I have been particularly interested in the dynamics of hospitality since our family welcomed a refugee from West Africa into our home some years ago. After a few months of getting to know him, Ali turned up unannounced at our dining room table one Sunday evening: “Can I stay with you?” His living situation had become untenable. With 5 kids in our family—including a newborn—our adventure began.
We learnt a lot over his 5 week stay. Hospitality invites the engagement of host and guest; we discovered hands on what these roles actually looked like. Hospitality involves the creation of space for another to both be and become; we learnt how to make space in our home and our hearts for Ali, modelling acceptance and providing practical help where we could for him to move forward.
What really surprised me, however, was the mutual nature of embodied hospitality. Even as I played ‘host’ to Ali, I experienced my own challenges and changes as I met some foreigners within myself: Bruce the racist, Bruce who felt so noble in helping this person, and Bruce the scrooge, to name a few. Until then I had never really met these strangers or had reason to converse with them. Ali formed strong bonds with our kids, and often his graciousness, warmth of spirit and rich contribution to our family life provided a strong contrast to the unsettling dynamics of formation occurring within myself.
Just who was hosting who?
Christine Pohl says that “[s]trangers 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”. 1 Mutuality, I discovered, is a key aspect of such holy ground. And central to mutuality is vulnerability. Genuine hosting means relinquishing any ‘power’ we might feel as the host, and being open to receiving from the strangers in our midst.
Jesus embodied this as he messed with the usual protocols for hospitality. Often he brought God’s shalom to people while he ate their food. As a wedding guest he provided the choice wine. He sent his disciples out to manifest the kingdom as guests in people’s homes. For those who offer a basic hospitable act such as providing a cup of cold water, he insisted the encounter is divine.
Vulnerability and openness lie at the heart of hospitality, for both host and stranger. As soon as offering hospitality becomes a mechanism for feeling noble or subtly exercising power, it has lost its essence. Conversely, when we offer hospitality with a posture of vulnerability and openness, we may just find ourselves on holy ground as we embody the well-known exhortation: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1999), 13