Gone to the Dogs
We’re a dog family, possessing two of the beasts, and one of those is a whippet, which is a running dog. Not as big or powerful as a greyhound, but still quick, and few things give me as much pleasure as watching him going at full tilt. So you might think that the greyhound track would be familiar ground to me. But it’s not.
Racing is a very socially stratified activity. Horse racing has been described as a pastime for the toffs and the toughs and used as model for explaining why the upper classes and working classes often find it easier to get along than either do with the middle classes. Greyhound racing isn’t in the same league as the equine version, but a similar social division applies – it’s just not the kind of activity that nice middle class people go to.
Also, while there would be no greyhound racing without greyhounds, the reality is that the focus is more on gambling than on the dogs. The dogs are a means to an end: most people are not at the track so much because they love to watch the dogs run, as because the dogs provide exciting betting. And nice evangelicals don’t gamble.
So the dog track, just twenty minutes walk from my house, had not previously featured on the list of places in Poole that I hang out.
We had a great time though. Greyhounds are extraordinary athletes, and it is worth a night at the track simply to marvel at how fast an animal can travel. But it was also a very interesting exercise in contextualisation. Walking into an alien environment like the greyhound track helped me think again about how it must feel for someone unused to church to cross the threshold into a Sunday service: Where to stand, or sit? Are there no-go areas that only the regulars can populate? What are we supposed to do so it looks like we fit in? And then there was the mystery of the racecard, with its baffling details about each dog.
It was obvious that most people there belonged there, but as a visitor enough cues were given so I could navigate my way around. In the front of the racecard was a guide for how to read all those arcane pieces of information, and the announcer introducing races gave further information, ‘For those here for the first time’. In that sense it felt a lot like what we try to do at church – primarily for those who are usually there, but with effort put in to make new people feel at ease rather than embarrassed.
And then there was the betting. At the track this felt somewhat akin to when we come to take the bread and wine at church – the central reason and explanation for why we have gathered together, but to the uninitiated deeply mysterious and puzzling. At the age of 46 I had never placed a bet in my life, and was unsure what to do. Who did I approach? Would I make a fool of myself? What should I say? Again, the racecard came to my rescue, providing an idiots guide to ‘How to Bet’, and I duly lined up to put a pound to win on my carefully selected dog.
It went to a photo finish.
By a whisker.
I’m not sure I’ll be going to the track that often, and I’m certainly not going to make a habit of betting, but as a lesson in how it must feel for new people to come to church it was well worth the price of entry, a plate of chips and that one-pound bet.
I’ve since given my eldership team the challenge of going somewhere they wouldn’t normally go, and feel somewhat uncomfortable about visiting, so that their contextualisation eyes are opened too. I’d recommend it: unless that is you want your church to remain welcoming only to people like you.