Hope and help for the hugging averse at church

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Confession: I really, really, really hate to admit this but there’s a certain part of any church service that I dread — the “turn around and greet those around you” part.

If you ask my sister what’s up with that she’ll tell you it’s because I’m “people intolerant.” She’s lactose intolerant — I’m people intolerant.

She’s kidding. Sort of.

I’m not much of a hugger, and although it’s not a required part of the greeting many people do it. I don’t mind hugging Harry and Charlotte Austin who sit behind me at church each week, and I do like hugging JoAnn Brown.

But I never know what to do with other people, some whose faces and/or names I’ve known for years but don’t know personally.

I’m very good at handshaking. However, what if the person wants to hug and I hold out my hand? Or what if I mistakenly think the person is a hugger and I grit my teeth and go in for the close body contact and the person puts out a hand for a shake?

Or what if I hug someone one week — does that set a precedent? Is it “once hugged always hugged?” I understand how you can go from handshaking to hugging, but can it ever be reversed?

This greeting thing is fraught with all kinds of pitfalls and dilemmas.

Plus, there’s the whole “Hi. How are you? Fine. Good to see you.” There’s only time for quick platitudes, assembly line-style.

There’s no time for the truth: “Well, my life is in shambles, my kids hate me, my spouse left me for someone half my age, my business is failing and I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.” By the time you get it out of your mouth the person you’re hugging/handshaking with has moved on to someone else.

So, you end up saying, “Everything’s fine. Good to see you,” and keep moving on.

This greeting part is especially intimidating for newcomers, especially if you’re the newcomer who’s also hugging averse and you’re greeted by someone who loves to hug. (I’ve known people who avoid church specifically because of the “greet someone around you” part.)

I would say the answer is to outlaw the greeting part altogether, but I don’t think that would be God’s answer.

Instead, I think God would have non-hugger/people intolerant folks like me go visit Tim’s Place, a restaurant in Albuquerque owned by Tim Harris, a man with Down syndrome, where they serve “breakfast, lunch and hugs.”

 A video that’s gone viral around the Internet shows Tim greeting every customer with a hug as he says, “Hi! Welcome to my place.”

If he doesn’t recognize someone he asks, “Have you been here before?”

He tells his employees, “You’re doing a great job. I love you guys. You’re the best cooks ever.”

Tim has wanted to own a restaurant his whole life. His brother and parents help him with his business.

Tim calls himself a “lean, mean, hugging machine.” He says people’s disabilities shouldn’t prevent them from doing what they dream of doing.

Tim of Tim’s Place inspires me. His story touches me in a deep place.

I, too, have a disability — I am “people intolerant.” I’m an introvert, mostly closed to most people. I’d rather shake hands than hug, would rather sit in a church pew quietly by myself than shake hands.

It’s part my nature and part my sinful self.

But I also have a deep desire to not be that way, to be one who is quick to reach out to others without hesitation or analyzing the situation, to think more about others than about myself.

“My favorite part of all is when people come through the front door,” Tim says. “Sometimes customers get sad and I give a hug and they feel a lot better. Hugs are way more friendlier than food. Food is food.”

I would much rather not be faced with the “greet those around you” part of the church service, but it’s there for a reason. It’s because someone is sad, someone is lonely, someone needs to feel welcome — and I need to be the hands of Christ to meet that need.


Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria - I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at 352-564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via email at nkennedy@chronicleonline.com.