One of the amusing things that happens at my new position as a priest at All Saints Church is that people like to quiz me on whether I know their name yet. They cover their name tag if they’re wearing one and say, “Do you know my name?”
This is due to my “portfolio” at church, heading up our Congregational Development and Welcome initiatives. Part of my job is to help church members feel connected to one another and God, to help them find the kind of community that characters in the old TV show “Cheers” had. Bar patrons yelled their names when they came in the door. Church members figure that learning names is a major part of being connected. Granted, a church is not a bar or a sorority, but it is a place where people hope that they will be known and loved.
I enjoy the game, as it has always been my practice to learn the names of people as quickly as possible. When I taught English at a community college, I made it my goal to learn students’ names by the second class meeting, and they too had fun with quizzing me, cheering my success at remembering and laughing if I couldn’t remember.
What I learned from that experience and from this new environment on the lawn at All Saints is that learning people’s names is all about learning their stories. When I taught English, I used a first-day ice breaker of having each student offer some interesting and unique detail about herself or himself: It was anything from “I cannot stand long hair” (neither can I!) to “I have fourteen siblings” to “I was born in Ukraine.”
Whatever the interesting detail, I was far more likely to remember their names by their story than by their visible physical characteristics. So, for example, trying to remember Amanda’s name because she has curly red hair was not as effective as remembering Amanda’s name because she could speak four languages.
The same thing is happening at my church: I remember people if I know a little bit of their story. “That’s right!” I’ll say the second time I see them. “You grew up in New York but came to LA for law school!”
People sometimes react to this as a mental achievement, but I experience it as a spiritual practice, based on Isaiah 43:1: “I have called you by name; you are mine.” There is something about having our names known that makes us feel more known. And we feel even more known when people know some of our stories because these stories shape our contours as surely as our bone structure and weight do. I won’t remember that you’re 5’10” with a large jaw and big feet; I will definitely remember that you are a Vietnam veteran or that you only get to see your kids in the summer. When I relate to a fellow church member or a student, it’s a richer relationship because I know something, even if it’s just a few details, about the whole person, and that makes our encounters more spiritual–more knowing in the way that God knows us–from the very beginning.
The more we let people know our own stories and how they have shaped our contours, and the more we ask people about their stories, the more we can establish that Godly connection with one another. I find it fascinating that God knows me better than I know myself, and occasionally I have a brief and slightly discomfiting realization that other people might know me better than I know myself. It never bothers me that God knows me better than I know myself; in fact, I find spiritual comfort in that. So why would it bother me to realize that someone else knows me better than I know myself? I can only conclude that it makes us feel vulnerable if people really know us, as if the information will be used against us.
That is why I consider it a spiritual practice to get to know others’ names and stories and to reveal some of my stories to others: it breaks down those barriers of protection and ego and false self that keep us separate from one another–those barriers that keep us from finding community and that Godly connection between us.