It’s been almost there years since we embarked on our grand experiment of intentional community and radical hospitality. The first glow of enthusiasm and novelty has long since worn off, and we are well into the work of grappling with the challenges of life together and the complexities of welcoming “the stranger” into that life.
Just to clarify, I’m not using the word hospitality in the way our current culture often uses it. I’m not talking about making our space and table layout “Martha Stewart-esque”, and inviting our close friends over to enjoy it. That is entertaining, not hospitality.
Christine Pohl, in what I consider the definitive book on Hospitlity, Making Room, makes it clear that the Biblical definition of hospitality is welcoming the stranger. The other. The one not like you.
That brings all manner of complexities. Pohl, in her companion book, “Living into Community – Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, outlines some of them.
1. Burnout – Sabbath keeping, rest and renewal. Knowing when to close the doors. Knowing when to give what Chris Heureutz in his book on community Unexpected Gifts, calls the gift of absence. Kirk and I took a much needed week away this month, road tripping to other communities, and it refreshed us. Our housemates take advantage of any opportunity to house sit, so that they can enjoy a living space all alone from time to time.
2. Safety – How do we know if the stranger is safe? Recently we had a young man coming by the house regularly asking for a bowl of cereal. Initially we let him in, but found out from some street wise friends that he was active in addiction to crack and had a reputation of violence, and his motives to accessing our home might be in question. So we stopped inviting him in. Third spaces, like the Prayer Truck, larger dinners like Spaghetti Tuesday, give more “public” places for us to get to know the stranger and to assess the risk.
3. Are We Being Used? – What about when people take advantage of our hospitality? When does Spaghetti stop being an inclusive “family” dinner and when does it morph into just another soup kitchen? What do we do when offering someone a couch for a couple night stretches into weeks? Clarifying expectations and setting boundaries early on become very helpful.
4. Limited Resources – What if there isn’t enough? Pohl contends that as we welcome strangers, we can anticipate God’s Presence and supply. But we cannot ignore our finiteness, and we cannot ignore our responsibilities to our family, and the vulnerable ones we have already welcomed. We are presently looking into creative ways to help fund Spaghetti Tuesday, because our commitment to it was depleting our personal resources, and we started having to eat rice and beans a lot.
5. What if we are met with ingratitude? – Is it enough just to serve for the sake of Christ, even if we are not appreciated by those around us?
6. If we welcome strangers into our community, couldn’t they threaten our way of life? – Not everyone who comes through our door will share our perspectives. That is not so much of an issue in brief acts of welcome, but becomes increasingly more challenging in long term relationships. What parts of our identity and commitments are central to who we are?
Pohl goes on to say that a community that does not struggle with these issues is a community that does not offer welcome…and is closed in on itself.
So the struggles are good, and the complexities indicate that we are indeed, practicing radical hospitality and being stretched.