I always wanted to visit Ireland. I couldn’t tell you why. I was not well-versed in Ireland’s history, or how the Irish faced considerable religious, political, and social conflict, or how Ireland had been engaging in decades of peace processes. All I knew was that I had wanted to visit Ireland since I was a teenager, so it went on my bucket list of places to visit before I die. Imagine my surprise when the opportunity came to me 25 years after I first said, “I’m going to Ireland one day.” When the very generous offer came to me to spend a week in Northern Ireland for only the cost of a plane ticket, I approached the opportunity with immense gratitude, gleeful curiosity, complete openness, and a sense of adventure. Days before the trip, I was excited and knew I was meant to go. I sensed that it was going to be a transformative experience. I was right.
There I was in Northern Ireland, on a retreat about spirituality and authenticity with about 24 other people, taking in the scenes and people. The energy of Northern Ireland was different. Never had I visited a place and felt so at home. The people were truly welcoming. The greetings and hospitality, the conversations, they all felt genuine. I was in a place where I knew I was different but didn’t feel like I had to defend my difference. I didn’t feel like I had to hide my true Self.
Dr. Brian Ammons, a spiritual director and one of our retreat facilitators, opened our first evening session with these words:
“You all are welcome here, and all of you is welcome here.”
What an invitation! It was real. It was powerful, and it got me thinking: What does it look like when all of me shows up and is welcomed? What would it look like if I, in my wholeness, welcomed all the other people that I encountered? What work could and would God do among us if we brought all of ourselves bravely to the proverbial table and, in turn, bravely welcomed others to do the same? I witnessed it. I experienced it. With authenticity, my fellow travelers and I laughed together, shared stories, offered encouragement, prayed, cried, and soaked up Northern Ireland’s energy like sponges. We all were welcomed, and all of us – the parts of us that are good, shadowy, quirky, fun, anxious, compulsive, and even annoying – was welcomed.
I believe the world would be much better if we truly embraced the divine gift of authenticity and gifted others with seeing and accepting all of who they are as God’s created people. What I took from Brian’s words that night was that sacred spaces and holy encounters are created when we bravely invite authentic engagement with people. That is how we build transformative places (communities) that can contain the Divine work of love, healing, and hope among us.