In the fall and winter of 2005, I was in the midst of transformation and inspiration that was brought on by the World Gathering of Young Friends in Lancaster, England. At that gathering, we visited Swarthmoor Hall, where Margaret Fell offered her home to the nascent Quaker movement. It was a big house, as her family had the means to support early Friends returning from traveling ministry, or people who gathered to worship. This hospitality gave a foundation for the dramatic growth of the Religious Society of Friends. What opportunity an open door and a friendly table can offer!
This visit to Swarthmoor Hall helped me realize that hospitality is something I am called to participate in as well, especially since I became the Director of Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston. Beacon Hill Friends House is many things: we’re home to Beacon Hill Meeting, we’re a Quaker center that hosts occasional talks and publishes pamphlets, and we’re a 21-member community. We’re also a group of friends and guests gathered for dinner and a hospitality house for travelers.
Ryan is one of the newer residents of our community. He likes to post Facebook updates about the special, atypical, or remarkable aspects of being part of a large household. He recently wrote:
There is a desire to want to talk about this place to others. In the back of my mind, though, there’s a tendency to play it up as if I’m the “straight man” among a bunch of bizarre characters or situations…as if it’s some sort of wacky sitcom.
But that’s clearly not the case. The situation is that, yes, this can be a place full of interesting people or situations. Yes, they can sometimes be different. But I’m one of them. And this is why I like it here. I am welcomed and tolerated despite my bizarreness. Despite my idiosyncrasies. Despite my different-ness. Despite everything about me. All of that is OK.
So when I experience other people’s weirdness or idiosyncrasies, it allows me to be more tolerant and forgiving, because I am conscious of the fact that other people here are being tolerant and forgiving of MY weirdness and MY idiosyncrasies. This makes me appreciate this place even more.
Ryan has hit upon one of the greatest gifts of community: in accepting people as they are, we allow ourselves to be acceptable. This inclusivity allows us to feel God’s love for us. When we accept that we are perfect in God’s eyes, we can accept the invitation to grow further into God’s dreams and visions for us. This is a very Quaker orientation to hospitality.
This way of hospitality is less about welcoming the stranger, and more about moving from strangeness to intimacy. We don’t come to this place through easy love. We do not surround ourselves with people like us, people who are easy to love and get along with. The more we stretch ourselves to accept those who are different, the more love and acceptance we receive ourselves. This work builds a culture that invites newcomers and visitors into the community.
Just as a Friends meeting has members, attenders, newcomers, and visitors, we here at Beacon Hill Friends House have both our resident community members and many people visiting. Guest typically stay in our overnight rooms for conferences, college visits, tourism, and to visit family members in nearby hospitals. Our accommodations are a cross between a family home-stay and a bed and breakfast, and for a lot of people, it’s a very welcome change from hotel culture.
Guests sometimes come just to stay with us. Abraham, for instance, is a regular visitor. He’s a librarian and researcher from Portland, Maine, a Catholic who has a great affinity for Quakers. He also soaks up the community vibe, baking us treats and staying for dinner. He considers this his retreat time. He knows that our community is more than our dinner-time conversations; he sees the deep belonging that happens when folks spend time here. The sense of acceptance and love at Beacon Hill Friends House makes it possible for him to do the work that he is called to do.
This is a place where you will be listened to and accepted just as you are, invited to stretch and grow in your journey, and in so doing, enrich the community. For those of us who are concerned with the care of our communities, the challenge is to build communities that demonstrate this love and acceptance to members. When we do this right, our community’s authenticity and love should be palpable to visitors, too.
How can we make our meetings like that for each other, and for those who visit us? Let me share two stories.
When I arrived at Cambridge’s Fresh Pond Meeting, I was new to the Boston area. I came with a fair amount of experience in Quaker ways and was looking to get involved in a community that was faithful to God’s call. After I had attended worship a handful of times, a Friend invited me to the Ministry and Worship meeting (open to any in the community who wished to attend). She shared with me a sense of division in the community that the meeting had been struggling with that year. This was the perfect invitation for me. I felt recognized for my capacity to care for the community. I was impressed that the meeting was addressing a conflict in the meeting in an open way, and that that information was being shared with an interested newcomer. I was hooked. Since then I’ve had many opportunities at Fresh Pond to share and develop my gifts with the meeting, both inside and outside of the Ministry and Worship committee.
The next story is of a Beacon Hill Friends House resident, also new to Boston, who went to visit a Unitarian Universalist congregation that was also open about their struggles. LeLaina is a queer multiracial woman who does social justice work, and she was interested in the congregation’s approach to diversity. A mostly white congregation, the community had recently decided to work on becoming more racially inclusive, yet had hired a new lead minister who was a white male. The incoming minister and the congregation both recognized the need to do more than hire a white minister with good intentions to fix their diversity gap—they needed full participation from the congregation to commit to working on it as well. By the time LeLaina arrived there, there was an established group to look after the diversity of the congregation, and help make worship more accessible to visitors from a variety of backgrounds. Even though the church wasn’t the pinnacle of a diverse congregation that LeLaina may have been seeking, their work for diversity was earnest and transparent. She saw a way she could give to that community, and they are richer for her support.
When LeLaina and I arrived at these congregations, each community had just come face-to-face with hard truths about itself. Communities, like the people in them, will make mistakes. Sometimes we hurt and exclude members and visitors. Sometimes we neglect responsibilities. Sometimes our discernment unexpectedly takes us away from God. And yet our communities, like our members, need to be invited to grow and change, to correct course and come closer to God’s vision of the beloved community.
The faith communities LeLaina and I found were engaged in the hard work of moving through imperfection. In the face of these challenges, the members of these communities engaged their struggles openly and with humility. We found these communities to be irresistible in their work to improve, both as individuals and as community members. Meeting, churches and communities that model the belief that we are capable of change invite us to come to be loved despite our imperfections. They welcome us to transform ourselves. This is the invitation of hospitality in the Quaker tradition.