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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Models of Radical Hospitality

   In the West, Hospitality has become an industry rather than a a trait of home owners.  Even though North American homes have many rooms, they are rarely made available to someone from outside. The recent trend of airbnb, by which people can share space in their homes for a fee, may be more of a manifestation of disruptive capitalism than hospitality.
   To find models of radical hospitality, opening your home to someone lacking shelter in a way that does not seek kickbacks, we must go back.  In the contexts that I share, radical hospitality was not offered by scattered individuals, but it was a community ethic, a way of life.

Abraham and three guests

   This story is told in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis chapter 18.  Three guests come to Abraham, a nomad living apart from any settlement.  The location given refers to the landmark of "great trees of Mamre."  If you read this narrative carefully, you will notice that the word "hurried" is used to describe Abraham's activity in greeting them, selecting a choice calf for dinner and instructing others to prepare meat and bread for the guests.  Whatever this elderly man had on his agenda that day was displaced by the visitors who came to him.  Caring for them with the best of what he had to offer preceded small talk; Abraham stood nearby while they ate and waited politely for them to finish before finding out the purpose of their visit.
   The welcome and hospitality he showed to these visitors was typical of the Ancient Near East. Travelers relied on residents to assist them with basics of food, water and shelter for survival;  it was understood that everyone will sometimes be in a position to receive as well as to give.  This was reciprocity extended to a wide community, paid forward because it was the right thing to do.

John Calvin's Geneva 

   At a hymn festival I attended this week in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, various historical anecdotes were shared between songs.  One item mentioned that I found striking was that John Calvin fostered radical hospitality in the city of Geneva, Switzerland. For those unaware of details of Calvin's life, he was forced to flee his native France and found refuge in Geneva.  It was his adopted home, but as he found himself a religious and civic leader there, he encouraged the care and reception of refugees from all over Europe.  When single and also when married he allowed people to board in his home.  When members of his congregation were expanding their homes (often by adding another story on top of the house), it is said that Calvin encouraged them to include a bit more room for refugees to be housed.  Geneva in the 1500's was truly a haven to those displaced by religious persecution because its citizens en masse practiced radical hospitality.

Netherlands and Denmark during World War II

   Radical hospitality was apparently in the DNA of many Christian people in the Netherlands and Denmark shielded Jewish people in their homes to protect them from enemies in the Third Reich. The acts of Corrie Ten Boom and her family, popularized by the book and film The Hiding Place, were not exceptional in their minds.  Great networks existed of those willing to risk their lives to provide hospitality to the oppressed.  In Denmark, likewise, a resistance movement enabled hundreds of Jewish people to be hidden and then successfully smuggled in fishing boats to neutral Sweden until the war ended.  The crisis of the time required courageous hospitality, and many in these nations rose to this challenge.


   There are some people who still practice radical hospitality in our day.  My parents come immediately to mind.  Even though they have now downsized to a bungalow, they still have two rooms for guests.  Since their home is just steps away from a large high school, they were approached by parents of a young man wondering if their shy 9th grader could eat lunch at their home once a week for the year.  Those weekly visits filled a need for the boy and eased his transition to secondary school.
   A man in my city who has been an advocate for the poor and giving them tools to better their lives was recently featured in the newspaper for suggesting "tiny houses" might be a solution to homelessness.  One of the outreaches he oversees is a lunch cafe in which at risk individuals are trained to prepare and serve food, where the tasty vegetarian fare is affordable even to street people and where there is ample space for people to socialize, read or play a piano.  This is a way to offer radical hospitality.
   During the refugee crisis (which continues even when the news media have moved on to other stories), Pope Francis urged every Catholic parish in Europe to host a family of four as a realistic solution.  If they did this, the needs of refugees would be well provided for.  That his suggestion (and his own example of receiving displaced persons at the Vatican) was considered remarkable, shows that believers have room to grow in this area.
   May these examples inspire you to do what you can to show that you care more for others than for your own comforts. After all, that's what the Gospel's radical message entails.

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