Something happened today that made me feel strangely at home here in London. First, some background.
It’s fall here—and as it turns out, it’s much warmer and nicer than the summer ever managed to be. The temperature is just below 70F, which is perfect for walking and eating outdoors and, well, for having a life apart from wearing a parka and being trapped indoors. The weather is simply lovely.
We’ve been back for almost two weeks now, and we’ve settled in so much quicker than we expected. Yesterday Julie and I went to a tea at Ian’s school (think: Back to School Night), and then walked along Marylebone Road (a major thoroughfare) to Marylebone High Street (a very cool stretch of shops and restaurants). We found a place we liked and got a table outside for dinner—pizzas and pasta and salad (surprise). Halfway through dinner (and more than halfway through a bottle of Montepulciano), Julie said: “It shocks me to say this, but for the last few days I have loved being in London.”
It was a nice moment, after a fun visit to Ian’s school and a delicious dinner. It was a small milestone in our sense of making this place our home for the next few years. Ian’s school, by the way, is so great! We met his new teacher, some parents, and had a nice chat with his teacher from last year. Their first field trip is to this amazing re-creation of a Celtic village outside of London. The history component for his year is focusing on invasions of the British Isles (Celts, Vikings, the odd Norman). He’s going to have a really good year.
So back to my story. Around the corner from the church is a chip shop, a take-away place where you can get fish and chips, kebabs (think Zankou Chicken if you’re in SoCal right now), and other examples of, er, fine British cuisine. I’ve gone to this place a half dozen times since we moved here—it’s great food, but not all that healthy. Today I went there and got fish and chips for the secretary, property manager and the organist. When I’d ordered, the guy behind the counter asked me: “So are you watching the football tonight?”
That was one of the nicest things anyone has said to me since we moved here.
Like I said, I’d been in there a fair number of times, and on every one of those visits this same guy has asked me some variation of this question: “So are you here on holiday?” It must be his standard question to Americans who visit his shop, but I’ve taken it from him and answered with a quick “no, we live here now.”
But this time he asked me a “local” question. England is playing Russia in a qualifying match for the European Cup, and just about every guy in London will be glued to his set, drinking beer and yelling at the national team. His question told me that he no longer saw me as a visitor or an outsider, but rather as one of his local customers, and it made me feel pretty good. So much about who I am identifies me as someone who is not from these parts—not least that I’m the pastor of the American Church—but the chip guy treated me like a local today, and that made it just a little bit easier to see myself that way.
It’s strange, isn’t it? How something as minor as a piece of smalltalk can make you feel as though you’re a part of something. I’ve been thinking this afternoon about how we welcome people into new communities. That’s a huge part of my ministry here—we had more than 20 visitors last Sunday, and more are on the way—and I want to be good at it, to make new people feel as much at home as the chip guy did with me today. Maybe it takes a few visits before you can do that authentically with a new person. I’m sure part of what happened today took place because the chip guy knew he’d seen me before, and part of him was sure that I couldn’t still be here on holiday.
And so maybe what I learned today is not how to greet the first-time guest—frankly I think we’re pretty good at that. Maybe what I learned today is how to help someone transition from visitor to “local,” to someone I want to know something about—someone I expect to see again. That may be an under-examined aspect of how we bring people into community and into faith. The simple asking of a question—one that had to do with an event that only locals might care about—told me that I belonged there, that I was known, and that I was recognized as a fellow Londoner.
At the American Church we’re just about ready to enter into our prime season of drawing new people into the life of the church. Americans tend to move here in time to get their kids in school, and so by September and October they’re looking for places to belong. I love meeting these folks, but I think that after today I’m going to pay special attention to the repeat visitors, and look for that question or comment that will let them know that they’ve found a home.
That’s what happened to me today.