On July 12, 2007, Letty M. Russell, theologian, teacher, mentor, justice-worker, author, feminist, ecumenist, ordained Presbyterian minister, and friend to many, died of cancer in her home surrounded by family and friends. Those who grieved her loss included those who knew and loved her best — her friends and family, her church community, her Yale Divinity School and theological community, her global, ecumenical community, and many others around the world who had come to know her through one or more of her influential books. Westminster John Knox Press published her fourteenth book posthumously this year. Edited by her partner of many years, Shannon Clarkson, and her former student and teaching assistant, Kate Ott, this book presents the thoughts Dr. Russell had compiled, organized, taught, and lived but had not yet put into book form before her death. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter make this a great book to read with a group.
In this book, Russell examines the word “hospitality,” challenging the church to go beyond the concept of tea and cookies before worship to a more faithful, more inclusive, and more Biblical concept of hospitality. She defines hospitality as “the practice of God’s welcome embodied in our actions as we reach across difference to participate with God in bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.” In the first chapter, the editors share stories of Russell actively living this understanding of hospitality. In her own life, she chooses to leave the center (and her own power position), and work in the margins for the empowerment of people marginalized due to the dominant cultural, political, economic, religious, or educational systems.
Russell lives on the “outside within” as a woman in ministry, a feminist theologian, and as a lesbian who is also a Caucasian, North American, professor at Yale Divinity School. She writes, “I value being an outsider within because it keeps me on edge, looking for the power quotient in any situation, and struggling for change. … I am constantly looking for ways to empower other outsiders in the institutions where I work and live. I always have to ask myself as I gather with a group, “Who is missing? Who are the ones whose voice is not heard? As a Christian, I learned to do this from the gospel message of Jesus Christ … ” (p. 14). She calls the church to live “inside out” by standing in solidarity with strangers and “by working against the oppressive structures that make them outsiders within their own societies” (p. 22).
Her definition of difference is key to Russell’s understanding of hospitality. For Russell, difference refers to the concrete elements in our lives that distinguish one person or group from another or from the average. She argues that fear of difference has given many in power an excuse to oppress others, creating insiders and outsiders in nations, communities, and the church. She urges the Christian community to understand difference as God’s gift to us, which ensures that new voices will be heard while languages and cultures “flourish.”
This challenging and prophetic book is filled with Biblical references to stories that show God’s welcome, including Abraham and Sarah and the divine messengers at the oaks of Mamre, Babel, Ruth, Amos, Emmaus, and Pentecost. She reminds us of Hebrews 13:2 — Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it;” and the many calls to practice hospitality to the marginalized (widow, orphan, and stranger).
Russell challenges us to understand these texts in deeper ways than we have in the past, calling us to “reframe” our understanding of hospitality, moving beyond the limited hospitality that welcomes only those who are like us in terms of race, class, economic position, language, culture, or education. This reframing will require those in positions of power and privilege to examine the world with post-colonial eyes and be willing to work toward a balance of power. Only then will the church be able to welcome the marginalized “other” as partners, living together, working together, and rejoicing in our difference. This will not be easy. It will not be without risk. But in reaching across difference in this way, we participate with God in bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.
Russell’s final gift to the church is a powerful call to just living through the enacting of God’s welcome to a world in need.
Mindy Douglas Adams is pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, N.C.