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Hospitality, the Stranger, and Renewal of the Church

In order to experience renewal, the church must learn from Jesus how to give and accept hospitality from the stranger

Hospitality and Renewal
When the church is able to welcome the stranger in its midst with love and is able to extend true hospitality, the church experiences renewal. The mechanism is simple: the church is renewed because the lives of the people who are recipients of true hospitality are renewed. I can testify to this truth. I came to the United States 10 years ago. I came as an immigrant, but more significantly, I came as a stranger. I had recently left behind my people, my land, my culture, and my language—everything that was familiar. I came to a land that was unknown to me. I came to be a part of a people who did not look like me. I came to be immersed in a culture and language that was not my own. Not only was I a stranger, but I was also surrounded by strangers.

What made the difference in my life during this time was the church. Both the Hispanic/Latino and the Anglo congregations I interacted with embraced and welcomed me. Both congregations went beyond the superficial kind of hospitality that has to do only with making you feel welcome for one hour on Sunday morning during worship. Rather, they reached out to me and wanted to share life with me every day of the week. They helped me get a job. They helped me find English classes. They gave me rides. They told me how to get a driver’s license. Although I could neither speak nor understand English at the time, the common language I had with my English-speaking brothers and sisters was our desire to grow in Christian maturity.

The greatest gift of all was that as I experienced genuine love and hospitality from my brothers and sisters, my call to ministry was revealed. It was the church who affirmed this call and guided me throughout the whole process. As a recipient of hospitality, I experienced renewal and empowerment; I was no longer a stranger, but a member of the body of Christ.

Being Guest and Host
I have also witnessed the power that comes when the church offers true hospitality to strangers during pilgrimages I have led to the border between Mexico and the United States. One of the goals of these pilgrimages is to expand the participants’ imagination about how ministry with immigrants and with Hispanic/Latino people can look. Both pastors and students who participate in these pilgrimages have the opportunity to encounter face-to-face those affected by the immigration issue on both sides of the border. During these pilgrimages, participants also have the opportunity to learn about Jesus’ model of true hospitality by both opening themselves to receiving hospitality and also offering hospitality.

The challenge for participants is to reframe the “mission trip” mentality—thinking you need to build something or do something concrete: build a church, offer a health fair, solve a problem. The “concrete” in these pilgrimages is to practice hospitality. The way hospitality is offered by the people we encounter is not at all conventional. What is beautiful and difficult in these pilgrimages is that very often we find ourselves welcomed into the private spaces of immigrants, spaces that are often full of pain and suffering. That is the reason why the harder task for participants is usually receiving this kind of hospitality. The temptation as recipients is to think about ways to fix these spaces. It can be challenging to simply be good guests.

As one learns to be a good guest, one is ready to offer true hospitality. Participants in these border pilgrimages initially extend hospitality by serving a meal to immigrants. But pastors and students both soon discover that the best way to be a good host is by offering hope through listening attentively to guests and praying for them—letting them know that, as pastors and future leaders of the church, they care about immigrants and the suffering in their lives. The truth is that most of the organizations that effectively offer assistance to immigrants are faith-based. And it is precisely the gestures of hospitality offered by these faith-based organizations and churches that make the difference in the lives of these hundreds of strangers who arrive daily to the border.

In our pilgrimages, we have encountered many good hosts. For instance, Gilberto, who runs a faith-based shelter, described his mandate for hospitality in this way: “I do not care where they are coming from, if they are immigrants. They are my neighbors, and they are welcome here.” Or our guide through the desert who said: “I do not care if the immigrants who cross have documents or not. What I care about is my call to preserve life.” What is remarkable about these two good hosts is that they risk much for the sake of extending true hospitality to complete strangers.

If the church wants to experience renewal, we must rethink and re-embrace the practice of hospitality—true hospitality. Renewal of the church will come by taking risks for the sake of truly welcoming the stranger. Renewal of the church will come by opening ourselves to welcoming hospitality even when that includes sharing in pain and suffering. Renewal of the church will come by learning how to be good hosts through becoming instruments of hope. Ultimately, the renewal of the church will take place when the stranger is seen by the church not only as a mission field, but as a source of renewal.