Welcoming the outsider

November 5th, 2015

The risks of hospitality

Hospitality would be easy if it were not also dangerous. Any act of welcoming is also a risk. That risk was made real in Charleston at Emanuel AME Church in June. The mass shooter sat with a small group as they studied the Bible for nearly an hour before he declared his intention to start a race war and opened fire, killing nine people.

The murders were horrific and stunning even more because of the killer’s overt racist motivation. But the violence also violated our Christian notions of hospitality and sanctuary. Time and other news outlets ran articles addressing the presence of guns in the pew and the pulpit. It told the story of how some pastors and their parishioners chose to arm themselves in case of potential danger.

Several of the churches that I know have had discussions among staff and leadership about how to balance security and hospitality so that their churches remain sanctuaries. FEMA issued guidelines in 2013 to help houses of worship develop emergency operations plans.

Yet the tradition of welcoming the stranger, in spite of potential risks or our anxiety, is as old as our Jewish and Christian heritage. In Genesis 18, God visits Abraham disguised as a stranger who shows up unannounced at his tent. Hospitality in the ancient world was not only an ethical obligation, but it could also be a matter of survival for those seeking sanctuary. Abraham and Sarah prepare a sumptuous meal for their guests. It’s only after their extravagant welcome that God blesses them by foretelling the birth of their son, Isaac. It’s not clear at what point Abraham realizes that he’s entertaining God and his divine entourage, but the implications for those who believe in God are clear: God may visit us as a stranger. Over 1,000 years later, the author of Hebrews would write, “Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

The text doesn’t reveal if Abraham kept a dagger on his hip as he poured the drinks, or if Sarah had any apprehension about opening her home to potentially dangerous guests. But we do know what happens in the next chapter when neighboring cities treat the divine strangers with suspicion and hostility. The cities are wiped off the map (Genesis 19). Welcoming strangers brings God’s blessing. Treating them as enemies brings destruction.

When Jesus decides to illustrate God’s impartial love for all people, he uses the example, “If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing [than anyone else]? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47). Greeting and welcoming people we don’t know, even those we may consider enemies or outsiders, is part of the love Jesus desires from his followers.

Who is an outsider?

Jesus shapes the dialogue about who is an outsider or an insider when a lawyer asks him, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Jesus responds by telling a story about several people who ignore a man in need and a Samaritan, the ultimate outsider, who responds to the person. Jesus challenges all of us by asking, “Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man?” Part of the message of the gospel is that grace often comes to us by people we don’t consider to be our neighbors or fellow insiders (Luke 10:30-37).

In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, he shares the argument of two friends. One claims he can be a Christian without being in a church. The other replies, “I will not believe it, nor will I rank you among Christians, unless I see you in the Church of Christ.” The first retorts, “Do walls then make Christians?”

Augustine observes that becoming part of a community of believers isn’t optional — it’s part and parcel of following Jesus. In this sense, walls do make Christians. There’s a distinction between those “inside” and “outside” — those inside affirm that they’re part of a group of Jesus-following believers.

We can easily envision a future in which church “outsiders” are the majority — if that future is not already here now. People feel alienated from church for a variety of reasons, and for many churches their biggest task is simply to reach outsiders at all. It takes courage for an outsider to set foot in a sanctuary, and it takes courage for a church to show welcome.

Welcoming outsiders involves risk, work and sacrifice — giving up the best seat at the table, sacrificing the fatted calf, putting out the good china and silverware (which might get cracked or stolen) or even changing our customs. Good hospitality means not embarrassing your guests if they use the wrong fork at the table or fail to stand at the proper place in the liturgy.

One common point of contention for churches in welcoming ministries is how they conduct the “passing of the peace” or the “meet and greet” time. One blogger polled first-time guests about how they experienced this time, and many didn’t like it — to the point that they wouldn’t return! It’s worth it for communities to think carefully about how they think they welcome outsiders and the ways those “welcomes” can be unwelcome. Few churches I’ve attended ask guests to stand and introduce themselves, and although I don’t mind it (since I’m used to speaking in front of people), others would prefer for the earth to open and swallow them whole. Reminding outsiders that they are outsiders is one of the best ways to make them feel unwelcome.

Hospitality is hard

In her book Living Into Community, Christine Pohl names several fears that reflect just how hard it is to show welcome to outsiders. Among the fears she names are:

(1) The anxiety of making a good impression. Just as those of us whose homes are less than tidy are afraid to have anyone over, churches can also fear the silent judgment of outsiders. If our nursery isn’t adequate or our sound system isn’t state-of-the-art, how welcoming can we be? Pohl suggests that hospitality is “an invitation to mutual truthfulness” — and not just about making the best first impression.

(2) Those we welcome will either be dangerous or take advantage of our welcome. Pohl suggests that boundaries and practices that guard against deception are an important part of community discernment in offering hospitality, but every welcome carries an element of risk.

(3) Our hospitality will simply be ignored; guests won’t respond to an invitation. Pohl says, “When viewed as a [growth] strategy, hospitality is usually short-lived.” Hospitality is a core principle and a way of being, not just a way to get more people. I would add that hospitality of this sort is seldom aimed at the outsider but rather at people who already look and act “like us.”

(4) Guests won’t be appropriately grateful. Since hospitality shouldn’t be given grudgingly, it also needs to be offered without strings or expectation of reciprocity. While it’s nice to have grateful guests, it’s important to remember that in situations where guests feel dependent, shamed or powerless, they may not have the psychological energy to be grateful.

Churches rooted in the gospel naturally have an outward focus, a desire to welcome outsiders not simply for the purpose of making them insiders but also to experience the grace to be given and received in such an encounter. Jesus’ own life embodies the risk and blessing of living out this welcome. We experience him both as host of a banquet and a guest at our table, and in his death and resurrection we see a life open to danger and to transformation by simply welcoming the outsider.

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