Use hospitality one to another without grudging.
As every man hath received the gift,
even so minister the same one to another,
as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
(I Peter 4:9-10)
In our travels and vacations in this country and abroad, my husband and I make a point of visiting Friends meetings. Worshiping with Quakers away from our home meeting has always been a highlight of our trips—a warm, rewarding, and cherished time. Nothing I experienced gave me the slightest hint that Friends could sometimes go awry in their offerings of hospitality. But some time ago I visited a Quaker meeting where hospitality was so lacking that I was truly shocked, puzzled, and embarrassed. What amazed me most was that the meeting seemed to be totally unaware that they were treating an invited guest (not myself) so poorly.
I thought this must be an extreme exception among Friends. However, when sharing my story with a few close friends, I found that frequently they could do me one better. Then, a few months ago, I had an opportunity to be in a gathering of Friends from around the country. Still carrying my concern, I asked those at my dinner table to tell me about hospitality in their respective meetings.
"Oh, we are not so good at that."
"My meeting falls short, I’m sorry to say."
"It’s up to one person in my meeting. She has taken care of it for years so the rest of us don’t have to worry about it."
"We tried a committee once, but no one could remember who was on it so we gave it up."
I have noticed that the word "hospitality" comes up often in conversations among Friends. And so, I wondered, how do we get tripped up in translating a common, even cherished, concept into action? Do we no longer know the ground from which hospitality springs? Have we forgotten the charge God gave us to love one another?
Hospitality is associated with being cordial, courteous, open, and friendly. This might include providing a warm welcome or reception, offering companionship, and giving one’s best. Friends would likely agree with these descriptions.
Other descriptors and associations, however, would not be acceptable to Friends. Hospitality in the manner of Friends does not mean "entertainment," a definition too shallow and too secular to reflect our purposes. Though we reach out to visitors and guests, hospitality is not synonymous with "outreach"; Friends generally use the term "outreach" to refer to interacting with secular or religious communities outside of our faith community. Most certainly, hospitality is not "proselytizing." We are not looking for converts when we welcome a stranger among us.
Early Friends relied heavily upon hospitality in their traveling ministries. It was readily forthcoming, else the messages that are so important to Friends still today could not have spread so far and so quickly across England. No matter how humble a Friend’s home, it was open and welcoming to traveling ministers who were led to come their way. More recently, Friends provided food and shelter to slaves moving along the underground railway, often at considerable risk to the welfare of themselves and their families.
Providing food, shelter, and companionship to invited guests, speakers, and workshop leaders is one part of hospitality practiced today among Quakers. Welcoming strangers to our meeting, the more common opportunity for Friends, is also a very important aspect of Quaker hospitality.
For Friends, hospitality is a serious ministry and rests upon a deep base. Quaker wisdom holds that when a guest or visitor walks through our meetinghouse door, some reflection or revelation of Spirit has arrived in our midst. One whom God loves deeply and infinitely has come to be with us. A gift has been sent. We hold to that deep understanding, and keep it in the front of our minds. We approach to receive our gift with open hearts and great joy. We seek to connect with that of God in our visitor.
In a chapter on hospitality in Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen speaks clearly to our condition. He states that we seek "to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings." We must greet our visitor gratefully, never losing sight of love as our guiding and grounding force.
How can we accomplish the task of hospitality to its fullest? What steps might we take to overhaul our current practices, should we need to?
We can begin by making an honest appraisal of what we are doing about hospitality that seems rightly ordered. We look long and hard at what we are doing, or not doing, that allows us to miss the mark in receiving strangers with grace and love.
We need to set defensiveness aside and take a good look at ourselves. Rest assured, the feet we trip over will be our own. Henri Nouwen warns us, "In our world the assumption is that strangers are a potential danger and that it is up to them to disprove it." We are inherently protective of our community and may find, in the clear light of discernment, that, in fact, we are resistant to receiving an "outsider."
My meeting is reputed to be a very hospitable group, an opinion based on fact, I believe, rather than bias. We pride ourselves on our friendliness and caring. We beam, collectively, when visitors confirm our view of ourselves. Yet, I remember a First Day when a stranger and his wife entered our meeting for worship at the last minute, carrying a big, black Bible.
Immediately, my Hicksite meeting became suspicious. We looked at the stranger’s face, down at the Bible in his lap, back to his face, back to the Bible, over and over again. Eyes that were usually closed in worship, kept track of what was about to happen, whatever that might be. Was this stranger going to stand and "rant and rave" at us? Was he going to "thump the Bible and preach to us?" The stranger, however, sat quietly in worship, eyes closed, his countenance calm.
At rise of meeting the guest introduced himself and his wife. He raised the Bible for all to see. "I am not a Quaker," he said, softly, "but my mother was. I am here for her funeral. She left me her most precious possession, this Bible." Tears ran down the man’s face. Our guest would never know how deeply his words stung us, how shamed we felt. We gathered around him with care and love, painfully aware of the gift he had brought us.
We must be ever vigilant that our egocentrism, our strong adherence to how things are properly done, and our clannish need to protect our group does not interfere with our obligation to love another as ourselves.
Once the meeting has taken an honest look at how well it is doing with hospitality, changes can be addressed and improvements made. Hospitality involves action. It is a doing, a practice.
It may be useful to look at three components of the practice of hospitality: preparation, sharing, and serving. Each aspect is important because of what it means, what it symbolizes, and what it communicates.
When we thoughtfully prepare for strangers or guests, there are a number of concrete things that we tend to do. We may have a greeter at the meeting door. We may provide nametags, invite the visitor to sign our guest book, explain our method of worship, or provide other information as needed. We may connect our guest with others in our meeting who share something in common with this visitor. In short, we offer a warm welcome and try to make our guest comfortable.
An old Polish proverb tells us , "A guest sees more in an hour than the host in a year." If we have to hunt up a pen for our guest book, or frantically dig through piles of paper to find a blank nametag, our stranger notices. Our flurry of activity is easily interpreted, at the symbolic level, as not being prepared to receive the guest, that the guest is a problem or burden to us. If, however, we are prepared, we can attend fully to the visitor, rather than being hung up on the nuts and bolts. Arrangements need to be made for some person or some committee in our meeting to take responsibility for seeing that materials and informational pamphlets are easily available when guests are greeted.
Simple advance preparations make powerful statements. In effect, we communicate, "We thought about you ahead of time. We were waiting for you. You are of value to us. We honor you as you are honoring us."
We have three major opportunities to share with a stranger who comes to our meeting for worship. In the initial introductory phase when we greet the visitor, often just before meeting for worship, we share our name. We give our attention and kind, genuine interest. We share respect by listening deeply and solely to our guest. We share companionship.
Secondly, we share that which is most precious to us—our worship. We are thoughtful about this and do not leave our visitor to worship by himself or herself. We are mindful that our guest is not sitting alone in the back row, outside the circle, or within the circle with two or three vacant chairs on either side of our visitor. We give up our own special, preferred place in which we always sit, to sit next to the stranger, symbolically closing the gap by narrowing physical space between the community and the newcomer.
We worship together in the silence, welcoming the stranger into the very heart of our faith community.
Thirdly, at rise of meeting for worship, we see that the visitor is introduced to all gathered. And those in attendance introduce themselves in return, a courtesy we often neglect. We ask how the guest came to be with us today, seeking bits of information that allow us to connect and relate to her or him quickly. We make brief announcements, sharing again of ourselves, as we reveal who we are as a meeting and what we are about. Most times, we then set aside a time for socializing and refreshment when individual Friends may greet and talk with our guest, a very important time for sharing.
Not long ago, during a workshop I attended, participants were divided into small groups of four for an exercise. We were given a problem to solve, then we were asked to demonstrate our solution to the larger group through a skit. One skit portrayed a visitor who was desperately trying to talk about a concern that was very troubling to her. The "problem" was that the listener, a member of the meeting, was interrupted from attending to the guest and told that a committee on which she served was having an emergency meeting and she was needed immediately. The "solution" offered in the skit was that the listener handed the visitor off to another member of the meeting to begin her story all over again.
In terms of hospitality, this was a very poor "solution." Unless the meetinghouse were on fire and it took a committee meeting to discern what should be done about that, the word "emergency" did not apply. It is extremely unlikely that an emergency is so critical, or that an individual is so important to the committee, that we must interrupt our care of another for the sake of the meeting. What must it communicate to our guest to be asked to start her heartrending tale over again with a new person? Her concern would certainly appear trivialized by such an action. We must stay grounded in our charge to let God’s love pass through us, to care for and comfort God’s beloved. All else can wait or proceed without us.
All that we have done thus far in preparing and in sharing involves humbling ourselves in service to another and to God. Our third action in hospitality is serving. The common and simple act of serving refreshments during our socialization time is a powerful gesture of hospitality. Across all cultures and all generations, the act of giving food and drink, no matter how modest, symbolizes giving the gift of life. Refreshment offers sustenance and comfort, both critical to our well-being. When we share bread together we are extending an age-old offering of love.
When we break down the attitude and tasks involved in hospitality—understanding our ground, preparing, sharing, and serving—it all seems quite doable. What, then, gets in the way of carrying out our mission to welcome our brothers and sisters warmly into our community? The pitfalls are many, but if we are thoughtful we can avoid the most common missteps.
We have seen that we may become protective of our community and, thus, resistant to strangers. Some of us find we are too shy to interact with someone unknown to meeting. Or, we come to meeting with concerns for the business or the members of the meeting, concerns that we allow to have priority over greeting guests.
We feel pressured to take care of our own agendas when Friends’ time together is so limited. We may be insensitive to others if we are focused on personal needs, or even selfish preoccupations. We may be thoughtless in our communications to newcomers by speaking "Quakerese"—using acronyms or peculiar words, and expressions that are meaningless and confusing to the uninitiated. We forget to identify those in the meeting whom visitors can approach with special needs, questions, or concerns.
If we turn to our spiritual ground, we can make needed changes under the guidance of Spirit. Central to Friends is the belief that pastoral care of one another and of the meeting community is everyone’s ministry. We are aware that not everyone in meeting has the same gifts, skills, and talents. We must discern who in our community may best organize and watch over our preparations, who has particular gifts of welcoming, and who has the capacity for deep, loving listening. In the end, every member of our community of faith is called to answer the need.
"In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found." (Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out).
The stranger is a gift, whether coming for an hour or a lifetime. Perhaps the visitor brings us a message, or a teaching sorely needed by the meeting. Perhaps a request is brought, offering us an occasion to participate in God’s work in the wider world. At the very least, the stranger brings us an opening, an opportunity, a chance—as Peter tells us—to be "good stewards of the manifold grace of God."