This past Monday we celebrated the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As a country, we remembered his words and his work and hopefully recommitted ourselves to following in his footsteps. Teachers, health care workers, pastors, and non-profit executives paused to consider what they might do to join the reconciliation and justice that marked his life.
At Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, hospitality is the core of our work. And, as we have said before, hospitality and justice go hand-in-hand. In fact, hospitality, when understood fully, must include reconciliation and justice if it is to be welcoming at all. This is why so many camps, conference centers, and places of retreat intentionally welcome those who have been excluded in other places.
From a Christian theological perspective, hospitality begins with God, not us. God welcomes us into a space not our own, a relationship with God. The Spirit unites us to God in and through Christ, so that we dwell with God. In other words, our home is with God.
While this hospitality is first and foremost a gift (something we receive rather than earn), it does not result in passivity or insularity on our part. Being welcomed home by God and to God so freely, so fully, so unexpectedly, and so unconditionally shapes us into a welcoming people . . . if we have understood the gift at all. Having been embraced by God, we open ourselves to one another in solidarity and care. And not just those with whom we have natural affinity—those who look like us, love like us, think like us, communicate like us, or vote like us. One of my dear friends, Leanne Van Dyk, said this in her inaugural address as president of Columbia Theological Seminary:
Welcome is work because . . . we seem to prefer to curl in on ourselves in fear rather than open ourselves in love. Welcome is work because, this side of heaven, it is predictably precisely what we do not do. Instead, we reject, we judge, we label, we build walls, we dismiss, we turn our backs, we shut our eyes, we stop our ears, we do not welcome. It’s easier that way, easier not to welcome. Welcome takes work.
If our communities and organizations are going to be truly welcoming and somehow participate in God’s wide welcome of all, then this is what it takes:
- naming the patterns and practices that benefit some at the expense of others and then working to change those patterns;
- learning about cultural differences and similarities and then avoiding the temptation to apply that knowledge indiscriminately and thereby perpetuate stereotypes of marginalized groups;
- speaking up, again and again, when we witness violence, hatred, or discrimination against people of color, those who are LGBTQIA+, those who are disabled.
Regarding this last point, niceness (whether that’s Dutch niceness, Minnesota niceness, or so-called southern hospitality) has no place in this work of welcome. Kindness and respect yes. But a veneer of politeness that goes no further than a smile, no. This veneer too often reinforces our silence and that reinforces the status quo of exclusion.
Perhaps this work sounds too daunting, too overwhelming, too all-consuming. That’s not all bad, so to speak. Otherwise, we haven’t grasped the depth and breadth of call to hospitality. At the same time, it is good for us to be reminded that our work of welcome finds its source and sustenance in God’s, especially in our weariness. When we refuse God’s welcome and refuse to welcome others, when we segregate ourselves and perpetuate the very thing we want to dismantle (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism), we are reminded of God’s promise of a joyful feast when people will come from east and west and from north and south and sit at table together. Grounded in this promise, we are empowered to live more fully into and out of God’s wide welcome.
Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).