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Radical hospitality: Lessons from Berlin

Nadine Ellsworth-Moran visited Berlin in 1990. Her host, a friend of a friend of a friend, taught her about the tenuous ties that bind us — and the gift of radical hospitality.

orange peace sign on a slice of the Berlin Wall in modern day Berlin

Photo by Doğukan Şahin on Unsplash

I am standing in Berlin Central Station, all my belongings tucked in a locker, a piece of paper with a phone number in my pocket. I had come to see the Berlin Wall before it was torn down completely. Somewhere along the train ride, I met Tracy, another young American woman, and we tacitly agreed to stay together in Berlin. Hesitant to impose on a total stranger, the phone number in my pocket was a last resort, but our search for lodgings had been unsuccessful and our options were running out.

Hovering by a pay phone, we agree to go back to our respective homes in Belgium and France if this call doesn’t work out. I pick up the receiver and dial. Tracy and I exchange uncertain glances. A voice answers and I tell him who I am and why I am calling. 

Thirty minutes later Andreas arrives at the station and takes us on a tour of Berlin, pointing out all the architecture of interest we would have surely overlooked without him. He has a tiny apartment with a closet shower (literally) and gracious little room to spare, but he’s willing to share it all with us. Total strangers. He is the boyfriend of a friend of a friend’s friend. The connection is as slender as a spider’s web, and yet his first words over the phone were, “I’ve been expecting your call.” 

Astonishingly, this radical hospitality wasn’t just extended to me, but also to Tracy, whom I barely knew. “Bring her along,” he’d said, “that’s no problem,” as if he had a rambling estate with bountiful resources to accommodate visitors on a moment’s notice. Deeming his closet shower unsuitable, he even called another friend with a nicer apartment who let us use her shower.

He wanted nothing in return, barely allowing us to take him out to dinner and give him a bottle of wine. His willingness to care for strangers, to sacrifice his time, space and attention for the duration of our visit reached beyond kindness to a deeper hospitality, and it left a deep impression on me. 

Hospitality in its truest form means making space for the outcast and calling them a friend.

While biblical hospitality certainly centers around receiving the sojourner, the stranger, offering food and rest, even protection, it is never limited to these. Hospitality in its truest form means making space for the outcast and calling them a friend. It means sharing not just our resources but our time. According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology published by Baker Reference Library, “in the ancient world, to share food with someone was to share life. Such a gesture of intimacy created a bond.” 

I wonder if we’re losing this deeper sense of hospitality, this idea that we are beholden to one another simply because we exist at the same time. I wonder how much of ourselves, our time and true attention, we graciously offer nowadays. 

I lament this age of technology’s impact on hospitality. Decades ago, I met one of my closest friends because she stopped me to ask for directions. Had we passed on the street in recent years, I’m sure her iPhone’s GPS would be guiding her to her destination, and we’d never even spoken. Now, we Google questions instead of asking actual people, we text quick missives and rarely pick up a pen and paper to write a personal letter …  

Some of our basic hospitality skills are weakening with every new device on the market. In my own small way, I attempt to counteract this slide into an ever-widening hospitality gap. When someone asks, “Do you have a minute?” during an overscheduled day, I stop and remember my friend in Berlin, who radically welcomed me and another stranger. I remember how Andreas turned his life upside down for a few days so we would experience his city well. I remember the gift of his undivided presence. I remember that hospitality is not only a spiritual discipline but a symbol of Christ’s love in the world. I remember that what I don’t put into practice I will slowly lose altogether. So, on my best days, I respond to the request for my time, my attention, my hospitality, by putting down my pen, turning away from the computer, and looking someone in the eye. “Yes,” I say, “Come on in.” 

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