Welcome to Dunedin; it's great to see you

Richard Dawson reflects on our welcome to Rugby World Cup visitors and on the welcome that God gives to us.

It's September and the Rugby World Cup is upon us - 20 teams, 40 pool games, six games to decide the two finalists, a final and a play-off for third to finish. Forty-eight games in all, but for New Zealand it's all about the visitors who come to watch.

Yes, we're all looking for an All Black win. But the bigger win, the "trickle-down" win, will come in the form of the thousands who arrive here looking for a great holiday. And why not?

We're an exotic location, miles from most other places, very green and hopefully pretty clean. What a marvellous place to visit.

Visitors to Dunedin will bring a significant economic benefit to the city, with 30,000 domestic and thousands more overseas visitors already booked to come. The question I ask is what impression will we leave on those people?

And this begs the question what really counts?

I've done a little bit of travelling now, and though I've visited some impressive places with some impressive buildings and some impressive geographical features, always, always it is the people who leave a lasting impression.

Whether it's a sense of welcome or a desire to serve or a simple act of kindness, it is this kind of encounter which leaves me wanting more. On the other hand, it is precisely the opposite that can leave me vowing never to return.

It's interesting that the welcome is an almost universal sign of a healthy community.

Communities which value and promote the offering of welcome to, in particular, strangers and the powerless are usually communities which are strong internally and can cope with significant external pressure.

They are also communities that attract people who want to invest in them.

This was a particular strength of the Scottish settlers. They brought with them a determination to create a community which exhibited an egalitarianism and a classlessness, unlike the Britain they'd left behind, and which reflected the values of the Gospel they brought with them. This wasn't perfect, but little is in human history. What it did achieve was a city in which a multitude of peoples, professions and even religions could come and prosper.

Sometimes I think we forget this down here. Perhaps the reputation for being a "dour" people sticks and we live up to it just because we're given it.

Perhaps we worry about where Dunedin is going and what will become of us with our "cousins" up North seeming to grow without trying. Perhaps we've imbibed a bit much of the "little brother" syndrome and we've taken a liking to complaint rather than thankfulness for what we have got here.

Frankly, if this is true, then we need to wake up and smell the roses! So much of that stuff won't matter at all to visitors to Dunedin. What will matter is the impression we leave that we loved having them here, that they were welcome and that we wanted to help in any way we could. Achieve this and they will simply want to come back.

Forget the weather, forget the size, forget the negatives and be positive. A couple of simple things make a huge difference to a stranger.

The first is a smile. A smile conveys so much about our attitude towards others and it puts people at ease universally. A smile exudes welcome where everything else is a barrier. A smile makes everything a bit easier. When things are difficult and the situation is strained, a smile melts the tension.

The second is to verbalise our welcome, to actually say, "Welcome to Dunedin; it's great to have you here." Again, I think something in our culture tends to work against this. Whether it be a suspicion that with such a greeting we're promising more than we can give or that we simply can't be bothered being positive, we seldom begin positively with strangers.

As a Presbyterian minister, I know how important these two things are, not just in creating the kind of community that is good for tourists, but in creating a community that is good to live in.

The Gospel I serve is all about the welcome of God. Jesus said, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." The kind of welcome that we remember and that counts the most is like this. It is a welcome given to the weary traveller needing the "rest" of a place that feels like home. Come on Dunedin! Let's make a real effort to extend that welcome over the next month.

The Rev Richard Dawson is minister of St Stephen's, Leith Valley.


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