Benjamin S. Wall
Cascade Books, Eugene, Ore. 144 pages
Reviewed by Henry G. Brinton
Christian hospitality is an ancient practice of the church, with roots in the welcome offered by Jesus and by earlier figures such as Abraham and Sarah. Jesus promises that when we welcome the stranger we are really welcoming him (Matthew 25), and Abraham and Sarah discovered that when they received three strangers by the oaks of Mamre they were actually welcoming God (Genesis 18). Although our society is marked by fear of strangers (xenophobia), the Bible calls us to practice love of strangers (philoxenia). In fact, we are told that when we welcome strangers, we are put in touch with something holy. The letter to the Hebrews advises us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers (philoxenia), for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).
Few Christians today have practiced Christian hospitality better than Jean Vanier, the founder of a movement called L’Arche (the Ark). The movement began in 1964 when Vanier took three men with severe intellectual disabilities into his home in France. One of the men had to return to an institution, but Vanier and the other two continued to live in community as friends, sharing life together. From this simple but radical beginning grew a movement that is now active in 147 communities on five continents. In each of these communities, participants embrace the vision of Vanier that “to live with the poor is to live with Jesus; to live with Jesus is to live with the poor.” Within L’Arche, the focus is on those who are weak and poor because of a mental handicap and who feel alone and abandoned.
Although this book carries the subtitle “A Practical Theology of Jean Vanier,” it is not practical in the sense that it is a how-to guide for congregations. Instead, it is a scholarly book with a lengthy exploration of the ways in which the philosophy of Aristotle shaped the ethics of L’Arche. It is a “practical theology” because it is based on the practices of the L’Arche communities, in which people with mental handicaps are welcomed, loved and respected. Within these communities, Vanier writes, people practice “a simple lifestyle where the essential is to care for one another, to celebrate life, to be open, and to grow more loving and understanding toward neighbors and friends.” Within this lifestyle, God’s presence and power is revealed through vulnerability and mutual dependency.
So, what can the church learn from Jean Vanier and L’Arche? According to Benjamin Wall, Vanier and L’Arche remind us of “the scandalous reality that the feet of the poor are also the feet of Jesus, revealing to the church and world that those we deem absurd are absolutely necessary.” Hospitality toward the poor remains an essential practice for any church that desires to experience the presence of God in the world.
The practice also exposes us to the truth about ourselves and others, because, as Vanier writes, “to welcome is to be open to reality as it is, with the least possible filtering.” An important aspect of this reality is that the church is a body (1 Corinthians 12), where each member is unique and irreplaceable – the weak as well as the strong, the poor as well as the rich. Wall is right to point out that when we practice Christian hospitality, we discover that “Christ’s body is an equalizing place to which all of humanity belongs.”
Henry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia, and the author of “The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.”