me at that moment was to have people willing to say “yes” when I asked for a seat. Thankfully, they did say yes and they did engage me beyond that. There were other moments of “yes” that were important too and this is where I tell you, oh my people, what I want you to do, because it’s important.

If you exploring Orthodoxy and are visiting a parish: Go to coffee hour. Make time. Find a table and sit there even if it’s awkward because it is awkward. Even the most confirmed extrovert will see how awkward it can be.

Do it anyway.

If you are a parishioner: Invite someone to connect after Liturgy. Offer the invitation to a newcomer even if the priest does the inviting from the front as ours does at Christ the Savior. Offer it even if you think someone else offered already.

And if they come, say hello and offer a seat or a yes to their inquiring. Remember that it’s often intimidating to ask for a seat at a table. Open up the circle of conversation, the one you’re most inclined to close off to strangers because you haven’t seen your friends this week yet.

Remember, we were all strangers once. And as William Butler Yeats wrote, “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.”

Make it so.