Radical Hospitality

Radical hospitality. Radical means “out of the ordinary,” “revolutionary,” even. So what would it mean to receive someone—a stranger—with a presence that was not just polite, but to receive them with revolutionary generosity?

Activist Rosemarie Harding remembers her growing-up days, in the South—she especially remembers the hospitality of her mother, Ella Lee, and her great-grandmother Moriah, or “Mama Rye.” Mama Rye was born in Africa, was a slave in Virginia, and died in 1930 at the age of 107. Both these women cultivated a deep hospitality, Harding says, as well as a profound mystic spirituality. In the years that Harding was growing up, her house was a regular stop for neighbors and relatives and friends.

Her mother and father made the house welcoming—sometimes too welcoming, it seemed, for all kinds of people came through, not just neighbors and friends, but peddlers, professional gamblers, petty thieves, prostitutes, and people we would probably call homeless today. Her mother would set out beautiful china dishes and slices of her homemade pound cake for all of them—especially for the ones just passing through. It was as if she knew that they needed special attention, and besides, she genuinely enjoyed hearing their stories and learning from them. She knew that wisdom came from many sources.

An itinerant bookseller would come now and then for a visit. He would sit down with Mom there in the dining room and talk for hours about the events of the day and about books. The man was not always very clean, and sometimes, Harding says, “we children could smell the mustiness of his ragged clothes and the sweat of his body. His speech was strange, too, and we children were tempted to laugh, she says, but if we so much as let out a snicker, Mom would cut her eyes at us and set us straight.”

Harding goes on to say, “The efforts my parents made to be neighborly and to reserve judgment against those who society viewed as outcasts served as important examples for their children and grandchildren as we grew into adulthood. Hospitality was the foundation of my family’s spirituality.”

Hospitality is a word with a spiritual history, as a matter of fact. Monasteries grew up around the 5th century. Strangers in need could come there for care. The first primitive hospitals, in fact, began there. Hospital, hospice, hospitable, hospitality—all from the same root word, meaning generous, caring, sustaining. The most famous of these monasteries was that of St. Benedict. Benedict created a book of rules to live by, called The Rule of Benedict, which is used still today by many monasteries. The foundation of the rule is listening. “Listen with the ear of your heart,” Benedict writes.

And yet the kind of warm-hearted generosity described by Rosemarie Harding is more difficult in our day and age, more difficult in the city than in the small town. More of us live in places distant from our relatives, places where neighbors come and go, and there is not that continuity of place that gives us the confidence to allow the stranger in.

When I grew up in that little Louisiana town of 5,000, we never locked our door. After all, not a single neighbor ever moved, the whole time I lived there—not only did I know all of our neighbors, I knew all their dogs, and I was in and out of the homes of most of these folks, some more than others. It’s different now. I’m a single woman in the city. I’m vulnerable. My door stays locked. I don’t want to move back to that little town, move away from the stimulation and progressive values of the city—but I have to ask, what have I lost?

Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist best known for his book Bowling Alone, in which he writes of the growing isolation of Americans, Robert Putnam has done some new research—and his conclusions have been surprising [1]. He wanted to find out what happens when diverse groups of people live in the same area, as opposed to a homogeneous group of people living in an area. He found that when people are near people unlike themselves, they tend to “hunker down.” Not only do they not interact as much with people who are different from themselves, but they don’t interact with their own group as much: they watch more TV, they have fewer friends, they are less likely to work on community projects. The level of trust and interaction is greatest when people are with others who are most like themselves. When these results came back, Putnam distrusted what he saw, and so did his colleagues. So he spent years more checking out his data (30,000 people were interviewed)—and yes, he found he was right. Putnam, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive and very pro-diversity, nevertheless concludes, “In the face of diversity, most of us retreat.”

Another study shows that churches that try to bridge social divisions have a tough job. Paul Lichterman, in his book Elusive Togetherness, says that churches that attempt to bridge strong social differences mean well, but are most often not successful. He says when churches in his study tried to do outreach [2], differences in social customs and in styles of relating made it nearly impossible for faith-based efforts to close the gaps. He said that the single group in his study that did succeed constantly evaluated and reevaluated what they were doing and why they were doing it, in order to understand their own cultural underpinnings and those of others. In other words, they paid close attention to how they were talking, interacting, and engaging on a daily level. They learned to approach others as partners rather than as people they were helping. Success, in other words, lies not so much in ideology or in organizational structure, but in the detailed content of our conversations [3].

So what does this mean for us as a church? We are committed to being a welcoming community. We say we believe in the “inherent worth and dignity of all.” And yet we are human beings, and we have the same challenges that all human beings have. We feel more comfortable when we’re with people we know. We come to church, we gravitate to people we know. We feel less comfortable when we are with people who have different ideas and interests, different cultural assumptions. Tribalism is strong, and we need look no further than our church.

Let’s talk about some people who might actually visit our church, and imagine to what extent they might feel welcomed. (And the examples I’m giving are not unlike people who actually have visited our church.)

  • a young woman, with an infant in her arms. When the baby starts to whimper during the service, she begins breastfeeding—
  • a Native American with long dark hair comes in
  • a man from a Pentacostal background waves his hands in the air during the singing of “Spirit of Life”
  • a beautifully bedecked woman in a flowered print dress, with matching high heels and purse—she is 6’4” tall, and clearly transgender
  • a person who speaks out of turn and can’t follow the hymns—he seems to be mentally ill
  • a well-dressed couple—the man has an American flag in the lapel of his suit—and they have their Bibles with them
  • a homeless man who hasn’t bathed in a week
  • a woman with a guide dog
  • a service man back from Iraq, in uniform, visiting with his aunt and uncle
  • a 21-year-old who just graduated from a college back East and moved here to find his first job—he knows no one in town—he is African American

Let me ask you—have you ever been in a situation in which you felt utterly alone? In a new town or city, where you knew no one? I’ve experienced this more than once, and it doesn’t feel good. One time was during the late 1960’s when I taught summer school in one of LBJ’s programs for disadvantaged children in New Orleans. It turns out that I was the only white person in the school, students or teachers. I remember that nobody wanted to park their car next to mine in the staff parking lot. I learned a lot about how it feels to be different that summer. And alone.

There are those who come to this city every year, and many who come to this church, who are coming to start a new life—they move here because of some kind of major transition, a new job, the loss of a spouse, or simply the desire to start over in a great city.

But even in gorgeous, livable Portland, starting over isn’t easy. We miss the friends we left behind, our old familiar restaurants, our hairdresser. It takes a long time to rebuild a community of comfort and belonging. But there is the church—a church—our church, we hope, might be a place where a wayfaring stranger can find respite, acceptance, a new beginning. People don’t dress up and come downtown to church on Sunday morning on a whim—people are here because they need to be here.

I hope we would be called a friendly church, a hospitable church, and I think that we are. But do we practice radical hospitality—and if we did, what would that look like? Churches typically offer personal support to their members, but often stop there. A congregation committed to radical hospitality would go beyond seeking out others like themselves, for mutual support—such a congregation would recognize the humanity of anyone who walks into that church. And such a congregation would concern themselves with people who feel beyond the reach of organized religion. The public theology of such a church would not be limited to charity—which after all, puts the receiver one-down—but would also be committed to justice. Surely this is part of our mission at this church, and our new Buchan Building will allow us to be more open and receptive than ever before, to many different people and different groups who will come here and share this building with us.

Right now in this country and here in Portland a strong church sanctuary movement is growing, in response to new pressures on illegal immigrants. I haven’t been around this summer while this movement was building, but I want to challenge the church to evaluate in what way we might want to be a part of this movement, which is surely a huge issue of hospitality for this whole country at the moment. We call them “guest workers,” don’t we?

So “radical hospitality” is a term that rolls easily off the tongue—to actually carry it out is a demanding undertaking. But we are not a department store, not a government agency, not an HMO—in all these places, one would expect to be received politely, as it were—served, as is our due. No, we are a church, and it is appropriate that we ask ourselves, what is the moral dimension of our hospitality, the moral dimension of our reception of others, of our solidarity with others, who may not look like us or move from the same assumptions or values? I’m not talking about being politically correct, or legalistic—I’m talking about hospitality as spiritual practice. I’m not talking about just opening the doors—I’m talking about opening the heart.

Yes, bringing diverse people together is difficult—I think we have established that. This is not because people are bad, it’s because human beings have a built-in tribalism that needs to be challenged consciously, intentionally. What, then, opens the heart and brings people who are different, together? It is not ideology or theology, nor is it form that brings people together. It’s content and it’s conversation—it’s the universals that all people care about—their children, this good earth, an end to mindless violence, a yearning for peace.

Let me give you some examples. A couple of years ago a professor at Mulnomah Bible College invited me to speak at a conference. Many of you know how I struggled with that speech, how I woke up in the night writing speech after angry speech, and how I finally came down to what we had in common—Jesus. My talk was entitled, “Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?” I said some things that may have been hard for them to hear—especially how hurtful their stance on homosexuality has been to my people—but as one who was raised a Southern Baptist, and who does love Jesus, I stood on their ground, as one of them. And then when our General Assembly came to Portland this past June, I invited that same professor, Dr. Paul Metzger, to speak about environmental issues at an outdoor rally. He came, and he was enthusiastically received. He is one of the evangelical leaders who is speaking out on climate change. He wants his children and grandchildren to have a viable life on this earth and so do I. And as a Christian, he cares about what the failure of the eco-system will do to the poorest of the poor. And so do I, care. There is a lot that draws us together.

And then Mark Slegers, our Minister of Music, and some of our choir members participated yesterday in PROPER (People Reaching Oppressed People Expecting Restoration), a festival for diverse groups involved in social justice activities. One of the organizers was Pastor Elbert Mondaine, who was here with his Gospel choir on July 15 and will be back on Sept. 22—mark your calendar! Mondaine has led his gospel musicians into some pretty amazing places recently. He took them to Pennsylvania, to the Amish town where the girls were killed, and his musicians sang for these people in their grief. And most recently, he took a group to Utah, to the site where 6 miners lie buried thousands of feet under the ground, and where 3 others died trying to rescue them. How different are his African American gospel singers from the Amish farmers and from these white miners from the strongly conservative state of Utah. And yet grief is the common cause of all of us—we all love, and we all lose, and music can be that bridge connecting the one to the other.

I speak of radical hospitality today because there is a world out there that needs home, that needs community, and I want us to stretch spiritually, to stretch ourselves open. I know that when we take the risk—yes, of course, we’ll blunder, we’ll make mistakes—believe me, I have blundered more than once—but when we take the risk, our lives will grow so much richer and deeper because we have extended ourselves. Our creativity will blossom, for we will not be stuck with our old assumptions, our narrow ways of perceiving reality. Our world will grow wider and softer and more trusting.

In closing, let me share a note that I received just this last week. This note was from a grandmother who had mentioned to me in passing a concern about her granddaughter—the little girl was to start her first day of school this last Friday, and she was the only white child in her class. How would her granddaughter respond? Would she feel “other”? Would she feel left out? Then I got this note on Saturday, which I will read in part: “I wanted you to know that my granddaughter loved her first day at school. Being the only white child never affected her—she made a new friend, loved the free chocolate milk, and gave up her home-made lunch to join the others for a free lunch. I’ve concluded that it is often our fears as adults that can muddy the waters for these young people, who already know how to love.” Now we have to pause and ask some questions here. Would it be the same if her grandchild were the only child of color in the class? And will it be the same when her granddaughter begins to see class differences and begins to understand all that “free lunch” implies? These are open questions.

Nevertheless, the essential rightness of this final statement of the note remains: “It’s adults who muddy the water—young people already know how to love.” I have seen attitudes shift hugely in my lifetime. And that shift comes from the young people. It comes from our children. We who are perhaps less malleable need to notice, and to learn. So be it. Amen.


  1. Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century. Scandinavian Political Studies, Summer, 2007. In the summer and fall of 2000, Putnam and his team interviewed 30,000 individuals in very different communities, both large and small, all over the United States. He was surprised by his initial conclusions, and tried controlling the data for a host of other factors, but came to the same conclusions. Putnam is very much “pro-diversity” and does not see his work as a negative—he says, “The sooner we recognize it, the sooner we can deal with it.”
  2. Outreach in this context means volunteer work with disadvantaged groups.
  3. Paul Lichterman, Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America’s Social Divisions. Princeton University Press, 2005. Lichterman’s study was done through fieldwork with eight volunteer groups or projects affiliated with a mainline Protestant church, one program affiliated with an evangelical Protestant church, and fieldwork with several related county organizations and groups. The single group that was successful took on projects that broke them out of several norms of “volunteering” or “helping” and put them in a position of partnership.” Nonetheless, the relationships and ties that developed remained “fraught and tenuous.” (p. 174) Lichterman concludes that it is very difficult to cultivate the kinds of social customs and setting which would be conducive for people to move beyond their limits without threatening the group’s own togetherness. (p. 18)