Do you welcome people with your language?

Someone who is associated with a blood and tissue donation program that is not based at a community of faith (church, mosque, temple, etc.) posted this on Facebook recently:

Wanted: A leader in a faith community who would like to share a blessing at our upcoming volunteer recognition event.

I offered this caution in response:

Be sure you get someone who will be respectful of the fact that not everyone at your event is of the same faith – and some may not be people of faith at all. As an Atheist, I have felt really unwelcomed at many volunteer-related events because of the faith leader’s address.

The response was as it always is to me when I offer that caution – what I call playing the “culture” or “majority” card:

Historically, however, this hasn’t been an issue in our organization. I find that the region in which we live is rather accepting of these blessings, and they are almost an expectation. In other areas of the country where I have worked, this hasn’t always been the case. Because of the work we do, we also find that more of our volunteers are spiritual in nature.

This person is making assumptions – because of the region, because of her own beliefs, and because of conversations she’s had with volunteers where everyone has seemed to be on the same page regarding religious belief – that everyone is fine with a religious ceremony at her volunteer event, that no one has ever been made uncomfortable or not felt welcomed as a result. After all, no one has complained before – therefore, everyone is fine with it. And, in addition, people who volunteer regarding blood donations are spiritual in nature. Why else would they volunteer?

Here’s the reality:

Most people who have been made uncomfortable by the mixing of religion and volunteering at an otherwise secular event are probably never going to say anything about that discomfort – the defensive reaction of this volunteer manager, as well as a religious leader that weighed in later, illustrate why. No one wants to be seen as ruining an event for others, or taking an activity away that others like, even if the activity makes them feel less a member of the group – so, rather than be accused of trying to remove all religious references at an event (even though all that was asked for was language that was respectful – no request was made not to make religion any part of the event), people that aren’t of the majority religion stay silent in their discomfort.

And you have to wonder: if no one has complained, could it also be because you’ve created an atmosphere where non-believers/other-believers don’t feel welcomed to volunteer?

People volunteer for a variety of reasons. And people have many different ideas of where “goodness” comes from. People who believe that goodness, and the desire to volunteer, comes from a “God” tend to be quite vocal about it. But volunteer managers – and all of us – need to remember that there are a lot of people that don’t believe in a “God” or a “higher power”, but do believe in goodness and in volunteering to help others – they just aren’t as vocal about that belief, or lack of belief, either because of the negative reactions such an expression often elicits or because they simply don’t believe in being so vocal about one’s motivations for volunteering. Volunteers Beyond Belief is a good example of such a group.

As volunteer managers, one thing we should be united about in terms of belief is the belief in creating welcoming, inclusive events for our volunteers, where we are careful about our language and our assumptions.

So, yes, you may have a blessing from a religion leader at a volunteer event that both celebrates that person’s beliefs and the belief of others but doesn’t make people that aren’t such believers unwelcome or unwanted.

Exclusive language at an event:

“We volunteer because, as Christians, we…”

“In the name of Jesus Christ…” or “In the name of Allah…, we are here today…”

“Let us all bow our heads and give thanks to God…”

Those are all fine at an event targeting a specific community of faith. But unless you have interviewed each and every volunteer about their beliefs, you have no idea what those beliefs might be for every person. So, instead, if you feel you must have a religious activity at your volunteer event, consider more inclusive religious language:

Let us all bow our heads and reflect on the goodness we have seen from volunteers, and if you would like to pray with me, please join me.

In joy we gather this evening, bonded together in our work and our goals, bonded together in our love and our dreams, bonded in festivity and thanksgiving, bonded in celebration. May the joy of our togetherness rise above all sadness. May the kindnesses we share rise above all harshness. May the unity for which we long rise above all divisiveness. And may all that is restless within us lead us one day to the ultimate Good, the ultimate togetherness. (from this web site)

Being culturally appropriate is important – but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for impoliteness or prejudice to minority groups. Catering to the majority is easy; thinking about who I might be leaving out, and what I can do to welcome everyone into volunteering, is an ongoing learning process – and quite a struggle at times. It’s not easy, but in the end, it certainly creates a richer, diverse volunteer family.

2 thoughts on “Do you welcome people with your language?

  1. Heather Wilkinson

    Thanks for this! While religion isn’t a big talking point in roller derby, I/we make an enormous effort to be blatantly inclusive, since there’s a perception that it’s only for women, or only for skaters, or only for people of a certain age. We have a goal to make derby something anyone can be a part of and the language we use is super important (especially since we often only communicate through email or other digital, thus wordy, means).

  2. V. Burrows

    Thank you so much for this insightful post! I have experienced this myself many times. I sincerely hope that people will take this to heart; while I am sure that many people do not intend their message to come off this way (in fact, they probably don’t even realize that it is a possibility), this type of exclusionary language is not only egocentrically suppositive, but also alienating and overall discomforting.


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