Inconvenient Hospitality

In welcoming or being welcomed by the stranger, we open ourselves up for God to surprise us.

I’m not naturally very good at hospitality. I like control, and being able to mostly expect what my day will bring. This is all well and good for throwing parties or having friends over for lunch, but biblical hospitality is another thing entirely.

Think of Abraham, who threw out the red carpet for three visitors who showed up unannounced at his tent one day, rushing to provide them with some of the best of what he had. As it turns out, one of those visitors was God himself, who came bearing a great promise that would change the course of Abraham’s life.

Or think of Peter, who accepted the hospitality of a Gentile centurion, a soldier of the very people who were keeping Israel under tight control and crucifying hundreds. It’s another key turning point in the biblical story – and the main character is receiving hospitality, not providing it! (There’s another lesson there.)

Biblical hospitality can be inconvenient; it crosses social barriers like race, class, religion and economic status. In welcoming or being welcomed by the stranger, we open ourselves up for God to surprise us.

Radical openness
As you know, I work with refugee claimants, people who show up unannounced at Canada’s doors needing protection. I am an enthusiastic defender of their right to claim protection, which is protected by international law, not to mention by our Christian obligation to welcome “the stranger.”

But it turns out that a Colombian refugee claimant from the city of Bogotá might have very little in common with a Syrian refugee claimant from a farm outside Aleppo or with a South Sudanese claimant who has spent long periods of their life in a refugee camp.

Refugee claimants can come from utter poverty or upper middle-class lifestyles, from cities or the countryside. They can be well-educated or have never attended school in their lives. They could have fled using a fake passport and faced immigration detention upon arrival, or come on a student visa and then claimed protection from the persecution that awaits them back home. They may arrive in Canada by plane (the majority that I meet), by foot, by car or by boat (the minority).

Refugee claimants have nothing in common except the experience of fleeing for their lives. As soon as I think I have a handle on “what a refugee claimant looks like,” I meet someone who challenges that expectation. This may sound obvious, but it is tempting to project a certain expertise or to read all refugees through the lens of the individuals that I know.

And so I try to practice a radical openness to the full humanity of each refugee claimant I meet, and to encourage our volunteers at Open Homes Hamilton to do the same. It is so easy to collapse this incredibly diverse group of people from all walks of life, all over the world, into a few easy “types.” But this denies their full humanity and uniqueness.

Like Peter’s dramatic change of perspective towards Gentiles, both giving and receiving hospitality also include some re-arranging of my heart. God asked Peter to reconsider his theology to receive Cornelius’ invitation and to welcome Gentile believers into the fledging Church, after all! No small request.

What are the barriers in me to be more welcoming or to receiving the invitation of others? What are the barriers I put up to seeing the full humanity of the other? Do I assume that I will always be the giver of hospitality and never the recipient? What does this say about who I believe that I am, and who I believe “the stranger” is?

We never know who might show up needing protection; as Hebrews 13:2 and the Christmas story teach us, we may end up entertaining angels!

  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is a Host Connector with Open Homes Hamilton, a Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality in Hamilton, Ontario.

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