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Transformative hospitality: To be welcomed shapes us into a welcoming people.   

Teri McDowell Ott reflects on hospitality from the perspective of her local hospital's emergency waiting room.

Late afternoon on a rainy Friday, I sit in my local hospital’s emergency waiting room. I’m not hurt, or sick. I’m here – with permission – as a writer, observing this vital space in my community for the Outlook’s Lenten devotion, Local Pilgrim. The idea to include the hospital emergency room in my Lent series was inspired when a sign outside the emergency room’s doors caught my attention: Open to the Public.

Some of the emergencies are clear. A young man comes in with a bloody gash near his left eyebrow. Another man hops in on one foot. Others, not so much. Tucked into the corner across from me, a young mom’s voice is patient but tired as she tries to keep her toddler and preschooler entertained with pieces of paper ripped into puzzles on the floor. An EMT rolls a wheelchair with a man shivering in a dirty hooded sweatshirt through the emergency room doors. Here, the system is based on need. Whoever’s need is more urgent, gets help first.

A man carrying a clipboard escorts a young couple to the door, chatting in Spanish. The woman holds a baby wrapped in a blanket. I can’t understand the conversation, but the couple is relieved, smiling at the man who appears to be the hospital’s staff translator. Whoever has need, gets help.

Later, a family of four, the mother in hijab, arrives through the sliding doors with their own translator, a slender, dark-haired man who moves between the family and the desk nurse, sharing information. Whoever can help, helps others.

A man who appears to be unhoused walks in (the staff greet him; he’s been here before) and wanders to the vending machines to buy chips and help himself to a cup of hot coffee. Here, no one is turned away.

All are welcome. These three words – like the sign outside the hospital’s emergency room – are often posted outside our churches. It’s a bold statement, worth careful and prayerful consideration before posting. We can all identify people we would struggle to welcome: the outspoken, MAGA-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist; the ultra-woke militant liberal; that dude who never remembers your name and takes all the airtime in committee meetings. We can also identify people we feel we shouldn’t welcome: the convicted pedophile, the abuser, the visibly intoxicated. Then there are those we fail to welcome because we haven’t prepared for the hospitality their presence requires: the non-binary person who finds there is no designated bathroom for them to use, or the person in the wheelchair who can’t get up your steps.

The Christian call to hospitality should not be taken lightly. To be truly welcoming requires a spiritual vigilance, a constant guarding of our hearts against quick judgments and seeds of impatience that can, like weeds, quickly root and grow if left unexamined and unattended. Posting a sign outside our church’s door is easy. Honoring it in both action and intention is hard. Yet precisely because this call is challenging, is why it is transformative.

As Christians, we are called to welcome others out of gratitude for the welcome God has extended to us. We know, if we are honest, that we are not worthy of this welcome. More often than not, we behave in the most unlovable ways. And still — we are loved and welcomed. Why doesn’t God expel us out of irritation and impatience? Why, when we are tired and in need of shelter, is God’s home open and available for our respite and comfort? Why are we given freedom to roam the halls of God’s heart?

Understanding the welcome we have received from God, and the challenge of welcoming, ought to transform us as Christians. To be welcomed ought to shape us into a welcoming people. Alas, we are not God. We have our work cut out for us. Our call to hospitality requires the constant examination of our hearts, our community, our facilities, looking for seeds of inhospitality to root out so God’s welcome can freely grow.