August 01, 2008

Strangers and Other Gifts

by Debra Dean Murphy
“Hospitality” is an overused word in our culture. We speak of the hospitality “industry,” a 3.5 trillion dollar service sector of the global economy. “Hospitality management” is now offered as a degree program in most colleges and universities.

For many people, hospitality is exercised primarily as a form of social entertaining: magazines like Southern Living set impossible standards for home décor, flower arranging, menu planning, and so on. The people we invite into our well-scrubbed homes to sit at our perfectly-set tables and eat our carefully-prepared dinners (meant to impress more than to nourish) are usually people of our own socioeconomic status, people pretty much like us. Children are often regarded as spoilers of this kind of antiseptic hospitality and are kept out of sight or off-site. Moreover, this Southern Living (per)version of hospitality makes us anxious, guilt-ridden score-keepers. “Didn’t the Smiths have us over for drinks last month, honey? I guess we’ll need to return the invitation soon, though I really can’t stand that obnoxious husband . . . “

But hospitality as industry/management/entertainment is not the hospitality that Christians are invited to practice. As Beth Newman says, Christian hospitality “draws us into a richer context where we must make sense of ourselves as ‘guests’ and ‘hosts,’ acknowledge our dependence on others, and learn to live with gratitude.”

Christian hospitality assumes that the stranger we may unexpectedly encounter has come to bring a gift because, as another writer has put it, “Christ came to bring unlimited gifts, and Christ was a stranger—and that gift may turn out to be crucial for the maintenance and flourishing of Christian community.”

Such a truth has important, unavoidable, uncomfortable implications for how we in the Church talk about and put into practice hospitality toward the strangers we encounter—immigrants, beggars, and other outsiders who are usually not invited to our Southern Living-style dinner parties.

My own willingness to practice gospel hospitality was put to the test recently. My husband had helped arrange a stateside visit for a Sudanese woman, an Anglican priest, he met on his trip to Africa last year. When the plans for her accommodations for her first weekend here were unexpectedly altered, hosting her in our home became the only option. It happened to be the weekend of our older son’s graduation from college—we had lots of things to do (impressive meals to plan) and we were expecting out-of-town visitors. I was not enthusiastic about the intrusion of this guest; I didn’t want to be her host. But as the weekend unfolded, my initial reluctance was duly chastened, my fretfulness unfounded. Dorcas’ presence with us was a gift, and I (and each member of my family) was a recipient of her generous, hospitable spirit. Just who was the guest and who was the host that weekend was hard to discern.

Such an experience is one of the humbling gifts of cruciform hospitality: just when we think we are offering hospitality to a stranger (aren’t we nice), the stranger herself turns out to be Christ in disguise, ministering to us.

(Originally published Saturday, May 24, 2008)

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