Sunday, April 22, 2012


Offering hospitality to those whom society rejects is both subversive and healing

Books like Making Room by Christine Pohl don't let me go very easily. I read it first well over a decade ago, but its principles and practices are still working on me.

In my inductive way of reading the Bible and my meandering way of thinking, I circle back again to Pohl's insight about the power of recognition and subversive nature of hospitality.

The catalyst is the story of a stranger with two of Jesus' disciples on the road to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day of Resurrection (Luke 24). As they make room for the stranger--first on the road and later in their dwelling and at their dinner table--they receive a most unexpected gift: the stranger they welcome (or at least didn't dismiss or shun or ignore) is revealed as none other than their beloved Jesus.

This storyline, principle and practice repeats itself in the Bible, from Abraham welcoming strangers at the Tree of Mamre to the writer of Hebrews imploring: "do not neglect to welcome strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels unaware." Among many aspects of this reality that can be lifted up (and she lifts up many), Pohl particularly points to the subversive and healing power of recognizing strangers.  She writes: 

“Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, historic hospitality has always had a subversive, countercultural dimension.  ‘Hospitality is resistance,’ as one person from the Catholic Worker observed.  Especially when the larger society disregards and dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves.  They point to a different system of valuing and an alternate model of relationships.”

“Many persons who are not valued by the larger society are essentially invisible to it.  When people are socially invisible, their needs and concerns are not acknowledged and no one even notices the injustices they suffer.  Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.”

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."

Those who offer hospitality are not so much providing services as they are sharing their lives with people who come to them.  This is an important distinction because it affects the nature of the relationship.  If hospitality involves sharing your life and sharing in the lives of others, guests/strangers are not first defined by their need….Respect is sustained in relationships in two related ways--by recognizing the gifts that guests bring to the relationship and by recognizing the neediness of the hosts.”

“The practice of hospitality forces abstract commitments of loving the neighbor, stranger, and enemy into practical expressions of respect and care for actual neighbors, strangers, and enemies.  The twin moves of universalizing the neighbor and personalizing the stranger are at the core of hospitality.  Claims of loving all humankind, of welcoming ‘the other,’ have to be accompanied by the hard work of actually welcoming a human being into a real place.”

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