“How should one live? Live welcoming to all.” Mechtild of Magdeburg
“Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around one heart at a time.” Joan Chittister
It is true that we are all in this together. It is equally true that we spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves—and that thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. The good news is that “us and them” does not have to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
One way of measuring whether our love is genuine, however, is to examine how far we’ve extended the boundaries that determine whom we are willing to be in relationship with. When these borders reach out as far as they can go, there will be no one left outside, there will be no one cursed. There will be no more strangers. Everyone will be welcome.
Reflect for a minute on what it feels like to be welcomed. The word means, simply, ‘come and be well’ in my presence. It’s a fundamental human experience, and a very crucial one. When I am welcomed, I feel good. I can be myself. I relax and feel unself-conscious, energized, happy. On the other hand, when I am not welcomed, I doubt myself, turn inward, shrivel up. I feel excluded, not accepted, and not acceptable. This is painful. If it happens often enough, I will question my own self-worth.
Hospitality means creating welcoming space for the other. Henri J. Nouwen notes that the Dutch word for hospitality, gastvrijheid, means ‘the freedom of the guest.’ It entails creating not just physical room but emotional spaciousness where the stranger can enter and be himself or herself, where the stranger can become ally instead of threat, friend instead of enemy.
… That precious experience — when contemplated, cherished, and celebrated — enables me in turn to welcome others: I begin to be less fearful of the other; I start to see the stranger as gift. I become willing to create space in myself to invite the other in, and I open myself to the possibility of being changed by the presence of the other.
…. the Welcoming Congregation Program asked people of faith to deeply engage with the question of what was standing in their way of being fully welcoming and inclusive of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. By intentionally engaging with this question, we were invited to grapple with the assumptions—like that “heterosexual assumption”—that were forever present in our community around who belongs. Who belongs here. Who is one of us. Who belongs, and how do we communicate that circle of belonging—consciously and unconsciously, verbally and nonverbally. How does the language we use, the songs we sing, the way we teach our children, our hiring practices, our requirements for membership, and a hundred other basic elements of how we create and live out community here—how do all these things communicate who and what is valued, and who and what doesn’t belong?
At its very core, the Welcoming Congregation Program asks congregations to challenge their own sense of where the boundaries of belonging are—to draw the circle wider. To practice this, so that we can keep practicing it and keep drawing that circle wider, little by little, step by step, slowly but surely. To make it a core practice to continue to ask, “where are the boundaries of belonging now?” “how can we expand them further?”
This is a big ask. It’s a big deal to first look at where that circle is drawn, and it’s an even bigger deal to acknowledge that there’s room to grow. And then it’s a huge deal to actually take steps toward expanding the circle, and then to keep taking steps—to never stop and say “right on, we’ve arrived. We are done now.”
Alex Kapitan, LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs Administrator, Unitarian Universalist Association.
In the practice of hospitality, the West has much to learn from poorer countries. In my journeying to Rajasthan I never fail to be overwhelmed by the hospitality of the villagers. In the suffering of the worsening drought it is still a matter of pride, tradition and sheer generosity to offer hospitality to the stranger. Although in some European countries older traditions of hospitality have not been completely lost, the break-up of community to follow the market’s employment opportunities has brought a great loss of open-hearth hospitality. In this respect the North and West are bereaved cultures.
The Ghanaian theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye has described how globalization affects ancient African traditions of hospitality. Offering and receiving hospitality is a key indicator of the African emphasis on sustaining the life force at all costs; the market, however, cannot sustain the life of the planet, but instead demands the sacrifice of bio-diversity for the sake of profit. Hospitality is being weakened today as the extended family is threatened and replaced by the nuclear family and individualism. Worse than this is the ruining of subsistence agriculture in favor of cash crops for exports, or exports that sustain only a few. [Oduyoye writes:] ‘The rest must go hungry, their community dehumanised, and the earth pillaged and the earth polluted. One could sum up all this with the observation that globalization knows nothing of hospitality.’
Mary C. Grey
When we think back to the places where we felt most at home, we quickly see that it was where our hosts gave us the precious freedom to come and go on our terms and did not claim us for their own needs. Only in a free space can re-creation take place and new life be found. The real host is one who offers that space where we do not have to be afraid and where we can listen to our own inner voices and find our personal way of being human. But to be such a host we have to first of all be at home in our own house.
Perhaps our greatest resource for peace is in an awareness that we enrich ourselves when we share our possessions with others. We discover peace when we learn to esteem those goods whereby we benefit ourselves in proportion as we give them to others. The very structure and functioning of the universe and of the planet Earth reveal an indescribable diversity bound in an all-embracing unity. The heavens themselves are curved over the Earth in an encompassing embrace.
Here I would recall the experience of Henry David Thoreau, an American naturalist the mid-nineteenth century who lived a very simple life with few personal possessions. At one time he was attracted to the idea of purchasing an especially beautiful bit of land with a pasture and a wooded area. He even made a deposit. But then he realized that it was not necessary to purchase the land because, he reasoned, he already possessed the land in its wonder and its beauty as he passed by each day. This intimacy with the land could not be taken away from him no matter who owned the land in its physical reality. So indeed that same bit of land could be owned in its wonder and beauty by an unlimited number of persons, even though in its physical reality it might be owned by a single person.
Such was the argument of Mencius, the Chinese Confucian writer who taught the emperor that he should open up the royal park for others, since it would be an even greater joy to have others present with him, just as at a musical concert we enjoy the music without diminishing, but increasing, our own joy as we share it with others. So too for those in the Bodhisattva tradition of India, where those such as Shanti Deva, in the fifth century of our era, took a vow to refuse beatitude itself until all living creatures were saved. For only when they participated in his joy could he be fully caught up in the delight of paradise.
It has taken these many centuries for us to meet with each other in the comprehensive manner that is now possible. While for the many long centuries we had fragments of information concerning each other, we can now come together, speak with each other, dine with each other. Above all we can tell our stories to each other.
Tonight we might recall the ancient law of hospitality, whereby the wanderer was welcomed.
Thomas Berry, in ‘Evening Thoughts‘
“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
The Fine Art of the Good Guest
The most important thing that I’ve learned in traveling to more than twenty countries is the art of being a guest. And I’m a particularly fine visitor at the supper table. I’ve consumed live fish in Inner Mongolia, not-quite-coagulated blood sausage on the Tibetan plateau, shredded pig’s ear in China, grilled lamb fat in Uzbekistan, horse steaks in Kazakhstan, vodka made from fermented mare’s milk in Siberia, vegemite in Australia, goat in Brazil, and snails in France. I don’t have an iron stomach, by any means, but I do have the will to be a virtuous visitor.
We are all visitors—even when we are home. Our time in any relationship or place is ultimately limited. We are passing though; nobody stays forever. How we might act if we consider ourselves guests in the lives of friends and family? Being a good guest is rather simple in principle but occasionally challenging in practice.
One begins by demanding nothing more than the bare elements of life and dignity, which every host is more than delighted to exceed. The good guest then simply allows the other person to be a good host—to share his gifts, to play her music, to tell his stories, to show her places, and to serve his foods. Finally, a guest should cultivate and express genuine gratitude. It need not be effusive or exorbitant, only sincere.
We might also think of ourselves as uninvited, but not unwelcome, guests of the planet. And I think the rules for being a good guest of the world are just the same: Ask little, accept what is offered, and give thanks.
Jeffrey A. Lockwood
“There is no hospitality like understanding.” Vanna Bonta
“Once again…welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.” Bram Stoker
This piece by Christine Valters Paintner speaks about the Christian concept of radical hospitality.
An article from UU World considers hospitality as a spiritual practice.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has a number of resources on being an LGBTQ welcoming congregation.
A blogpost from a spiritual director exploring the role of space in creating a sense of welcome.