When was the last time you got to know someone new?

One thing I've always been aware of is that most people tend to stay around those they already know. Whether it's at a party, a business affair, or a social event, we tend to be most comfortable when we are with people we know.

OK, that's understandable. I certainly realize that when people are out socially, they enjoy seeing and talking with their favorite friends in the group.

I'm the same way. I have certain people in every group to which I belong who are my "favorites." I enjoy their company and seek them out.

But, at the same time, I make a point of welcoming every newcomer and spending time with him or her.

I agree with Will Rogers. Strangers are friends we have not met yet. Some of my most enduring and endearing friendships started when I chatted with a person who was then a stranger to me.

But for as outgoing as I am and as friendly as I try to be, I know I don't reach out to others as much as I should. When I am surrounded with some of my favorite friends, I get caught up in having a good time with them. I forget to look for newcomers and I neglect to welcome them.

My husband and I talked about this problem last night as we were driving home after an extremely pleasant social event at a friend's house. We commented how much we enjoy those particular people and how we always like to spend time with them.

But then we both admitted that by staying with those great people all night at a social event, we forgo other possible friendships. We both resolved to be a bit more conscious of talking with those we don't know as well.

Dave says it's easier for me than it is for him because I'm more outgoing. I don't always find it easy. I just know the importance of greeting newcomers.

I know, too, how disconcerting it is to walk into a group where everyone knows everyone. But you're the only stranger.

Last month I joined a ladies' church group and went to my first meeting. I was going to go with a girlfriend but I deliberately went alone. I wanted to work at meeting others since I'm a relatively new member of the church.

Do you know how many people talked to me?

None.

I smiled at groups of women and tried to join a group standing around the refreshment table. The women were all happy to talk with their friends. They didn't pay any attention to me.

When it was time to introduce new members, the president introduced me by the wrong last name because she never came over to learn my name.

I'm not the only one who has experiences like this in "friendly churches."

One woman who is alone in life and doesn't belong to any church finally decided to work up her courage and go by herself to a social event at one particular church. She heard the church was welcoming to newcomers and thought she might join.

She says she sat at a table with other women and tried to join in the conversation. She "broke the ice" by talking about the food and tried several times to establish a rapport with the women.

"They were nice," she said. "But they didn't make any effort to talk with me."

I told her to go back and try again. She did. The same thing happened. She never went back.

Now, it just so happened that I had an interview shortly after that with the pastor of that church. I asked him what changes he made during his time of leadership that most pleased him.

"We reach out to newcomers," he said. "We pride ourselves on being a friendly, welcoming church to one and all."

I told him a church building doesn't welcome people. People do. It takes warm, friendly people to extend a welcome. And I told him about my friend's experience in his church.

I've been in churches that are aware of the importance of people contact. Sometimes, when I'm in a new church on assignment for the paper, I can feel the warmth of the welcoming congregation.

I'm going back to my own church and I'm going to volunteer for something new at the next ladies' guild meeting. I'm going to volunteer to greet any newcomers and to sit with them to make them feel welcome.

I have a friend, Vi, who is worth emulating. We all sit together at a local entertainment spot where we go to dance. Because she's a regular there, Vi knows everyone.

When she sees someone new, she waves them over to her table. She also encourages the women without partners to line dance with her.

I met a young woman there last week who told me Vi changed the lives of her parents. They just moved here and were feeling alone and friendless. Vi didn't know this when she called them over to her table. They were thrilled when she took their phone number so she could get together with them at other events. VoilĂ . A new friendship was born.

I must admit that compared to Vi, I'm a shrinking violet. But I am resolved to try to be more welcoming to newcomers. I'm also going to try to get to know new people instead of only sticking with my close friends.

How about you?

How much do you do to welcome strangers?

How much more could you do?