By Linda Hart Green
Actions and words should match. Easy to say but difficult to do. This truth applies to individuals, organizations and communities. A new sign at our city’s entrance on South Eighth and Lime streets has been enhanced with landscaping to look more attractive. The sign reads: “Welcome to historic Fernandina Beach.”
Welcome is more than appearance. Welcome is a learned skill that improves with practice.
Last weekend’s Pride parade and festival are examples of events where words and actions matched. The atmosphere was joyful. Attendees felt safe to be themselves. Rules and guidelines were followed. Organizers, vendors, law enforcement and festival goers all cooperated.
The wider community participated by lining the streets and cheering and waving as the parade passed. I had fun driving a borrowed convertible so I could chauffeur some local community leaders. Afterward, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much.
There were a few naysayers from outside our community who tried to get attention. Some engaged with them. Mostly they were ignored. Nothing untoward happened, despite the fears of some.
Tomorrow, Saturday, June 17, the community has the opportunity again to match words and actions at the annual Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth Jump-off takes place at the Peck/Charles Eugene Richo Field at 516 South 10th Street from noon until 7:00 p.m.
This is a chance to commemorate an important holiday with our Black friends and neighbors. The Black community has a long and storied history in Fernandina. We can benefit from learning more about it and by celebrating the culture and achievements of the Black community since the end of slavery.
This family-friendly event marks June 19, 1865, when the news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the last enslaved community in Galveston, Texas. Union troops brought this welcomed news by boat two and a half years after President Lincoln had made the proclamation, and there were enough troops there to enforce it.
The celebration of this momentous occasion began in Galveston, spread to other cities and towns in Texas, then to other states until it was finally made a national holiday in 2021. Participating in the celebration is a way to say, “I see all you have gone through. I celebrate all you have accomplished.”
A community is welcoming when it provides safe space for a variety of people and opinions and ideas. Author Jenny Gehman said it this way: “I have come to believe that the center of hospitality is not the creation of delicious food, a beautiful table or a spotless home. It is about the creation of safety. The question to ask others is, ‘What do you need in order to feel safe here with me?'”
I felt very nervous the week before the Pride festival. I knew that careful plans were in place to provide safety. I still worried that something might happen that would disrupt a sense of joy and celebration and cause distress. I was so relieved when nothing happened. I realized the nervousness I felt gave me only an inkling of the feelings that a member of a marginalized community must feel every time they enter the space of another group.
We can’t help others feel safe if we fear their difference and remain defensive with our guards up. This posture just leads us to react rather than respond. It leads us to put up barriers rather than try to bring them down.
I am under no illusion that welcome is easy to do or without risk. Vulnerability can feel dangerous. Learning about others can feel unsettling. Long held beliefs may be challenged.
But if we open ourselves to the possibility of the gifts of welcome, the experiences can also be enriching, exciting and fun.
We can start this journey anywhere, any time. It can be as simple as learning what the letters LGBTIQA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual) or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) stand for, rather than dismissing them as “alphabet soup.” When we don’t know something, we can admit it and ask for help.
Those of us of Christian faith and values can look to the many and varied examples of welcome in the ministry of Jesus who mirrored the welcome of God. His actions always matched His words.
I hope we continue to learn and grow together. I hope our community can feel like safe space for all. I hope that the words on our new city sign match how we live.
Linda Hart Green is Pastor Emeritus of Emmanuel Church, Ridgewood, New Jersey, and co-owner of Shady Ladies Art Studios and Gallery in Fernandina Beach. She holds an M.Div. and a Certificate in Pastoral Leadership Development from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Editor’s note: The Observer welcomes thoughtful commentaries when submitted. The opinions expressed in any commentary are solely those of the writer.