Hospitality with a moral punch

“Not everyone understands God in the way I understand God” is an important lesson, writes Teri McDowell Ott. Even more important: we can honor, welcome and respect those who understand God differently.

Hospitality is not so much a singular act of welcome as it is a way, an orientation that attends to otherness, listening and learning, valuing and honoring,” Amy G. Oden writes in And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. The people I look to as my spiritual heroes live this orientation. Trappist monk Thomas Merton befriended and learned from Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. Martin Luther King, Jr., studied Mahatma Gandhis nonviolent strategies and welcomed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as a central leader in the struggle for civil rights.

But Oden claims hospitality has lost its “moral punch,” reduced to serving refreshments at committee meetings, rather than the radical welcoming to the stranger, to God in the stranger, or to the “strange” perspective of someone who believes differently. Oden wants us to recover the hospitality to which our scripture consistently calls us. To orient ourselves with an “expectant readiness” to give and receive welcome, in our lives and in our faith, not only making space for people who live and believe differently, but for those who make us uncomfortable and even offend — which feels counterintuitive. Yet we are hospitable in ways we dont even question.

Interfaith leader and activist Eboo Patel describes how hospitality is baked into American civil society and institutions. In his new book, We Need to Build, he writes about the city of Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which fire departments are manned by different religious communities. When the Muslim home is burning, the Catholic fire department does not respond. That is alien to us as Americans, Patel says, and we should celebrate and strengthen our civil structures that gather diverse identities and divergent ideologies into cooperative relationships.

As a college chaplain, coordinating interfaith experiences was an important part of my call. Pulling religiously diverse students together for a trip, meal, or service project exposed us all to new and different perspectives. “Not everyone understands God in the way I understand God” is an important lesson. Even more importantly: that we can honor, welcome and respect those who think, believe and understand God differently.

On an interfaith immersion trip to Chicago, Illinois, 10 college students and I visited Fourth Presbyterian Church for a weekday jazz worship service. Upon realizing that communion would be served, I began an internal debate. This was my church and my sacrament. Should I go forward to receive it, leaving my Muslim students behind in the pew? Would they feel awkward and unwelcome? At first, I decided to skip communion, to sit in solidarity with those who were not Christian. But as the service proceeded, I remembered that later in the week I would be the Christian observing a Muslim prayer service — and I would think it odd if my Muslim friends refrained from participating in their service “for my sake.” So I went forward to receive the Eucharist.

Later, when I was the one sitting, observing the Muslims in prayer – men in one line, women in another, standing shoulder to shoulder, kneeling and bowing in sync – tears welled. Id observed Muslims in prayer before, but this was Malak, and Mirna, and Hind – my Muslim students – three of our group of 10, practicing their faith. And it was beautiful.

This kind of interfaith experience with “moral punch” – experiences through which the “other” suddenly has a name and a story that often unexpectedly intertwines with our own – counters the radical inhospitabilty of our current cultural moment. We knit together a new kind of community on our interfaith immersion trip to Chicago. It was a community where religious differences were not ignored, but became mutually enriching; a community of hospitality.

Orienting ourselves to hospitality, Oden writes, “shifts the frame of reference from self to other to relationship.” Its an orientation of humility, a shift that reminds us that our view on life, on faith, on God, is not the only view, and that we dont own the truth. Its also an orientation of dependence: a reminder that we are all the guests of a God who welcomes us as a radically inclusive host.