Sometimes it takes your glasses getting dirty to remember that they’re even there.
I learned that I hold a pretty stunted view of hospitality from a woman named Marie Issaka in Bamako, Mali. When I was a very young, very naïve World Renew intern in Bamako in 2011, Marie and her husband Harouna insisted on being my homestay family. I would later find that they had just weathered their toddler’s cancer, and that Marie was in the midst of an unexpected, difficult pregnancy. Despite all that, they took me in.
For the nine months that I lived with them, they were my guides to West African cultures. They answered my questions, many of which must have seemed foolish. They introduced me to countless new experiences. They shielded me and prayed with me.
Marie’s hospitality is so open-armed that when I started calling her Maman, initially as a joke, she took on that identity without hesitation. Marie takes it for granted that she is bound up in networks of interdependency. And yet her hospitality has boundaries – there were parts of her house I never saw, conversations I wasn’t part of. This was a wise hospitality.
All this sounds a lot like a classic line often heard from people returning from mission trips: “The people were so welcoming!” Which prompted a friend to ask a provocative question recently: What if it’s not that people in the Majority World are uniquely hospitable and welcoming, but that Christians in the West tend to be uniquely un-welcoming? What if being influenced by our culture of individualism, security and privacy has put up barriers (some might say idols) that keep us from living into this generous hospitality that my family in West Africa practices?
There’s mud on my glasses! If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the normalcy of robust welcoming-strangers-into-your-home hospitality is all over the Scriptures.
Right after warning his readers that the end of all things is near, Peter calls them to love each other, offer hospitality and use their gifts to serve the Body (1 Pet. 4:7-10). Likewise, in Hebrews, hospitality is considered important enough to list alongside “keep the marriage bed pure” and “remember those in prison as if you were together with them.”
Practicing hospitality also rates a mention in Paul’s climactic chapter in Romans, where he urges believers to offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12). And it comes right after Paul’s urging that the fledging community share with God’s people who are in need. Could it be that this hospitality was part of that providing?
Hospitality was not a side pursuit – it was a key characteristic of Christian community. And many early Christians, including Paul himself, not only offered hospitality – they also depended on it themselves. Just check out the greetings at the end of Paul’s letters to find people on whom he depended.
In their new book on Romans, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat point towards “an economics of radical trust in God’s provision . . . an economics of generosity and welcome.” They argue that as Paul works to nurture an alternative community centered around Jesus Christ in Rome, he is urging the Roman church to practice an alternative economics, an economics not of scarcity but of generosity and hospitality (Romans Disarmed, forthcoming from Brazos Press).
I see this alternative economics worked out by my Maman in Bamako, Mali. This is not pie in the sky stuff! Christians in the West need reminding by people in the Majority World that this hospitality is our heritage. And it could even be our future.