CHAPTER 1. INTRODUCTION: A NEW LOOK AT AN OLD TRADITION (pages 3-15)
"If there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is
the concept of hospitality."
"WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR MINISTRY AS OFFERING hospitality to strangers?" I asked the founder of a community for rural homeless people.
"No, not really," he responded.
Surprised, I pressed him further, "Well, then, how would you describe what you are doing?"
"We welcome needy strangers into a home environment; we give them a safe place. I think of hospitality as entertaining family and friends; that's not what we're doing." His response echoed Henri Nouwen's observation that, for most of us, hospitality conjures up images of "tea parties, bland conversation, and a general atmosphere of coziness."
In past centuries, hospitality certainly would have been the right term to describe my friend's ministry. Welcoming strangers into a home and offering them food, shelter, and protection were the key components in the practice of hospitality. That my friend did not describe his work as hospitality reflects how much the use of the word has changed over the last three hundred years. For the most part, the term "hospitality" has lost its moral dimension and, in the process, most Christians have lost touch with the amazingly rich and complex tradition of hospitality.
Today when we think of hospitality, we don't think first of welcoming strangers. We picture having family and friends over for a pleasant meal. Or we think of the "hospitality industry," of hotels and restaurants which are open to strangers as long as they have money or credit cards. Perhaps large churches come to mind, with their "hospitality committees" that coordinate the coffee hour, greet visitors, or help with the parking. In any case, today most understandings of hospitality have a minimal moral component —hospitality is a nice extra if we have the time or the resources, but we rarely view it as a spiritual obligation or as a dynamic expression of vibrant Christianity.
Those of us with resources can usually avoid depending on the personal hospitality of strangers for food, shelter, and safety. Away from home, we buy our meals and book comfortable hotel rooms. Unless we travel in a foreign country, live through the devastation of a storm or an earthquake, or run into car trouble on the road, we're unlikely to know what it is to be a vulnerable stranger needing someone else's help. In a highly individualistic and commercial society, depending on the generosity of others is difficult and sometimes feels degrading. Whereas in ancient times all strangers depended on someone else's hospitality, today, it is those without resources who depend most on the free provision of food, shelter, and protection that characterizes hospitality.
In many other societies —and in a few distinct communities in our own society — hospitality to strangers remains a highly valued moral practice, an important expression of kindness, mutual aid, neighborliness, and response to the life of faith. But even those of us who do not depend on hospitality for basic needs know something of the joy of being welcomed warmly. We also know the pain of being excluded. Although hospitality has lost much of its earlier significance, memories and feelings associated with it can still be very powerful.
In a number of ancient civilizations, hospitality was viewed as a pillar on which all morality rested; it encompassed "the good." For the people of ancient Israel, understanding themselves as strangers and sojourners, with responsibility to care for vulnerable strangers in their midst, was part of what it meant to be the people of God. Jesus, who was dependent on the hospitality of others during much of his earthly sojourn, also served as the gracious host in his words and in his actions. Those who turned to him found welcome and rest and the promise of reception into the Kingdom. Jesus urged his human hosts to open their banquets and dinner tables to more than family and friends who could return the favor, to give generous welcome to the poor and sick who had little to offer in return. Jesus promised that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry person, and visiting the sick were acts of personal kindness to the Son of man himself.
Paul urged fellow Christians to welcome one another as Christ had welcomed them. He challenged the early believers to "pursue" hospitality; in fact, hospitality was a qualification for leadership in the early Christian communities. The writer of Hebrews reminded readers to offer hospitality to strangers for, like Abraham and Sarah, they might be entertaining angels. Indeed, Christian believers were to regard hospitality to strangers as a fundamental expression of the gospel.
The richness of the story of hospitality continues beyond the many biblical texts. Early Christian writers claimed that transcending social and ethnic differences by sharing meals, homes, and worship with persons of different backgrounds was a proof of the truth of the Christian faith. In the fourth century, church leaders warned clergy — who might be tempted to use hospitality to gain favor with the powerful — to welcome instead the poorest people to their tables. In doing so, they would have Christ as their guest. Wealthy female converts to Christianity became exemplary providers of Christian hospitality, using their family fortunes to offer food and shelter to the poor, sick, and pilgrims. They did not, however, use their wealth to exempt themselves from providing the care with their own hands.
John Chrysostom, both eloquent and persistent in advocating Christian hospitality, insisted that such hospitality should be face-to-face, gracious, unassuming, nearly indiscriminate, and always enthusiastic. He and other leaders of the fourth- and fifth-century church founded various institutions of care for pilgrims and the poor to supplement home and church-based hospitality. Monasticism, which held the demands of hospitality in tension with the ideal of separation from the world, carried the Christian tradition of hospitality through the Middle Ages.
In the Reformation period, Martin Luther wrote that when persecuted believers were received hospitably, "God Himself is in our home, is being fed at our house, is lying down and resting." "No duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God" than hospitality to religious refugees, promised John Calvin, who viewed such practice as a "sacred" form of hospitality. Calvin encouraged believers to see in the stranger the image of God and our common flesh.
For most of the history of the church, hospitality was understood to encompass physical, social, and spiritual dimensions of human existence and relationships. It meant response to the physical needs of strangers for food, shelter, and protection, but also a recognition of their worth and common humanity. In almost every case, hospitality involved shared meals; historically, table fellowship was an important way of recognizing the equal value and dignity of persons.
Hospitality, because it was such a fundamental human practice, always included family, friends, and influential contacts. The distinctive Christian contribution was the emphasis on including the poor and neediest, the ones who could not return the favor. This focus did not diminish the value of hospitality to family and friends; rather, it broadened the practice so that the close relations formed by table fellowship and conversation could be extended to the most vulnerable.
Even a superficial review of the first seventeen centuries of church history reveals the importance of hospitality to the spread and credibility of the gospel, to transcending national and ethnic distinctions in the church, and to Christian care for the sick, strangers, and pilgrims. Granting that the practice was rarely as good as the rhetoric, still, we pause to wonder, if hospitality to strangers was such an important part of Christian faith and life, how did it virtually disappear?
The answers are multiple, fascinating, and often ironic. Concerns about hospitality to needy strangers gave rise to the development of hospitals, hospices, and hostels, and eventually these more anonymous and distanced ways of responding to strangers became the norm. Hospitality as personal, face-to-face, gracious welcome became primarily associated with attempts to gain power and influence, especially in the Middle Ages where it was increasingly detached from connections with needy persons and was reserved for those of equal or higher rank. The nature of the household itself changed over the centuries, from a setting which included extended family, work, and religious practices to the highly insulated, individualized, small household of today. The structure of the church and its relation to the state and to social welfare also changed over the centuries. Each of these major institutional shifts had an impact on hospitality, on its practice and its meanings. By the eighteenth century, hospitality was viewed by many as an antiquated practice, out of step with busy commercial society, a relic from an earlier time.
And so, over the years, important, older understandings and stories of hospitality have nearly disappeared. Because of this, we know little of how earlier generations of Christians struggled with issues of recognition and dignity, transcending social differences, building community, distributing limited resources, and negotiating the tensions between maintaining identity boundaries and welcoming strangers. But their experiences, their shining successes and abysmal failures, can assist us as we try to respond to some of the most serious problems in contemporary American churches and society. We struggle to find better ways to respond to homeless people, people with disabilities, immigrants and refugees. Questions about diversity and inclusion, boundaries and community challenge us daily. We search for more personal ways to respond to youth who are detached and alienated from family, school, and church. In many cases, we feel as if we are strangers ourselves, even in our own families and churches, and we long for bonds that give life and meaning.
Even among Christians, many of the current discussions about poverty and welfare, inclusion and diversity, scarcity and distribution, are conducted without the benefit of any coherent theological framework. Often, the result is that our stands on complex social and public policy concerns are little affected by our deepest Christian values and commitments. Hospitality as a framework provides a bridge which connects our theology with daily life and concerns.
Is it possible that by looking back we can find resources for moving forward? Recovering the tradition of hospitality suggests the ironic possibility that in revitalizing an ancient practice, we may discover some radical and fresh responses to contemporary difficulties. Discussions about whether there are "deserving vs. undeserving" poor, whether people will take advantage of generous hospitality, and whether it is too risky to respond to strangers are as ancient as early Christian texts and as current as today's talk shows. Practitioners of hospitality from centuries past can teach us from their wisdom and their struggles.
Recovering hospitality is important for another set of reasons as well. Hospitality is central to the meaning of the gospel. The New Testament theologian Krister Stendahl writes that "wherever, whenever, however the kingdom manifests itself, it is welcome." A fuller awareness of the richness of the hospitality tradition and the extraordinary experiences associated with hospitality enriches Christian faith and brings Christian practice into closer alignment with the basic values of the Kingdom. Hospitality is a lens through which we can read and understand much of the gospel, and a practice by which we can welcome Jesus himself.
Recovering hospitality as a vital aspect of Christian life will be more complex than simply resurrecting an old-fashioned practice. In addition to learning the richness of the ancient understandings of hospitality, we will also have to discern how those meanings fit with the institutions of family, church, work, and polity. Recognizing the significance of the changes in those institutions over the centuries, and in the values associated with them, is essential for recovering hospitality into our own particular institutional settings and cultural values.
A wholesale, indiscriminate recovery of any ancient practice is neither possible nor desirable. Certain aspects of the Christian tradition of hospitality are deeply disturbing. Only honest and serious attention to the failures, omissions, and tragedies in the story will allow us to make use of its strengths.
We become proficient in a skill by performing it regularly, and by learning from persons who are masters of it. Hospitality is a skill and a gift, but it is also a practice which flourishes as multiple skills are developed, as particular commitments and values are nurtured, and as certain settings are cultivated. In addition to theological and historical discussions of the practice of hospitality, we need contemporary models from whom we can learn what hospitality to strangers might look like today.
Fortunately, there are a number of Christian communities for whom hospitality is an organizing practice. For several reasons, these communities have recognized that hospitality has an important, even essential, place in our fractured, individualistic, results-oriented society. During the course of my research, I visited eight of these communities and spent several days living within each of them, interviewing persons
about their understandings and experiences of hospitality, strangers, guest/host roles, and resources. Insights from these visits and interviews provide crucial contemporary material which supplements the historical research.
I had originally intended to visit both church congregations and intentional Christian communities involved in substantial amounts of hospitality. As the project developed, it became evident that although some congregations offer hospitality to strangers as a dimension of their ministry, few do it in a sufficiently intense and regular way to surface the issues as effectively as do those communities which provide hospitality full time. Because of this, I chose to study communities that have substantial and long-term experience with hospitality to different kinds of strangers. To gain as rich an insight into contemporary Christian hospitality as possible, I chose communities from the Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant, and evangelical traditions. Recognizing the importance of hospitality to African-American and Hispanic Christian identity, I sought wisdom from various racial/ethnic traditions as well. Anticipating that hospitality might vary with the kinds of strangers welcomed, I chose communities whose focus included refugees, homeless people, students and seekers, and persons with disabilities.
The contemporary church hungers for models of a more authentic Christian life in which glimpses of the Kingdom can be seen and the promise of the Kingdom is embodied. More than words and ideas, the world needs living pictures of what a life of hospitality could look like. Over sixty years ago, Peter Maurin wrote that "we need Houses of Hospitality to show what idealism looks like when it is practiced." Communities of hospitality combine in daily experience the rigor and sacrifice, joy and empowerment, of faithful living. Many of those interviewed commented that living in a community of hospitality was the hardest and the best thing they had ever done.
A community which embodies hospitality to strangers is "a sign of contradiction, a place where joy and pain, crises and peace are closely interwoven." Friendships forged in hospitality contradict contemporary messages about who is valuable and "good to be with," who can "give life to others." Such communities are also signs of hope "that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to a struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable." The gift of hope embedded in these communities of hospitality nourishes, challenges, and transforms guests, hosts, and, sometimes, the larger community.
Not every church member would choose the substantial life-style changes that community living requires. However, there is much to be learned about hospitality from these intentional and intense community settings that can be applied to more conventionally structured households and churches. These communities have found ways to cope with the awkwardness, risk, and high demands associated with hospitality to strangers. They have developed structures that allow an ancient practice to thrive in
the postmodern world. None set out to be an exemplar of Christian hospitality, but, because of their long-term viability and vitality, a number of them do offer a model to which others are drawn.
Thus, practitioners of hospitality also become teachers of hospitality. In addition to welcoming strangers in need, most of these communities also welcome visitors/strangers who want to learn from their ministry and life together. Internships, short-term volunteer opportunities, and brief visits both enrich and complicate the practice of hospitality. Guest and host roles merge and reconfigure when a person with serious mental disabilities welcomes the new intern, or when a formerly homeless young
adult prepares the evening meal for the volunteer group.
Almost all of the communities I visited had simple, inauspicious beginnings in which individuals, families, or small groups of friends opened their homes and their lives to the needy strangers around them. Hospitality grew from that context, and people learned hospitality by doing it. Often they turned to biblical texts for motivation and direction; some communities also depended on insights from the monastic tradition of hospitality. Many practitioners could point to the example of a grandmother who fed hoboes on her porch or a family that always found enough food or room to welcome a lonely child or a traveling preacher.
Contemporary communities with the longest unbroken tradition of hospitality are those associated with Benedictine monasteries. The Rule of Benedict, which has guided Benedictine life for fifteen hundred years, makes hospitality to strangers a basic part of monastic identity and practice. For a surprising number of communities, the most formative understandings of hospitality were shaped by Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and the Catholic Worker movement. In the 1930s, Catholic Worker understandings of hospitality were developed through Maurin's recovery of hospitality from the Irish monastic tradition and his conviction that a personal approach to care and responsibility was essential to the Christian life and to human well-being. The story of the Catholic Worker demonstrates how significantly one effort can touch the lives of multiple communities. Jean Vanier and the L'Arche communities have been influenced strongly by the monastic tradition and by the Catholic Worker. Subsequently, Vanier's insights from L'Arche have become an important resource for others in the recovery of hospitality. Several other communities tie their hospitality commitments more exclusively to the biblical tradition.
Philip Hallie, an ethicist who spent years studying the human capacity for evil and good, concluded that "the opposite of cruelty is not simply freedom from the cruel relationship, it is hospitality." The communities I studied offer hospitality in the context of larger environments that are often inhospitable to certain kinds of strangers and indifferent to their needs. Rather than being overwhelmed by the heartlessness and by the need, these communities understand their welcome to strangers as "little moves against destructiveness." Practitioners of hospitality are rarely romantics or cynics; they are often startlingly honest about their own frailties and failures, about the difficulties as well as the joys of hospitality.
A close look at these contemporary communities and at their ancient counterparts reveals important commonalities. The practice of hospitality almost always includes eating meals together. Sustained hospitality requires a light hold on material possessions and a commitment to a simplified life-style. The most potent setting for hospitality is in the overlap of private and public space; hospitality flourishes at the intersection of the personal, intimate characteristics of the home and the transforming
expectations of the church. Practitioners view hospitality as a sacred practice and find God is specially present in guest/host relationships. There is a mutual blessing in hospitality; practitioners consistently comment that they receive more than they give. Almost all insist that the demands of hospitality can only be met by persons sustained by a strong life of prayer and times of solitude.
When most of us practice hospitality, we typically welcome those with whom we already have some established bonds and significant common ground. Hospitality builds and reinforces relationships among family, friends, and acquaintances. It is one of the pleasures of ordinary life. Yet even this most basic form of hospitality is threatened by contemporary values, life-styles, and institutional arrangements which have helped to foster the sense that we are all strangers, even to those to whom we are related.
Strangers, in the strict sense, are those who are disconnected from basic relationships that give persons a secure place in the world. The most vulnerable strangers are detached from family, community, church, work, and polity. This condition is most clearly seen in the state of homeless people and refugees. Others experience detachment and exclusion to lesser degrees.
When we offer hospitality to strangers, we welcome them into a place to which we are somehow connected — a space that has meaning and value to us. This is often our home, but it also includes church, community, nation, and various other institutions. In hospitality, the stranger is welcomed into a safe, personal, and comfortable place, a place of respect and acceptance and friendship. Even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations. Such welcome involves attentive listening and a mutual sharing of lives and life stories. It requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one's life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources.
For most who offer hospitality the experience is deeply enriching as well as quite demanding. Strangers rarely bring only their needs; within the hospitality relationship, hosts often experience profound blessing. Acts of hospitality participate in and reflect God's greater hospitality and therefore hold some connection to the divine, to holy ground.
In joining physical, spiritual, and social nourishment, hospitality is a life-giving practice. It is both fruitful and fertile. Rooted in practical acts of care, shaped by a tradition that gives it rich meaning, Christian hospitality is also an important theological concept. Its vibrancy as a concept is inextricably tied to its practical expression.
Abstract theological reflections on hospitality and welcoming the "other" are presently popular in some academic and pastoral circles. It is crucial that these discussions include making a physical place in our lives, families, churches, and communities for people who might appear to have little to offer. Hospitable attitudes, even a principled commitment to hospitality, do not challenge us or transform our loyalties in the way that actual hospitality to particular strangers does. Hospitality in the abstract lacks the mundane, troublesome, yet rich dimensions of a profound human practice.
Practicing hospitality always involves risk and the possibility of failure, but there is greater risk and loss in neglecting hospitality. Dorothy Day, reflecting on years of work at the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, commented, "Mistakes there were, there are, there will beThe biggest mistake, sometimes, is to play things very safe in this life and end up being moral failures." Philip Hallie, after studying a French Protestant community that offered hospitality to thousands of Jewish refugees during World War II, concluded, "Deeds speak the language of the great virtues far better than words doWords limp outside the gates of the mystery of compassion for strangers."
Recovering a rich and life-giving practice requires attention to good stories, wise mentors, and hard questions. In the following chapters we will hear from ancient and contemporary practitioners of hospitality, explore the history, and dwell in the story. Key questions emerge as we attempt to remember, reconsider, and recover hospitality.
Where does hospitality fit in the biblical story and in our identity as children of God? Why does Jesus, both as needy guest and gracious host, make hospitality compelling for us? What does the ancient church teach about a distinctive form of Christian hospitality? What did hospitality mean in the first centuries of the church; whom did it include?
If hospitality was so important in the ancient church, why and how did it get lost in later centuries? When hospitality was vibrant, where did it happen? What settings and social changes undermined hospitality as a personal and a church practice? What happened when concerns about hospitality led to specialized institutions separate from the church?
What makes hospitality potentially subversive and countercultural? How is hospitality related to human dignity and respect for persons? What does it mean to see Jesus in every guest? Can some forms of hospitality humiliate persons in need? Why is eating together so important? What about failures in hospitality — what are the consequences when persons are excluded or denied welcome?
Does every stranger need hospitality? What makes someone a stranger? Aren't we all strangers at some level? If welcoming strangers is important, how do we reduce the possible risks; how can we get beyond some of the strangeness? Was it easier to offer hospitality in the past? Who needs welcome today?
Why is the experience of being a stranger crucial to being a good and gracious host? What is the relation between hospitality, seeing ourselves as aliens and sojourners, and our attitudes toward property and possessions? How are hospitality and power related?
Why is hospitality so easily distorted —what makes it a fragile practice? Why does using hospitality instrumentally or for advantage undermine it? Are there always enough resources for hospitality? Do we say yes to everyone who comes to us? Are there appropriate limits or boundaries in the context of generous welcome?
How can we make a place for hospitality in our lives, homes, churches, organizations and agencies, and communities? What are the characteristics of hospitable space? In our present circumstances, can we find creative ways to recover an ancient practice?
What are the challenges and difficulties of recovering hospitality today? What practices constitute welcome; what gestures express hospitality? What makes a good host? How do we learn the practices of hospitality? How can we sustain and nurture hospitality so that it becomes a vibrant and life-giving practice?