My first semester in seminary, I took Christian Ethics with Dr. Beth Newman. The first book we were to read was Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. I was very disappointed in this assignment. I wanted something theologically challenging, not a book about tea parties and inviting your neighbors over for dinner.
We had just left a male dominated “seeker targeted” evangelical church where the women were told their role in doing outreach was to bake cookies for their neighbors. They tried to recruit me as the “Chief cookie maker.” That was the first and last “missions committee” meeting I ever attended. I am far from a domestic engineer. The truth is that I can count on my fingers the number of times I have baked cookies or cooked for anyone other than my own family. So I very reluctantly began reading this book expecting to find the same superficial understanding of outreach offered by my former church.
To my surprise, the book had nothing to do with “hospitality” as I had defined it and contained some of the most challenging theological insights I had ever read. This book opened my eyes to the power of Christian Hospitality that I had never fully understood and defined the practice in a radical counter cultural way. The theme of Christian hospitality as defined by Pohl runs throughout my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets. Below are some of the insights from Pohl’s book that shaped my journey.
Jesus urged his human hosts to open their banquets and dinner tables to more than family and friends who could return the favor, to give generous welcome to the poor and sick who had little to offer in return.
A community which embodies hospitality to strangers is “a sign of contradiction, a place where joy and pain, crises and peace are closely interwoven.” 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. The gift of hope embedded in these communities of hospitality nourishes, challenges, and transforms guests, hosts, and sometimes, the larger community.
Practicing hospitality always involves risk and possibility of failure, but there is a greater risk and loss in neglecting hospitality. Quoting Dorothy Day she 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.”
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.
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.
Dr. Beth Newman helped me discover and unlock the power of the practice of hospitality toward the stranger and I am indebted to her for this gift. I was also honored that Dr. Newman was willing to endorse my book From the Sanctuary to the Streets. Dr. Newman writes:
“McCaig’s vision of Christian hospitality involves opening ourselves to the most vulnerable-the abused wife, the drug addict, the ex-felon, the abandoned elderly-and discovering there the presence of God. Friendships with those close at home-family and neighbors-as well as with those across racial and class lines illustrate how ‘God never works alone.’ This beautifully written book is a call to all of us to embrace our dreams, whether large and small, and in so doing respond to God’s call to be Christ’s body for the world.”
Professor of Theology and Ethics at Baptist Theological Seminary
author of Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers