“Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive counter-cultural dimension. “Hospitality is resistance.” Hospitality that welcomes ‘the least’ and recognizes their equal value can be an act of resistance and defiance, a challenge to the values and expectations of the larger community.” Christine Pohl
Fellowship day is one of the first practices that I started when Embrace was formed in 2005. At the time we were gathering in an old church in Highland Park and giving out furniture to homeless families who were exiting local shelters. Everyone was always hungry halfway through the day and I did not have enough money to buy food for everyone. So, I turned to an ancient Christian tradition – the pot luck. Everyone brings a food item to share and it is always a feast. We no longer give away furniture but the practice of breaking bread together has been a core practice for almost a decade. This month it was Mrs. T’s amazingly scrumptious Zucchini bread that blessed my socks off. I can still taste its moist yumminess in my mind.
Last month we incorporated a new practice into our monthly fellowship gatherings. It was inspired by our spiritual mother, Mrs. Laverne Winfree. When someone asks Mrs. Winfree for prayer, she puts them on her prayer wall. I was recently in Mrs. Winfree’s home and was grateful to see my name and the names of my children on strips of paper taped to her kitchen wall right above her small breakfast table where she prays over them daily. I am comforted in knowing that this prayer warrior is going to battle for me and my family daily.
We decided to bring that same practice to our Embrace home. So we gave everyone slips of paper and asked them to put their prayer request on them and then we all prayed over the prayer wall; well in our case the prayer bulletin board.
The first request was for Ferguson. As is our tradition, I asked for a volunteer to lead us in that prayer and we were blessed by the prayers of a number of our regular attenders. Then one of the ladies whom I had not met yet, offered up a prayer that shook the walls of the old church. I got chills as Malinda lifted up our communities prayers for the family who has lost their son and for the community that is so deeply wounded. She is incredibly gifted at intercessory prayer and conveyed the sentiments of our group with greater clarity and urgency than any of us would have been able to articulate.
At the conclusion of that prayer, Mrs. Winfree broke into the hymn “It is Well with My Soul” a cappella and the whole community, eyes still closed, joined in. I still get goose bumps thinking about the way God moved and moves in our little community. I never know what to expect. It is never the same and always a blessing. The way everyone so freely gives their gifts in an impromptu unscripted way reminds me every week that the spirit is at work in our circle weaving us together in amazing ways. It is never perfect, often messy, but the purest form I know of what it means to be “the Church.”
This week we launched into a coaching / training relationship with a new congregation in a new neighborhood. We did a two hour overview workshop on Saturday and will follow up with nine consecutive weeks of training through a learning community hosted by the church. As I prayed about what to share, I realized that while it is important to know the nuts and bolts of community development, it is more important to cultivate practices of the faith that shape the gathered people into a fruit-bearing community. I have identified seven such practices that I have been blogging about over the past few weeks.
This week, I want to share a few insights into the practice of Hospitality. The snapshot above of our monthly fellowship event is a picture of that practice in action.
My initial understanding of the practice of Christian Hospitality was through the work of Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition during my seminary training. I had never really thought about “practices” and certainly never thought of hospitality as a “counter culture” statement. But after engaging intentionally in this practice for more than a decade, I am a true believer of its power. Pohl writes,
“Respect is sustained in the relationships in two related ways – by recognizing the gifts that the guests bring to the relationship and by recognizing the neediness of the hosts.”
Out in the world, I am Wendy the Executive Director of Embrace Richmond, but in this gathering each week, I am just a needy soul looking for spiritual nurture. Everyone has a gift to give. Mrs. Winfree’s gift of song, Malinda’s gift of prayer, Angie’s gift of story, Karen’s gift of welcome, Jim’s gift of generosity, Mrs. T’s passion for justice, Beth’s gift of wisdom and so many more gifts that we bring into the room make this one of the riches gatherings in our city despite our relative lack of material wealth.
“Friendships forged in hospitality contradict contemporary messages about who is valuable and “good to be with.” Such communities are also signs of hope “that love is possible, that the world is not condemned to struggle between oppressors and oppressed, that class and racial warfare is not inevitable.”
There are so few places in our world where people gather together as brothers and sisters crossing racial, economic and religious backgrounds. Our gatherings on Thursday’s are close to 50/50 black/white, we represent those of great wealth and those experiencing tremendous poverty, we represent a multitude of faith traditions (Pentecostal, Mainline, Non-denominational) and a number who do not attend church at all. In our circles there is no hierarchy, no one “pastor”, everyone participates equally. We rotate facilitation and encourage whomever is facilitating to engage everyone in the process. You will not find a “talking head” or an “expert,” you will find a bunch of faithful seekers just trying to do the best we can with what God has given us.
Practicing hospitality always involves risk and possibility of failure, but there is a greater risk and loss in neglecting hospitality. Quoting Dorothy Day, Pohl writes “The biggest mistake, sometimes, is to play things safe in this life and end up being moral failures…Deeds speak the language of great virtues far better than words do.”
Creating space where pretty much anything can happen is risky. I never know who will say what and where a conversation might go. When we have someone share for the first time, I hold my breath just a little and pray really hard. God always shows up in the most unexpected ways. We had a lovely Muslim woman attend our gathering and share her testimony. I know it was a real challenge for some of our friends to hear her story and welcome her into the circle. We have all been stretched in so many ways by being in such a diverse circle but it is a good stretching. Watching my Pentecostal friends and my contemplative friends recognize that they are both seeking to connect to the same vine but by different means has been so much fun. One week we will embrace the silence and the next week we will be shaking the walls with the most passionate prayers you can imagine. To fully “get” this group you really have to attend for a month to see all the various ways we pray. We prayer walk, practice contemplative prayer, share testimony and share a meal together. We visit local churches and learn about different traditions all on a rotating basis, and sometimes we just open the door and whatever happens happens.
The gift of hope embedded in these communities of hospitality nourishes, challenges, and transforms guests, hosts, and sometimes, the larger community.
How have you seen hospitality being practiced as cultural resistance? Please share your snapshot.