The Challenge of Hospitality

Posted on January 1, 2008

Several years ago I (Jill) read a book by Christine Pohl, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, called Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. 1 Pohl argues that in antiquity the welcoming of strangers or travelers into one’s home and providing for their basic needs was viewed as perhaps the ultimate sign of one’s godliness.

The book challenged me from the beginning, but my life and future were too uncertain to feel that I had much to offer in this area. At that time I was living in a suburban Christian community and heading to med school every day. I was unsure how I was going to reconcile my heritage as a missionary kid, this new, crazy phase of my life, and my pull to be a part of a burgeoning Christian community. I knew that at that point in my life I certainly could not be the one doing most of the work of hospitality. Still, I acknowledged that the directive to engage in hospitality could shape and influence a believer going into the healthcare field.

Then I married Doug, who leads an urban ministry in Columbus called Urban Connections. I finished med school and residency. I moved into an urban neighborhood, and our suburban community died a slow and rather painful death. We had to start over: a new home, a new church, a new community. And as I slowly pulled myself out of my post-residency torpor, I felt challenged again to be more hospitable.

But how was I going to offer hospitality to patients that I saw at the clinic, to the other staff at the clinic, to my sisters and Adam who lived with us, to the members of our new struggling multicultural church, to the people who interrupted my gardening in our front yard to ask for a favor? I realized that those of us who make up CCHF face the same challenges as we struggle to live out the gospel through healthcare among the poor.

So Doug and I decided to re-read Dr. Pohl’s book. The first section gives a fair overview of the scope of our Christian heritage on this subject. One would think that hospitality primarily benefited the recipients. But in Scripture such willingness often resulted in mutual blessing, setting the stage for an unexpected movement of God in the lives of host and guest alike. Among the many stories and teaching about hospitality in Scripture, these are some of the must noteworthy:

Abrabam, Sarah and the Angels (Genesis 18): As three strangers passed by his tent, Abraham happened to see them and ran out to meet them. Abraham insisted that they allow him to provide them food and some comfort on their journey. God met Abraham through these visitors, spoke to him, and renewed his promise of a son.

Rahab and the Israelite Spies (Joshua 2): Rahab welcomed the two Israelites into her home. She provided them with shelter and protection at the risk of her own life, even when called before her king and interrogated. The spies rescued Rahab and her family when the Israelites destroyed Jericho. They were welcomed into Israelite society, and Rahab became an ancestor of King David (and the Messiah).

Widow of Zarepath and Elijah (1 Kings 17): God sent Elijah to this woman’s (a foreigner) hometown, seeking refuge from the king of Israel. Her willingness to show hospitality to Elijah (a stranger to her) was a sign that she was God’s chosen woman. She welcomed and fed him, even though she didn’t have enough to even feed her family. Through this stranger (Elijah), God miraculously provided for this woman’s family. Elijah even raised her son from the dead. (A similar relationship developed between Elisha and a Shunamite woman in 2 Kings 4.)

Joanna, Mary and Suzanna (Luke 8:1-3): These were wealthy women of great status who traveled with Jesus, financially supporting him and his disciples out of their own means. They served as host, but they also received the “reciprocal” blessings of healing and deliverance from demoniac possession. They were the first of all the disciples to see Jesus after the Resurrection.

The Twelve Apostles (see Matt. l0:7ff): Jesus sent them out as ambassadors of his kingdom, bringing the good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons. But Jesus restricted them in such a way that they had to be dependant upon the hospitality of their audience for food and shelter. This willingness to welcome strangers was a practical test as to whether the people were spiritually ready to hear the good news of God’s kingdom.

The “church fathers” retained this emphasis on hospitality:

Basil’s Writings and Hospital: Basil (the Bishop of Caesarea) wrote extensively about hospitality. He founded the first hospital in response to a large famine. There they provided for the poor - including widows, orphans, and travelers - with food and shelter, and sick with physical care. 2

John Chrysostom’s Writings and Hospital: He likewise wrote extensively about hospitality, arguing that it must be personal and connected with the church. Between 400-403 ad, Chrysostom helped found numerous hospitals around Constantinople, which “provided care for strangers and orphans, as well as for those who were sick, chronic invalids, old, poor and destitute”. 3

The second section of Dr. Pohl’s book invites us to “reconsider the tradition" and reflect on how hospitality has changed through the years. Christian hospitality encompasses the stranger as well as the known family and friends. lt involves opening our homes and our lives to people rather than "entertaining" them in public and institutional venues only. It challenges us to blur distinction between “guest" and “host” and to each allow the other to give and to receive. We are encouraged to offer simple welcome instead of lavish displays designed to impress each other. In fact and in substance, hospitality is meant to transcend rather than to reinforce our socioeconomic positions.

When we discussed this book and topic at this year’s CCHF conference, we discussed challenges to personal hospitality and the challenges we face as healthcare workers, churches, and non-profit organizations to provide “corporate hospitality”. Many of these issues are raised by Dr. Pohl, but we include contributions from our discussion that day.

The first challenge to our personal hospitality might be that we are unaware of our biblical heritage. We’re confused about what hospitality means and unsure how to even think about the issue. Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray have done their advertising well! We forget that we have a strong precedent throughout Scripture and Christian history.

We are driven away by individualism. We have the idea that the home is a private place, a retreat from our overwhelming and scary world. Our households tend to be small, which makes it difficult to do the work of welcome. We do not usually have the support of our communities to watch the kids while we talk to people, to come over and help us make friends with strangers, to share the cost of a big meal for others, to watch out for us when we have someone over so that we feel safe.

Our worldviews can be limited. There is not much room for people who speak a different language than us, or who have different politics than us, or even worship differently than we do.

We are also driven away by materialism and busyness. Our American dream does not leave much room for welcoming people in a humble and open manner, not asking for anything in return. There certainly is not much time in our schedules or much motivation left over after the workday to be welcoming. We do not build a lot of financial margin or emotional margin into our lives, either, which would give us the flexibility that hospitality often demands.

We lack neutral meeting spaces. In Scripture, the city gate functioned in this way. It was a public place of commerce and business, which gave people a socially acceptable way to become acquainted with a stranger before inviting that person to a meal or to stay the night. But we have set up our lives far away from the cries of the stranger and the poor among us, and suffer from a lack of such neutral places.

We are personally driven away from hospitality by fear. We may have had a bad experience with hospitality ourselves, where our generosity brought more pain than anticipated. We may be simply afraid of the stranger, and worry that they might steal something or hurt us or our families when we are the host. We are (justifiably) concerned about what influence others might have over our children. And in our role as guest, we often refuse invitations for many different reasons.

There are many challenges to corporate hospitality as well. In this area our conversation at the CCHF conference was particularly useful. Naturally, we raised more questions and issues than we are equipped to deal with.

We spoke of the limits that HIPAA and our current understanding of privacy place on us. We considered how the concept of professionalism restricts our emotional and genuine response to the “other.” There is so much paternalism in medicine, especially where the “provider” and “patient” roles are clearly unequal. There is also the overstepping of appropriate boundaries by the care-receiver, in demanding things from us that we cannot provide for them.

We talked about the prickly nature of payer/payee relationships. We thought about how productivity issues hamper our ability to truly welcome the outsider among us. We discussed how very much we are affected by our society’s consumer mentality in our demands for medications, medical tests, and results. We agreed that our culture’s litigious nature often keeps us from being open and welcoming to an outsider.

Recovering the practice of hospitality will be challenging no matter how or where we go about it. Somehow we need to regain the enthusiasm for this practice, begin to believe again that we may be “entertaining angels,” expecting God to meet us afresh as we step out and obey him. We need good teaching on the subject from the leaders of our communities. Our communities also need to help us in developing guidelines, limits, and boundaries within which our hospitality can flourish.

We need tn regain the spiritual disciplines that sustain and foster the hospitable spirit among us such as prayer, solitude, Sabbath and celebration. There arc many good books on these subjects, and we do not have the room to fully discuss them here. Suffice it to say, we need the motivation, compassion and love that prayer brings us. We need the rest and emotional margin that the practices of solitude and Sabbath bring us. And we need the joy and hope for the future that celebration brings us.

We need to conquer our fears with a true sense of reliance and dependence on God that is difficult in our modern society. I especially would love to see our communities develop enough ties to each other and to the world around us that we develop "city gate” type places where we can meet and engage with the outsider, so that more natural and organic relationships can grow. This and the spiritual practices listed above could do much to alleviate our stressors and help us reach toward God in everything.

We need to be content to be communities that often exist in what Dr. Pohl calls “liminal spaces.” These are "betwixt and between" places in our society, places and situations in which other people don’t want to live and work. The first hospitals were developed in these hidden parts of society, and we ought to be content to exist in spaces that our modern empire ignores.

I hope that we can start to think about this issue more, both on a personal level and on a corporate level. It would be interesting to continue discussion on this topic. If we at CCHF shared our stories of hospitality and developed the disciplines and guidelines necessary to encourage and sustain hospitality, it could absolutely transform our lives, our communities, and the way we provide medical care. I certainly have no answers yet, but I hope to develop my home and my clinic to reflect a different kind of hospitality than our culture currently knows.

1 Pohl, Christine. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

2 Ibid. pg. 44

3 Ibid. pg. 46

Jill Hartman, MD, is a family physician at Grant Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. She and her husband, Doug, practice hospitality in the near-east side of Columbus, Ohio, where Doug serves as executive director for an inner-city outreach called Urban Connections.

Tags: H&D, Missional Living


There are no comments yet.

Leave a comment

« Back