- Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
Lent is the perfect season for relearning a basic tenet: Hospitality is essential to Christian identity because in faith perspective all people live on the margins in need of grace.
The Christian social ethicist Christine D. Pohl, a well-known writer long-affiliated with Asbury Theological Seminary has written, “ (T)he best place (to) learn about hospitality is often from those who are on the margins. You have to be a stranger yourself. There has to be an intentional marginality, an intentional experience that becomes part of our spiritual discipline.”
Writing in Faith and Leadership, a publication of Duke Divinity School, Pohl says, “One can’t claim the role of host all the time; … it is a gift also to be willing to be guests and to share in people’s lives.”
She said in an interview for the Duke periodical,, “(Hospitality) continues to be important to me for a lot of reasons. As a concept it made sense out of my commitments, but I didn’t start out understanding that hospitality was this robust practice. I thought of it more as entertaining, coffee and donuts or casseroles or whatever, but hospitality is significant when you look at the Scriptures. It’s significant, and it wasn’t coffee and donuts. It was struggling with Jews and Gentiles and how people were going to get along together and be in the church together and be one body.
“The Catholic Worker [movement] uses the language and used the language of hospitality from the beginning, from the 1930s. There are a couple of traditions that already were thinking in terms of hospitality. These were communities that were rooted in an ancient tradition. For the Catholic Worker it was monasticism, but I think it was there to be found.
“It doesn’t take long to look closely at the Scriptures and closely at the tradition and see that hospitality is a significant part of the Christian life.”
It is seldom easy to become gracious enough to need someone else’s hospitality, but that practice is at the heart of the Christian journey: believing that faith requires accepting God’s hospitality.
The church as an institution cannot offer hospitality if it is not a servant, living on the margins.
In churches the loss of memory makes hospitality about pleasantries, welcoming only those who are viewed as acceptable rather than as outcasts like, for example, illegal immigrants in need of hospitality that begins to set right broken relationships at every level.
Writes Pohl, “Often, the people who offer the best hospitality tend to be people who are marginal to the institutions and the communities themselves, people who have experienced themselves as strangers in some way.”
In that context it is not hard to understand why many American missioners to poor, marginalized nations come back with effusive praise for the hospitality they have received from the poor people whom they had gone to serve: They understand the need.
“You have to be a stranger yourself,” Pohl writes. That is part of the reason Lent is such a difficult but necessary season – and state of mind.