As we begin the new year at Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat, we are welcoming guests after a quiet holiday, continuing upgrades on our buildings and amenities, and planning an exciting season of programming. All of this flows from our mission of hospitality. Last year I often remarked to staff and others that we could learn about hospitality from ducks: “their feet are working hard to propel them forward while appearing to glide easily across the water.” Hospitality is demanding and sometimes relentless work. It calls for flexibility and timely responsiveness to shifting human needs. It calls for presence and calmness when requests come from multiple directions all at once—for instance, on a weekend when six groups are coming and going, the electricity goes out, the bus forgets to pick up people for an event, the grocery order is late, and the boxelder bugs swarm like a plague. In other words, hospitality calls us to remain placid as we care for people, buildings, land, and animals.
Of course, this simple analogy breaks down quickly (e.g., ducks don’t actually paddle to stay afloat, and their bodies uniquely keep them buoyant), which presses us to reflect more deeply on the questions, What is hospitality? What isn’t hospitality? How can we practice hospitality in many dimensions of our lives? What can we learn about hospitality from the mission of retreat centers? So, over the next few months, Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center staff will share their reflections on this topic. We invite you to join our conversation, posing your own questions and ideas about hospitality in the comments section below or through an email.
For me (a former professor and trained theologian), hospitality begins with God. God receives us into a space not our own, into connection with God. The Spirit unites us to God in and through Christ so that we dwell with God. We are attached to God, because God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us so widely. We receive this welcome with gratitude to God and in fellowship and solidarity with each other.
While this hospitality is first and foremost a gift (something we receive rather than earn), it does not result in passivity or insularity. Being welcomed by God so freely, so fully, so unexpectedly, and so unconditionally shapes us into a welcoming people. Having been embraced by God, we open ourselves to one another. With open hearts and open homes. And not merely open to those with whom we have natural affinity. Our communities and churches are not meant to be homogenous groups consisting of those who look like us, talk like us, think like us, or vote like us. Rather genuinely hospitable communities are ones in which strangers become guests so that guests might become friends.
Practicing hospitality, as a matter of the heart, means welcoming and receiving others with openness, warmth, and attentive care. It is always invitational, never intrusive, and therefore patient. Hospitality is a posture, an orientation to all life. It requires intentional pauses and mindful reflection. At Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center, our work of hospitality will fall short if we don’t take time to ask things like, How can this building invite people to rest, be still, collaborate, or reconnect with each other? How does the land (prairie, woods, and marsh) beckon people home to God, to themselves, to their vocations? How can we facilitate retreats and resource leaders so that guests are renewed, healed, and empowered in this place?
Given the expansiveness of God’s welcome, hospitality pays particular attention to those who have been excluded from community, who have experienced religious trauma, and whose very identities have been contested by their families and neighbors. The faithfulness of our hospitality will always be measured – in no small part – by our welcome and advocacy for these. Of course, in this regard (and all the others), our welcome falls short of God’s wild and wide welcome. Hospitality then involves remorse, repentance, and repair as well as trust that God still welcomes us in all our shortcomings.
How do you think about hospitality? How do you practice it? What does it require of you (and all of us)? Let us know. We look forward to the dialogue.