Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro, North Carolina purchased, up-fitted, and moved into a new building this summer. Upon moving in, we changed the name of our post-worship coffee time to "a time of fellowship and refreshments." To that point, we referred to that time as "hospitality time."
We served coffee and snacks paired with small talk, as you'd expect. Kids played games while parents made plans for lunch. Visitors to the church were welcomed and everyone in attendance felt that, because this hour was named "hospitality time," they must be taking part in true hospitality.
The reality is, they were not. There's nothing wrong with coffee and snacks, of course, but names are important. The central task of theology, after all, is to name things rightly. Which begs the question: What is true hospitality?
The simple answer is making strangers into friends. Leviticus 19:33-34 commands that, "when a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself..." (ESV). More than simply being kind, showing hospitality is treating the stranger as though they belong and have always belonged. Dr. Benjamin Wall, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Greensboro College, puts it this way: "To acknowledge and affirm other creaturely life as presented by God is to welcome reality as it is revealed and given. It is to see the other as essential to the whole of creation and not just something with which we must learn to live or tolerate. Such reception entails accepting the truth of our own creaturehood and place within the domain where God acts."
Too often, though, we only tolerate. Anything more becomes uncomfortable, so we draw boundaries and keep strangers at a polite distance. Yet, in Matthew 5:46-47, Jesus commands the exact opposite: "If you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?" (ESV). Indeed, not to treat the stranger as native, as they belong, is to directly break a command of God. Not only that, but when we do not show hospitality to the stranger we fall victim to pride. Exodus 22:21-22 reminds us that we were once strangers cared for by God. Out of that reality, then, must we care for and welcome the strangers among us.
A beautiful example of true hospitality takes place every September at several churches in the Diocese of Christ Our Hope when new Fellows move in. By design, Fellows live with families from the church so that they can experience hospitality as it is truly meant to be. Perhaps nothing models true hospitality more than inviting a complete stranger to live with you and that is the desire of the Diocese of Christ Our Hope.
When strangers arrive at our churches, we want them to feel and know that they belong. We want them to be treated as natives among us with love and respect. Not only do they deserve it, but it is required of us because we were shown hospitality when we did not deserve it. Ultimately, through hospitality, making strangers into friends, we create space for the Holy Spirit to move, both in our lives, and in the lives of the strangers the Lord brings to us.