Practicing hospitality

A year and a half ago, my husband was called to be the pastor of a small church in a small town in Southern Oklahoma.  Leaving behind the urban ministry setting of my senior pastorate in Massachusetts, I went from being a pastor to a pastor’s wife, and transferring from full-time ministry into volunteer chaplaincy.

I am a fifth-generation ordained American Baptist minister—my husband is a Disciples minister—but one thing I hadn’t thought about until recently was that I’m also a fifth-generation pastor’s wife.   Because I was serving full-time when we were married it didn’t occur to me that someday I wouldn’t be a pastor, and that I’d take on the role many women in my family have had for generations.  I’ve heard the horror stories from my aunts and grandmothers of having to be skilled at the piano or being expected to always serve the punch at receptions.  When we were married, I inherited my grandmother’s twelve-piece china set with tea service for sixteen.

The stories I remember the most, however, are the stories the women in my family tell of receiving that call in the afternoon that there would be dinner guests.  Unlike when I was a senior pastor in an urban church, where someone who came seeking help would receive a gift card to the local grocery store or a gas card, offered prayers for safe travels and then hopefully they went on their merry way, in my grandparents day, folks who were stranded in their town received an invitation for dinner and often a place to stay for the night.  The family stories of traveling musicians, coal miners, runaway youth, young pregnant women, and others who were taken in and given a place to sleep and shower and food to eat, but more importantly, were invited into someone’s home are the stories that have been passed down over the generations.

Here is my story of receiving that phone call as a pastor’s wife.  The following was originally posted at http://rev-o-lution.org on January 11, 2011.

Hospitality

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” –Matthew 25:35

Last night, I got the call that I’m sure many pastor’s wives have received over the years: “Hi love, is it all right if we have a couple of guests for dinner?”

A young female couple, stranded in our town without money and rejected by family were our dinner guests.  They were smokers; one had a shady past, both were estranged from family.  They didn’t say much at dinner, just ate until they were full.  They enjoyed the company of my son who woke up from his nap five minutes before they came through the door, and woke up on the wrong side of the crib, cranky and crying.  They didn’t seem to mind, and instead even tried to get him to smile, which he did by the end of the meal (and unlike most pastor’s wives, I didn’t end up cooking–my husband did due to the tired cranky boy on my lap).

While he cooked, my husband made a bag of sandwiches and snacks for them.  We had just been grocery shopping and to Sam’s Club so we had plenty to share.  Luckily, my husband in his wisdom asked before handing them the bag, “You’re not allergic to peanuts, are you?”  ”Deathly allergic,” one of the women responded.  So quickly the bag came back as my husband pulled out the PB&J;’s and the PowerBars with peanuts and instead made cheese sandwiches and added fruit and cereal to their snacks (and AJ and I ended up taking PBJ’s to school today).

I don’t remember if they said thank-you for dinner, but they ate it all.  My husband took them to a hotel where he was able to get them a room for the night.  We don’t know if they made it further on their journey today, but hopefully, in that short time they were at our home, I hope they felt welcome.

Hospitality isn’t just about opening your doors and offering food.  Hospitality is about welcome, making people feel at home, making people feel that it is all right for them to be there and be themselves.  This couple was not welcome, for whatever reason, with their families.  They happened to come to our town seeking help from a family member who turned them away.

We don’t know the whole story, and there’s always more than one side.  There are people who free-load and families who enable others.  There are people who are addicts and abusive and sometimes to protect one’s self you have to turn away.  But what we know is this–they came to us as strangers, and I hope we made them welcome.

The church in general has far to go at times in making strangers feel welcome.  Sometimes one walks through the door and they may be greeted, but not made welcome.  Sometimes there are unspoken rules about dress and silent guidelines about welcoming certain families and not others.  I have found in the mainline church we’re all too quick to greet any young couple with children–the old nuclear family model–and will quickly do what we can to try to make them feel welcome and to learn about our children’s programs, and even make changes when necessary to try to keep them there if they find something not to their liking.  But what about the couples without children, the elderly, the gay and lesbian couples, the together-but-not-married couples, the single people, the transgender person, the teenagers without parents, the people with shady pasts, the disabled and mentally ill?  What about all those other strangers?  What do we do to make them welcome, or do we (subconsciously) not want them to feel welcome so they can go someplace else?

Every church is different, and for some, there are boundaries they just cannot have crossed.  Some churches will not welcome gay and lesbian couples.  Some will not welcome the homeless or the addicts.  Some will not welcome children (yes, there are some who do not want children in the worship service!).  When we read the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, how can we even have that attitude and call ourselves followers of Jesus?

However, I think there is even room for those who feel unable to welcome.  I remember in college talking to local pastors before I graduated and began my seminary education.  One pastor told me that she just could not welcome homosexual couples into membership.  ”However,” she added, “I always tell them I know of a place where they can go, a place where they can feel welcome.”  She was referring to the Baptist church down the street, the church I attended.  She told me, “I am not in a place where I can compromise my views on this.  But I know that your church has a ministry to gays and lesbians.”

I pray for more pastors who struggle with issues of welcoming to be like her, knowing where to turn.  I’m sure not every person can welcome homeless people to their dinner table, either, even though I fully believe that is what Christ wants us to do.  But I pray that those who struggle with issues of welcoming might learn where they can direct others without condemnation.  We all are human.  We all have our own boundaries and walls that we put up.  The two women who came to us last night had a hotel room but if they hadn’t, we probably would have let them stay with us. [They came back that very night after I wrote this and stayed in our guest room for one more evening.] However, if it had been a single man, I probably would have put up my own boundary based on fear learned in the world.  It’s my own wall, it’s my own boundary that I struggle with.  And it’s much more likely that I would be turning away Jesus should he come knocking.

Welcoming in that couple last night made me reflect on all the ways we welcome and the fact that all of us still have our walls of sin, our places where we put our foot down and say, “no more.”  But rather than condemning the other, maybe we can switch our attitude to be like that of the minister I once knew, who said, “I know where they will find welcome, and I will take them there.”

*****

Since the time I originally posted this, we have welcomed in others to our home, including a single man in an unsafe living situation who needed help getting back home, so I have grown a little beyond my initial fears.  This isn’t a ministry for everybody.  There are real concerns about personal safety, and in different areas there are more resources to help folks (I addressed this in a blog entry titled “Hospitality part 3.”)  In the meantime, we do our part to welcome whoever finds themselves alone and lost, stranded and afraid, and try to do the little we can in our small town to make someone feel welcome the way that maybe those first-century folks did when a disciple, or even Jesus, came knocking on their door.