In chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans, Paul includes a series of practical exhortations (vv. 9–21). The translators of the New Revised Standard Version added the subhead, “Marks of the True Christian” to this passage; the New International Version titled it, “Love in Action.” The first phrase urges believers to “let love be genuine,” and then just a few verses later Paul says one example of practical love—a mark of the true disciple of Christ—is extending “hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12:13). Similarly, the author of Hebrews emphasizes the importance of hospitality, warning us not to neglect offering “hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).
One of the failures of the church has been the reluctance to offer genuine love by extending hospitality to strangers. The church is often perceived as a hostile place where not everyone feels welcome, especially those who are tagged as the “marginalized,” the “undeserving,” the “wrong people,” or “the stranger.” The New Testament is filled with examples of Jesus and then the early church reaching out to society’s so-called misfits. In the 21st century, the renewal of the church will come as a result of identifying the stranger and extending true hospitality to strangers—the kind of hospitality that empowers and transforms lives.
In order for the church to experience renewal through true hospitality, we must first understand what hospitality is and grasp its implications for the individual and communal life of those who make up the church. Hospitality is not a modern concept; in fact, hospitality was a fundamental practice in the ancient world and a vital characteristic of God’s people, the Israelites. As Christine D. Pohl states in her book Making Room, etymologically, the Greek word for hospitality has its roots in two Greek words, phileo and xenos, which include notions of “love” and “the stranger” respectively. The word connotes the sense of extending love not only to those of the faith but also to strangers. Scripture is filled with depictions of God’s hospitable nature and the desire for God’s people to offer hospitality as a testimony of God’s genuine love for humanity.
Jesus’ Example of Hospitality
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of true hospitality—and genuine love. He welcomes everyone, especially those often disregarded by society: women, children, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, lepers, tax collectors, etc. Even more significantly, Jesus is not only the graceful and generous host, but also someone who empties himself and becomes a slave out of love for humanity (Philippians 2:7). Put differently, Jesus becomes a vulnerable guest in need of hospitality—in need of genuine love. Sadly, Jesus often received hostility instead of hospitality. Even at his birth he was a stranger in need of hospitality, but he was not welcomed—there was no place for him in the inn (Luke 2:7).
The challenge for the church today is to recognize the stranger in the midst. Who is the stranger? The immigrant? The undocumented immigrant? The rich? The poor? The uneducated? The highly educated? The atheist? The non-Christian? The homosexual? The fundamentalist? The list could go on. In short, the stranger is the outsider in need of genuine love. Going further, the stranger is the one who often does not look, think, talk, behave, understand God, and live life our way. One indication of how the church has failed to recognize the stranger in its midst, especially here in the United States, is how very few churches reflect the diversity of their communities. Consequently, most churches do not reflect God’s diverse creation. The only way to overcome this sad reality is by embracing the practice of hospitality.
Even more, the church needs to seriously consider how to follow Jesus’ model of hospitality, in which one not only extends hospitality but also becomes a recipient of hospitality. We need to demonstrate genuine love for those around us, especially those in need or crisis. True hospitality grows not only from extending hospitality but also by receiving hospitality and loving others just like Jesus loves us.
If hospitality is about offering genuine love to the stranger, especially those who are vulnerable and experiencing a crisis, then we must also be willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge our own crisis before others. We in the church have to admit that we are also in crisis and in need of love. True hospitality requires mutual vulnerability, mutual accountability, and mutual love. Jesus made himself vulnerable by emptying himself. Jesus opened his life to the disciples for them to share in his suffering and his glory. He made himself accountable to the Father. Jesus was willing to give love and to receive it.
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.