Back in the day, like many high schoolers, I worked in the world of retail: J. Riggins. Rockport. Eddie Bauer. Those were the days. I was actually pretty good at it (and I can still fold a shirt like an ace and lace a pair shoes one, two, three). Besides mastering the art of precision speed folding, one of the common tasks that get portioned out to floor workers in retail is that of greeter. This one isn’t hard to figure out. I’d stand right by the door and ambush…er, I mean welcome, welcome curious shoppers who crossed the store’s threshold.
Yours truly: “Hello! Is there something I can help you find today?” (Cue forced smile.)
Sometimes I’d get a friendly response.
Customer: “Hello. Just looking, thanks.” (Move along.)
Or, just a polite smile…
Customer thinking: “Move quickly. Don’t make eye contact…do not make eye contact.”
Quite often, I’d get no response or reaction at all. “Didn’t they hear me? They must have…” I thought, as I glared icily from behind a rack of hanging khakis. Well, the customers knew the greeting was rote, mandatory and not particularly sincere or personal, so they chose to dismiss me. It was still odd, I always thought, to say nothing at all. But at a certain level, I understood the dismissive reaction. They didn’t want to be bothered. Truth be told, I feel the same way when I enter a store today. Still, I always try to be considerate because I know what it’s like not to be acknowledged. They’re just doing their job, after all.
And so goes the life of a retail store greeter.
Now, I get the greeter deal in stores, but what about at church? Unless I am mistaken, the greeter “ministry” at Catholic parishes is a relatively new phenomenon. When did all this start? Just the other day, while in another state, I was greeted by two different greeters in the vestibule (renamed of late as the “Gathering Space”) within a span of about .05 seconds. There was an army of greeters with name tags guarding the entrance to the church. Then, just before Mass began, a quivering voice from on high asked all of us to don our own greeter hats, rise, and warmly greet those around us. It was a greeter’s paradise! And then of course, there’s another (prolonged) greeter moment with the Sign of Peace right before Communion. At this point, nothing is off limits: high fives, peace signs, hugs, kisses. You name it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m always courteous at my greeter encounters, but I do wonder (channeling the inner-Seinfeld) “What’s the deal with church greeters?” I’m Catholic. I’m at a Catholic parish. I know I’m already welcome. Baptism and the other Sacraments ensure that I’m welcome. I don’t need to be repeatedly greeter bombed before entering church and just before Mass. So I’m left to wonder, is the church greeter phenomenon just another manifestation of a pseudo-“ministry” that was concocted by bored liturgical planners to make parishioners feel more involved in the life of their parish?
Now, I’m not trying to knock individual greeters. Really, I’m not. They are very nice people and I was one myself you’ll recall, albeit in a much different setting. But I am quite ambivalent to the overall phenomenon of greeter-dom. I mean, what’s the point of it all? Do our churches really need official greeters? I’m not convinced. The liturgical experience has been severely cluttered by various innovations and add-ons that were crafted, perhaps with the best of intentions, to guarantee “active participation” in the liturgy. But so many of these accretions have ultimately become mere distractions.
Why not deep-six the manufactured greeter “ministry” and stick with what we’ve always tried to maintain over the centuries: a joyful, vibrant parish with an active devotional life and polite parishioners who don’t need institutionalized, designated greeters in order to feel at home.