The hospitality of yes 

Showing up and saying yes, even when – especially when – we don’t know where that answer will lead, is a major lesson in Christian hospitality, say Colleen Earp and Clayton Rascoe.

Massanetta Springs developed new connections and energy in several events, including the Keep Awake! conference, a retreat for high school students and their leaders. Keep Awake! emphasizes leadership development. Photo by Samantha McNoldy.

Christian hospitality operates in the positive. YES is an answer, and it is a directive. The staff at Massenetta Springs said yes. The Holy Spirit took it from there. Clayton Rascoe

Together we have spent more than 40  summers in camp and conference ministry. Our professional call to this ministry remains strong because our personal call is deeply rooted in hospitality. Over the years we have learned a lot about Christian hospitality; but perhaps the most important learning is the simple lesson of showing up and saying yes, even when – especially when – we don’t know where that answer will lead.

God does wondrous things with our yes. The Holy Spirit works deeply at Massanetta Springs, a camp and conference center in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Some of the Spirit’s works were never on a strategic plan. But they have nonetheless beckoned us into a deeper understanding of our mission: to be a place for all people to experience God through renewal, discovery and hospitality. Many other details must be organized and agreed upon to develop a new partnership or conference. But by leading with a hospitality of yes,we’ve found new connections and energy through our work with Church World Service (CWS) and with the center’s Keep Awake! conference.

Yes to the stranger — Clayton Rascoe

In late 2016, my phone rang. On the line was a local pastor asking whether Massanetta Springs could help. Her congregation was providing temporary shelter for refugees through a partnership with CWS. Given the growing
shortage of affordable housing in our area, these new neighbors often needed temporary places to live while CWS coordinated permanent housing, job opportunities, school enrollment for children and all the other things they needed to begin new life in the United States. An unusually high number of refugees were being placed here in Harrisonburg, and CWS was having difficulty finding space for a family expected within a couple of days.

“Would Massanetta be willing to provide temporary housing for this family while CWS works to secure permanent arrangements for them?” the pastor asked.

A breakout session at the Keep Awake! conference. Photo by Samantha McNoldy

Massanetta had never considered such a thing. The time frame was late 2016, late enough in the year to know we were in the red financially. Even so, we opened a conversation with trustees, staff and a few Massanetta Springs friends. Did this request fall within our mission? Yes. Did we have the capacity to help provide this opportunity? Yes.

Discerning both answers, we said yes to CWS. A few days later a family arrived. We welcomed them with safety, beds, a kitchen, a playground and more than 100 acres of God’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley. The family stayed for a few days, and then CWS was able to move them into permanent housing.

The following April, our trustees extended this hospitality of yes by passing a resolution to officially partner with CWS. Over the next several years, we became a regular host for CWS. Families from Central and South America, Africa and Asia all spent their first days in the United States on our campus. CWS came up with some funding, and we also found a few small grants to cover costs. Some newcomers stayed for a few days, others for a few months. Little did we know that during all this time of saying yes little by little, the Holy Spirit was preparing us for a really big yes.

Little did we know that during all this time of saying yes little by little, the Holy Spirit was preparing us for a really big yes.

During the summer of 2021, we watched the reports and images emerging from Afghanistan as the United States withdrew and the Taliban reasserted control. Clearly our CWS partners were going to be called upon in new and demanding ways. Massanetta Springs was still in the depths of the pandemic. We’d had no guests for most of 2020. While we did reopen in 2021, our traditional ministry and revenue sources were extremely limited.

But even amid Paycheck Protection Program loans and difficult financial times, we wondered: Is there something we can do to support the work of CWS during the Afghanistan crisis?

We met with CWS, toured campus and talked through the needs. The answer turned out to be yes, we could help — if we could get the initiative funded. The cottages where we previously hosted refugees were simply not big enough. We needed to provide more housing, meeting space and three meals a day for seven days a week for an unknown number of refugees for an unspecified length of time. Cost estimates were projected to exceed half a million dollars. Could Massanetta help?

By offering a hospitality of yes, we were blessed with having a community come alongside us. Photo by Samantha McNoldy.

We walked out of that first meeting with a tentative yes and a basic plan. CWS would secure funding for the lodging, while Massanetta Springs would raise support for meals and meeting space. At the time, we had no idea where our commitment – for about half the projected cost – would come from. We hoped that our network of Presbyterian churches and Massanetta Springs supporters would join us, but we didn’t know. But again, recognizing that this opportunity lay at the core of our mission and was potentially within our capacity, we said an enthusiastic yes to this audacious hospitality effort.

In mid-October that year, the first 20 refugees arrived. Our population ranged from that number to a peak of 120 refugees. By mid-March 2022, when we wrapped up the effort, 185 Afghan refugees were offered hospitality at Massanetta Springs. We even welcomed two new American citizens, as refugee mothers gave birth at the local hospital while staying with us!

By offering a hospitality of yes, we were blessed with having a community come alongside us.

Saying yes was not always easy.

When those first folks arrived, our dining services manager came down with COVID-19 and was out for three weeks. A group of staff and volunteers partnered with a local Middle Eastern restaurant, learned how to order and prepare halal meals and put food on the table. Eventually, a volunteer group from a local congregation offered to provide our own staff with some hospitality by cooking all the breakfasts, to which we enthusiastically said yes.

We were welcoming new neighbors who had varying degrees of familiarity with American plumbing, electrical service, appliances and more. Our maintenance crew cleaned drain lines and repaired broken heaters, while our housekeeping staff turned over rooms — often with little notice between one family leaving and another coming in.

But do you know what we discovered during this time? By offering a hospitality of yes, we were blessed with a community eager to come alongside us. More than 150 volunteers – from Presbyterian churches, churches of other faiths, local colleges, Ruritan clubs and the local mosque – prepared and served meals. We made lasting connections in our community we never would have before. We were able to restore full-time employment for employees we had previously changed to part-time arrangements because of pandemic conditions.

And the funds we needed? Once word got out, more than 60 congregations and individuals donated funds to cover all the meal and meeting space needs, while CWS found a critical partner, Airbnb, which supplied grants for lodging.

When we wrapped up this time of hospitality and realized that many of our mattresses would need replacing for us to resume regular programming, yet another church came through with a grant.

When we simply said yes to our neighbors in need, and continued saying yes along the way, we found that the Holy Spirit moved in others, time and again, to provide what we needed so we could continue to say yes. Blessing upon blessing poured out from the simple act of saying yes to hospitality.

Yes to Matthew 25   Colleen Earp

In 2022, Massanetta Springs marked 100 years of Presbyterian ministry. A Centennial Committee was formed in advance to celebrate this milestone. The committee took the opportunity to recognize the past as well as to recommend intentional steps into our future.

As this work began, not only was our world still grappling with the pandemic, but the names of individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were requiring our nation (and denomination) to grapple with issues of race and injustice. Amid so many difficult and important changes, the committee carefully discerned how to respond. It recommended committing to being a Matthew 25 conference center. The board of trustees affirmed this recommendation with a resounding yes.

We had no desire for this decision just to produce a certificate to hang on our walls or an emblem to post on our website. We had a strong desire to engage with the vision of the Matthew 25 movement in meaningful ways. Given the center’s long history of conferences and retreats, as well as youth ministry and leadership, the Centennial Committee recommended hosting a conference based on the tenets of Matthew 25.

We had a strong desire to engage with the vision of the Matthew 25 movement in meaningful ways.

At the same time, I had my own yes to offer, as I stepped into the role of program director at Massanetta Springs — my first ordained call. Moved by the many stories I had heard from ministry colleagues about feeling welcomed and finding their own voices and callings at Massanetta Springs, I was honored and humbled to accept the position and get to work. I feel deeply rooted in a sense of hospitality — in a responsibility to welcome neighbors and strangers alike. I was not merely agreeing to my own specific and personal vocation; I was stepping into a community and moving forward with it. I was trusting the people who came before me as well as bringing in new ideas and leaders. I was called to be welcoming, as well as letting myself be welcomed.

The planned Matthew 25 conference was among the first tasks the board handed to me. My own yes was quickly strengthened by a chorus of others: six brilliant, thoughtful individuals willing to serve on the initial planning team to bring this program to fruition. I was grateful for the support from a team so diverse in age, race, church leadership roles, location and experience with Massanetta Springs. The team worked hard to brainstorm a new conference, and the members offered their own networks and experiences to bring in fresh leadership. The planning team thought through creative ideas for a new, different, radically welcoming program.

Early in dreaming up our new Matthew 25 event, we quickly realized that to seriously consider focusing on eradicating systemic poverty, we couldn’t expect every congregation and individual to pay for the true cost of housing, feeding and programming for a weekend. With much prayer and consideration, we considered another yes: making this a pay-what-you-can event. This plan was a daunting one. Massanetta has always sought to reduce financial barriers by offering scholarships and assistance, this no-questions-asked model was difficult to plan and budget for.

But we leaned into that yes. We asked for gifts and wrote grant proposals to presbyteries and our synod. We prepared ourselves – financially and mentally – as best we could in case it turned out that no one could pay anything! We felt it was important to ensure that would-be attendees would encounter no pressure, no requirements and no awkward conversations or assumptions, so that we could make this new conference as accessible as possible, especially for high-school youth and their leaders.

With the help of many, we survived the financial challenges just fine. And what came of such hospitality was incredible. Churches that had never previously brought groups to Massanetta Spring showed up. We had more than 200 participants for our first conference and nearly matched that registration count for our second. All kinds of people showed up as both participants and leaders: people of different races, different genders, different social and economic backgrounds, different regions, different generations, different languages and different experiences. Our participants represented 10 different presbyteries, including large, mid-size and small congregations from urban, suburban and rural settings.

The planning team decided to call the conference Keep Awake! – from Matthew 25:13 – to emphasize the urgency of this work. Workshops focused on leadership skills that participants could take home. Workshop leaders used art, improvisation, storytelling, discussion, team building, listening skills and even Presbyterian polity to help attendees use their voices and gifts to address the issues and goals of the Matthew 25 movement.

Not only did excellent leaders construct meaningful workshops, but the conference centered on worship as the main source of learning, rather than the traditional conference model featuring separate keynotes. Our planning team supported the conference preacher in developing a very full Presbyterian worship service, then dividing it into four parts over the course of the weekend: call to worship and confession on the first night, to set the tone; Scripture and message on Saturday morning, to center participants for a day full of workshops; Communion on Saturday evening, to celebrate and unite the conference; and finally a response and benediction on Sunday morning, to charge attendees to go out and continue practicing those leadership skills together.

Bringing in new people was just the start. That affirmative decision brought about energy and ideas for justice and advocacy.

The response was powerful. Conferees found new connections and purpose in worship. Our meeting space was filled with energy and meaning. Presbyterians from all backgrounds literally danced their way to the table together. Planning took over a year from the initial yes to the first Keep Awake! conference. Bringing in new people was just the start. That affirmative decision brought about energy and ideas for justice and advocacy. Teenagers departed workshops saying things like “I can’t wait to go back and tell session about this.” Really! People were connecting with neighbors in new ways. Massanetta Springs was getting to know and celebrate so many new partnerships — individuals and congregations whose experiences and talents we’ve been fortunate to lift up in other programs throughout our year.

Yes, and  …

“Yes” means so much more than just agreeing to do something. Hospitality means much more than letting someone come in. Trying something new carries all kinds of hopes and challenges, but it can be a faithful way to follow the Holy Spirit amid an established ministry.

“Yes, and” is the core tenet of improv comedy: “yes” meaning openness to whatever the improvisational partner has presented, followed by “and” to build on it. While we don’t do our ministry for laughs, we certainly infuse elements of joy and adventure by affirming new ideas and directions. Both our CWS partnership and our Keep Awake! conference required substantial work to recruit volunteers and leaders as well as manage the financial realities of each program. Had we said no, we might have saved ourselves some time and effort. But by saying yes! we welcomed the opportunity to continue learning, growing and following Christ in this particular time and place