DEAR MISS MANNERS: A coworker generously opened his home to a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He attends a church, and the congregation raised funds to defray some of the expense.
The guest family is of another religion. They stayed with him for several weeks. The congregation asked the family, now settled and working, to attend a church service and, apparently, formally thank the givers, who feel that they made sacrifices and that the family should be willing to sacrifice their time and overcome their discomfort with the religion, and grant the request. After postponing and hesitating a couple of times, the family flat declined.
The congregation thinks the service is the only time they are all together, and so the meeting should be at the service. The family now thinks and says that the whole project was a proselytizing venture. There is resentment on both sides.
As I heard this develop, the original gift of hospitality was really disinterested. How do you read this? I thought it wrong in general to ask for a public display of gratitude, but of course they don't frame it quite like that. What might have been a better course once the hospitality and gift money were given? I suppose the family should just attend, but do you see some validity to their objections?
GENTLE READER: What a heartbreaking example this is of good intentions not being enough if they come without the manners to make the good intentions clear.
Miss Manners does not doubt the goodness of your coworker and those who enabled him to help the displaced family. She also trusts that the hurricane victims are not monsters of ingratitude (or the host family would have become well aware of this during the visit).
But charity to individuals requires particular delicacy in preserving their dignity. However the invitation was framed, you, at least, picked up on the fact that it was a summons to perform a public display of gratitude, which, as you note, is rude. Obviously, the family caught that, too. For them, it also seemed to require that they participate in church services.
This does not excuse their merely refusing. They do owe gratitude, and they could have responded that they would very much like to thank the congregation, but preferred to do so after services.
The problem would have been averted if only the congregation had really framed the request tactfully. "Our congregation would like to meet you, as we naturally take an interest in your welfare," it might have said in effect. An invitation to meet people after services would have left the family with the option of attending services as observers and the ability to thank the congregation in the dignified position of guests, rather than as ingrates who had to be nudged to behave.
Miss Manners can't bear to leave it at that. She urges you to request one more act of charity from your congregation. This would be a letter to the family, apologizing that its invitation was awkwardly put, and assuring the family that there was no intention of proselytizing, but that people who had taken an interest in them simply wanted to meet them.