Many churches describe themselves as “Welcoming.” And for some of them, it’s actually true. But, what does it mean to be a welcoming church? Some churches only seem to be welcoming to those who are most like themselves. Many communities have a hard time when language, cultural practices or behavior of visitors are outside the norms of what the main membership is used to.
Yet, over and over in scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, we are told to be open to the stranger, to those who do not speak the same language or have the same customs because they are from another place. Or who cannot dress up on Sundays because they do not have the means to do so. Or who cannot conform to the common understanding of “appropriate” behavior because of age or trouble adapting to new social situations because of inexperience or differences in mental processing. In the Bible, the shorthand of “strangers, widows and orphans” is often used to encompass people traveling through, immigrants, the poor, desolate or criminal.
The point was, and is, that everyone has a place among God’s chosen people. A hospitality that was related to, but more than, the common hospitality of the time. And it was those who disobeyed this simple, central command that drew the fullness of God’s anguish and wrath, warned of by prophets in ancient Israel and Judah. We also cannot escape hospitality/lovingkindness as a central theme of Jesus’ teachings during the time of Roman occupation.
If your church follows the lectionary, at some point you will spend time reading through texts from Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, all saying the same thing – if you do not care for each other, you will be destroyed. So many people think that this is destruction from God, but the exile and/or ultimate destruction of Judah and Israel is just a national manifestation of the destruction they have already caused among each other and between nations. Likewise, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is an outward sign of the rotten core they had created by not being welcoming and hospitable places. (See J. R. Daniel Kirk’s Patheos piece, Checking in on Sodom, for more on why the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is not what we think it is.)
Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are paramount. Yet, they are also difficult. Because human beings are difficult sometimes. We make it hard for others to love us, and we often have high expectations of others before offering our love to them. And yet, Jesus called us to love without regard to whether we were receiving love in return. Jesus showed us exactly what that love looks like, along the roads and in the towns of Judea, in the Temple and synagogues, in the houses of the rich and haughty, and those of known criminals.
In fact, we are blessed in the act of loving one another, not only if that love is returned. It is not easy work, though. One of the people we think of as full of the Holy Spirit and Jesus’ love, Mother Teresa, often despaired and felt emptied of those very same qualities she is most known for.
Hospitality is inconvenient. (Jan Edmiston has a wonderful post about this.) It can delay you, distract you or upend your life. The people you are called to love may not be very nice, or share that same love with you or others. Salvation may not look like fiscal success or perfect health or the kind of people you would invite to a dinner party. But we are called to love anyway.
And it matters. It matters that we are Jesus’ emissaries in the world. It matters that we show up. And sometimes people really get it. Hugh Hollowell, a Mennonite pastor who founded Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina, sees the full range of this love in action every day. You can read all about the great victories and great tragedies as well as mundane irritations of loving human beings on the Love Wins website, and this oft-requested piece that shows how this welcoming love in action is picked up by others.
Yes, hospitality is inconvenient. Yes, welcome is hard. Yes, including others is messy. But we don’t do it alone.
We are called together by God’s endless, boundless love that welcomes us in and teaches us how to love. We have communities filled with different gifts of hospitality. We can hold each other accountable for keeping our minds open when new people come into our midst. We can look out for each other when there is danger, and ask each other for help.
Love for God and love for one another cannot be separated. Does your church have a gift of hospitality? Who do you have trouble welcoming well? What stories of hospitality that have touched you as you have received and offered welcome?