Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Pohl, 1999) began as a slow read but ended up being very compelling. Other readers may believe that Pohl’s ideas are too closely aligned with Christian beliefs and traditions but, from my point of view, all of us can use a bit more hospitality in our lives – both as providers and receivers. Having lived for seven years in an Islamic country in the Middle East, I know that many of the Arab and Islamic world hospitality traditions are very similar to what Pohl advocates.
Pohl starts her book by proposing that the “mystery of life is how often one senses God’s presence in the midst of very ordinary activities.” This mystery certainly confirms my experience and it draws me back to a 2010 post on my blog, “An ordinary Day.” This day in 2010 was one that I will never forget and it demonstrated that hospitality and care can come from very unexpected places and that the truest test of whether hospitality is authentic is that it crosses all sorts of boundaries and it expects nothing in return.
Making Room… looked at the historical precedents of hospitality in ancient times, when strangers depended on the generous help of others in order to survive. She says that the theological origin of this was Old Testament teachings related to Israel’s special relationship with God. Eventually this life-saving hospitality turned to life-giving and sustaining gestures of mutual sharing that revealed the depths of life experience. Pohl proposed that Christian hospitality is distinguished by the fact that it welcomes and serves the least among us without expectation of a benefit to the host. This type of hospitality historically included the three dimensions of 1) expression of respect and recognition, 2) meeting the other’s physical needs, and 3) hosting local and visiting groups of believers.
The hospitality custom eroded over time and resulted in John Wesley reviving the notion as a Christian responsibility in 18th century Europe. This type of hospitality was intended to draw strangers into a family or church household of reciprocal relations and commitments. This revival included treating all people as valued and respected and it often resulted in transformation for individuals, families, and communities.
In the modern day, much of what was previously offered through hospitality has been specialized and offered by designated caregivers rather than as an aspect of the life of all families and communities. The major problem with the professionalization of hospitality is that it results in those needing help being invisible, a condition that can only be corrected by putting ourselves in their position, becoming equally vulnerable and dependent. In fact, some of the “most transformative expressions of hospitality… are associated with hosts who are liminal, marginal, or at the lower end of the social order” itself. Those who have acquired wealth and influence often lose their empathy for those of marginal status, likely resulting in the reinforcement of social distinctions and the perpetuation of systemic injustices.
While the idea of adopting a more hospitable perspective might be daunting, the reality is that it usually emerges in small doses, builds on itself, and nourishes both giver and recipient. True hospitality requires that those who presume to serve accept that they can, and indeed need to be served as well. To expect a return on hospitality is to demean its transforming quality; hospitality comes from a grateful heart but can’t help but come back as a blessing to the host.