A number of years ago I was part of a church that decided to make hospitality central to its identity and life. We welcomed hundreds of refugees and many local poor and homeless people into our lives and worship. We shared homes, church, finances, meals, and energy. We attempted to respond to every person’s need. It was an incredibly fruitful and blessed time. Within only a few years, however, the church itself had collapsed under the weight of ministry, the leaders worn out from unrelenting numbers of needy strangers, the parishioners wary of any further commitments.
We were unwilling to close the door, to tell anyone there was no room. Deeply troubled by the inhospitality of many Christians during the Holocaust, we were determined to welcome the refugees and strangers of our own day. Under the pressure of needs all around us, we were not careful to nourish our own lives, or to put guidelines in place that made sure workers had adequate rest and renewal. Eventually, we were only able to move from crisis to crisis, and gradually the quality of hospitality weakened. ...
Communities struggle with boundaries and they struggle without them. All households and communities have some boundaries, although some are more explicit about them than others. Some communities, as a matter of principle, work with minimal boundaries while others establish a significant number of guidelines for both hosts and guests. Boundaries can be literal doors and walls, but they can also be rules, policies, or mission statements. They are shaped in relation to space, resources, relationships, roles, commitments, and identity.
In offering hospitality, practitioners live between the vision of God’s kingdom in which there is abundance, and the hard realities of human life in which doors are closed and locked.
A closed door is the most tangible kind of boundary, but boundary issues are worked out at various levels. Some communities by their rural or isolated location deal with boundaries before people get to the door; strangers must somehow know about the place and make a significant effort to find it. Other communities welcome strangers only through referrals; in that way they make advance choices about which strangers, how many, and when they will receive them. Some communities live in the midst of need and must make decisions every time a person comes to the door.
Boundaries are troublesome in the context of hospitality for a number of reasons. By definition, hospitality is gracious and generous. Limiting hospitality seems to undermine what is fundamental to the practice. But boundaries are also a problem because so many of them are hidden. While we are likely to notice the most obvious ones – for example, turning someone away or saying there is no room – we are unlikely to notice how even our own occupations, neighborhoods, and churches can, in themselves, create boundaries that shut out most strangers, especially needy ones.
Because Christian hospitality reflects divine hospitality, when it fails it is especially devastating. Claims to have run out of resources or to have “no more room” are particularly problematic when we reflect on the abundance of God’s household. There is a certain moral horror associated with turning persons away; when refugees are excluded and left in danger, or when homeless persons are left outside on freezing nights, it is rarely morally sufficient to say that there was not enough room.
The wideness of God’s mercy and the generosity of God’s welcome must frame our thinking about limits and boundaries. God’s kindness continually challenges us to reconsider our commitments. Jesus and the stranger stand outside, asking our communities to enlarge their borders and to share their resources. As we welcome the poor, the stranger, or the marginal person, they help us to remember that each of us is an alien and a stranger, welcomed only by God’s generous invitation. The practice of hospitality challenges the boundaries of a community while it simultaneously depends on that community’s identity to make a space that nourishes life.
Sometimes welcome must be limited and distinctions made, however, if only for the sake of other guests or members already within the community. The amount of space available and the physical and emotional capacity of the hosts and guests impose certain limits. ...
At three o’clock one morning I woke to the sound of pouring rain. I was staying in the guest room of one of the communities of hospitality. Just outside my window I could hear a chorus of coughing. Because the city had become exceedingly harsh in how it dealt with homeless people, about thirty men and women found refuge in the yard of this community every night. They must have been cold and getting wetter by the minute. An overwhelming combination of sadness and horror engulfed me – I looked around at my large and sparsely furnished room and realized that the only thing between thirty cold, wet people and a dry room was a locked front door. ...
These people – outside the door, coughing and wet – these people had names and faces. They were known to the people inside the house. They came into the house for meals during the day. How could we leave them outside when there were still corners of open space inside? Of course I have lots of space in my own home, but I had never before felt so awkward about keeping it for myself. At home, during an ordinary day, I do not encounter any homeless people, and no one ever camps in my backyard because they have no other shelter.
Offering hospitality requires the kind of courage that lives close to our limits, continually pressing against the possible, yet always aware of the inadequacy of our own responses.
The next day I spoke with one of the women who had lived and worked in the community for eleven years. I asked her how she survived, knowing that the house could not take in everyone, knowing that although they provided a home for many people, some people were always left outside. How did she make peace with it and keep going? She responded that you never make peace with it, but you do what you can.
In offering hospitality, practitioners live between the vision of God’s kingdom in which there is enough, even abundance, and the hard realities of human life in which doors are closed and locked, and some needy people are turned away or left outside. A door – open or closed – is one of the most powerful images of hospitality. Responses of “Yes, of course we have room – please, come in” and “No, there’s no room tonight” may be daily fare for hosts and guests, but these phrases also distill difficult questions about boundaries, scarce resources, and a place within community.
We rarely see the consequences of lifestyles that have little room for strangers. Most of the time we do not live close enough to the needs of strangers, much less to our limits, to have no choice but to close the door on a particular person. We do not encounter the same soaked person the next morning, or know that the one who is coughing at breakfast slept in the rain the past night. And although we might feel some dismay at leaving someone outside or hungry, our lives are sufficiently insulated that we do not feel such pain very often.
If we are genuinely concerned about the needs of strangers, offering hospitality requires courage. It involves not only a willingness to take some risks in welcoming others, but it also requires the kind of courage that lives close to our limits, continually pressing against the possible, yet always aware of the incompleteness and the inadequacy of our own responses. At the same time, living so close to the edge of sufficient resources increases our dependence on, and our awareness of, God’s interventions and provision.
Can we say yes to everyone who comes to us? If we limit our hospitality do we risk turning Jesus away? If we say yes to everyone, how will we keep what we offer from becoming diluted, more and more inadequate and impersonal? If we welcome a very troubled person, how will the people we have already welcomed into our lives be affected? Do we have a special responsibility to them? Do we have to be careful about our own needs – will our strength be sufficient for the tasks, no matter how much we take on? If we burn out in six months, what then?
Edith Schaeffer of L’Abri Fellowship captures some of the tension with which many of us live when she writes that “because there are more people than we have time or strength to see personally and care for, it is imperative to remember that it is not sinful to be finite and limited.” When hospitality is not practiced widely in the larger society, or when resources are not distributed fairly or adequately, personal hospitality cannot respond to every need. It can, however, meet some needs; it can be a living demonstration of what is possible when people care.
Source: Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 127–132. Copyright © 1999 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.
Photograph by Chris Barbalis.