I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me

Laura Condell follows up her and Hazel's talk with a little more reflection...

‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’
— Matthew 25v35

In the course of preparing to speak at the City Life Church gathering on the subject of hospitality, I had the pleasure of re-reading Christine Pohl's 'Making Room: Recovering the Tradition of Christian Hospitality' and Henri Nouwen's 'Reaching Out'. Both books are so well-written, with such breadth of research and depth of insight, that I am almost paralysed by their greatness. I am left wondering what I can possibly say to you, dear reader, in a few hundred words, that would do justice to the topic of hospitality, other than to urge you to seek out and read these books. 

There are many themes contained within these books which are rich and deserving of further exploration: the importance of first recognising ourselves as strangers; the paradox of Jesus being both a host and a guest; the inseparability of hospitality and the early church; the subversive potential of hospitality; and, in Nouwen's work, three kinds of relationship which can be helpfully thought about in terms of hospitality: parents and children; teachers and students; healers and patients. However, I thought I'd use this space to briefly consider my own experience of hospitality in Luton and in the church. 

If you are anything like me, offering hospitality even to friends and family might already feel like a bit of a stretch. The house is too messy, I'm too tired, my brain has gone blank when I try to think of anything to cook. So what, then, are we to make of the Christian tradition that says that hospitality is about welcoming strangers? How can we take Jesus' words seriously, when he says, 'When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed'?

Pohl helpfully sets out a short history of the christian tradition of hospitality, in which she notes the way that the establishment of institutions such as hospitals and hostels has slowly but surely separated us from the personal responsibility towards those in need. There are examples of contemporary communities of hospitality who have found their way to recover some of the old practices: L'Arche, L'Abri, Windsor Hill Wood. They are inspiring, but questions remain about how we can practise hospitality in the context of our rather more ordinary lives. The way society is organised has changed; we tend not to know our neighbours and so it becomes harder to see who is new. The increased relative isolation in which we live makes it more frightening, too, to welcome the stranger - how can we do this without putting ourselves or our families in undue danger? Pohl names the need for 'threshold places', which makes it possible to meet strangers in a context that means they are not total strangers to the community. 

One such 'threshold place' I've experienced in Luton has been the University of Bedfordshire, in particular the Treehouse, which is the name of the chaplaincy. Students at the university come from a vast range of backgrounds, and the Treehouse, with its warm and welcoming atmosphere, manages to be a space in which students can become friends with those who are, at first glance, very different from themselves. Since having children, Luton's hospital, parks, shops, children's centres and even its streets have become places where I regularly encounter people previously unknown to me. It's remarkable how a superficial chat about babies quickly leads to people opening up about their own stories. Recently, some neighbours posted a sign outside their house which read, 'Open Studio', and we were welcomed warmly to see their pottery and paintings, and chat with a cup of tea. 

The church small group that I'm part of eats together at least once a week. In the past, we've occasionally been tempted to dispense with the meal so that we could have more time for the 'real spiritual business' of discussion and prayer. But we've found, time and again, that the real spiritual business is, in fact, to be found in preparing food, setting the table, squeezing in a few extra chairs for unexpected guests, serving each other, talking, listening, laughing, praying, delighting in the appearance of pudding, and then clearing up. As we practice hospitality, we see those who were once guests becoming hosts themselves; the barriers that were between people come down; hospitality becomes a communal act. 

As Pohl writes; 'Acts of hospitality participate in and reflect God's greater hospitality and therefore hold some connection to the divine, to holy ground. In joining physical, spiritual, and social nourishment, hospitality is a life-giving practice. Rooted in practical acts of care, shaped by a tradition that gives it rich meaning....Hospitable attitudes, even a principled commitment to hospitality, do not challenge us or transform our loyalties in the way that actual hospitality to particular strangers does. Hospitality in the abstract lacks the mundane, troublesome, yet rich dimensions of a profound human practice.'

Before I moved to Luton 9 years ago, a wise woman said to me that Luton has, for many years, been providing a home for people who move here. I count myself one of those lucky strangers who has found a home both in Luton and in God's family, and I pray that I may extend a gracious welcome, for such has been given to me. 

What about you? Where do you experience hospitality? What might it look like for us to practice hospitality to strangers? How do you think we can go about creating 'free and friendly space' for others?