Hospitality as Spiritual Practice
August 19, 2012
When I realized that this Sunday would closely follow the Nashville leg of the UndocuBus tour that I first heard about at General Assembly in June, I decided that thinking about hospitality might be a good way to round out our series of summer sermons on the topic of spiritual practices. As you are probably aware, a group of immigrants, some undocumented, have been travelling from Phoenix, AZ, to the Democratic National Convention this summer, and they stopped this past week in Nashville. The UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign has coordinated hospitality at many UU churches along their route, as they stop in various cities to speak out about the effects of immigration policy and to learn about other civil rights movements. Many folks in this congregation helped support their courageous work, including a contingent that cooked breakfast “like pioneer women” during Friday’s power outage. Although we are still gathering and processing our stories of the visit, it is clear to me that both we and our guests have been changed by this visit, by our willingness as a congregation to say “yes” to the request for the meeting of very basic human needs for shelter and food.
We had a chance to live out the words we frequently enjoy hearing used to open our worship services, to say with our deeds “Come in, come in to this place.” I know that some of us had reservations about these strangers, these “undocumented immigrants” and their plans for public actions of witness, but we decided to meet the bus riders as human beings, deserving of our care and respect. We discovered a variety of unexpected personal connections, ways in which our lives are similar, despite the differences in legal status that can be made to seem so huge. On Friday morning, I overheard a conversation in which one of the UndocuBus riders told a member of our congregation that the UUs he is meeting on his trip are changing the way he thinks about other people. It is not our critical thinking skills or our political support that have been transformative here, but simply our acts of service, our recognition of basic human needs and our willingness to step outside our ordinary routines to meet those needs. Sometimes, the spirit of life moves in the hands that prepare the eggs and bake the coffee cake and wash the towels. Or in the eyes and hearts that pause to recognize kinship when confronted with something “strange.”
Nonetheless, I’m not going to advocate for the abandonment of critical thinking. Those who know me well will tell you that I tend to enjoy a good argument, and I’m delighted that my children are now old enough to be having conversations like the one we had over lunch yesterday. My daughter mentioned that her third-grade class had been talking about immigrants and about the importance of treating everyone with kindness. When asked how one does that, she suggested that we should “Focus on what’s the same instead of what’s different.” My eighth-grade son countered vigorously: “I think that’s a really bad rule, because it’s our differences that are interesting and make us who we are.” The father of these very bright children observed that folk wisdom is ambivalent on the subject of difference: “Birds of a feather flock together,” but “Familiarity breeds contempt.” My daughter rounded out the conversation with a story of two hatchlings, a swan and a peacock, sole inheritors of the aftermath of a feathery, bilateral genocide who managed nonetheless, to live happily ever after, and we all agreed that everyone was right, for different reasons.
Ambivalence about difference and especially about people perceived as outsiders is not new. Reflecting on the biblical tradition, for example, it’s easy to see both that human migration is not a new phenomenon and that religious authorities have had trouble formulating a consistent response to its pressures. In the literature of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites are repeatedly admonished to treat “resident aliens” kindly, remembering that they, too, were once aliens in the land of Egypt. But these same texts also record repeated instructions to forcibly expel or even kill outsiders, even though these “outsiders” were folks who had lived for who knows how long on the land being settled by the Israelites. (Hmm, sound familiar?) Despite the frequent use of religion as a justification for oppression, mayhem, and just downright ugliness throughout history, most religious traditions contain powerful teachings about the unity of the human race and the virtue of hospitality to stranger as well as friend.
I think we human beings tend to have difficulty with difference, and clearly, assumptions that difference is a problem can make hospitality problematic in turn, but I suspect that something more basic prevents us from approaching what life brings us with the open-armed, open-hearted attitude of “come in,” “come to me,” “come, whoever you are.” As my family recognized yesterday, either sameness or difference can be a basis for appreciation and delight. I suspect the more basic issue for most of us is a choice between love and fear.
The choice between fear and love sounds pretty straightforward, and indeed, developmental experts tell us that one of the first developmental tasks of the human child is to learn to trust in the love of caregivers. Will I be fed or will I be left hungry? Will I be hurt? Will I be comforted when I am hurt or afraid? Am I welcome? Will I live because someone cares for me, or will I die of neglect? I am not sure that most of us ever entirely complete this task, even if we do achieve a basic level of security. Because we are born utterly dependent, both fear and love are hardwired into our very beings—both are powerful survival mechanisms, and both are powerful forces throughout our lives.
When I started, a few years ago, to think of love versus fear as a basic attitudinal choice, however, I was thinking primarily about situations like war and genocide and social injustice. How would it be, what might it look like, I wondered, to respond to an unknown person or a different culture or another country, from a stance of compassion and attention, instead of out of fear of how that difference might impact me or my culture or my privilege? Many of the world’s ills seem to be justified by reference to fear of some undesirable outcome. We must kill these people who worship differently so the purity of our worship is not compromised. We must guard against strangers because some strangers will steal from us. We cannot allow other languages to be spoken in public because, well, what if they somehow edge our language out of the marketplace and we are left without a voice? Wouldn’t we be sorry then?
Despite the fact that most of these fears are entirely hypothetical, this fearful approach ultimately leads to the necessity of guarding against even those we know, because some of them will steal from us, too. Intermittent reinforcement of these fears seems to far outweigh the equally possible realities that strangers may turn out to be friendly and worshipping communities can be cooperative and respectful of each other. Perhaps it’s a survival mechanism, but the negative possibilities seem far too often to outweigh the positive, in public policy and in popular culture. Laws are passed, sometimes without attention to the realities of lived experience, to appease popular outcries, and very popular TV series are built around the mandate to “Trust no one.” How might it be, I have been wondering, to approach whatever I see in the world around me with less fear, but with more, well, wondering? Why is this person here? Why do you do what you do? Why do I do what I do, for that matter? Why are things the way they are? Who are you, and what do you need? What do I need? What do I need to see here?
Now, I will admit that I have sometimes been accused of being naïve, or “Pollyanna-ish,” but I have begun to wonder: is it truly fear that sees the world more realistically, as much of our culture suggests? Love is seen as soft; we often say it is blind. Soft-heartedness is contrasted with tough-mindedness, as if logic and rationality point away from compassion, but I wonder. Could it be that fear creates some of our most dangerous blind spots? For example, we citizens of the United States have been convinced that we need to fear the “flood” of migration across our borders with Mexico. Furthermore, we have somehow gotten the idea that building a great big fence along the border is a good way to keep what we fear from coming to pass. To accomplish the building of this fence, our nation is spending vast sums of money and modifying our legal code in ways that might surprise you. Despite the fact that the fence does not appear to be very effective at stopping illegal immigration, we are building this hedge against our fears without seeing and considering its consequences. Especially those of us who live away from the border are allowed to be blind to the economic, ecological, and social consequences of this building project. The fence is very, very expensive, at a time when our nation’s economy is under stress. It disrupts animal and plant life, as well as altering the land in ways that endanger its human occupants and their livelihoods. Landowners on both sides of the border have been impacted, with some of them being literally cut off from land owned by their families for centuries, and communities and neighbors are being separated and intimidated by militaristic enforcement officials. Walking along the border, as I did a couple of years ago with a group of other divinity students, does not feel much like living in the land of the free, never mind the home of the brave.
Having seen firsthand the failure of fear-based policies to address the lived realities of borderland communities, I wonder how we might reform immigration policies with attention to the realities of human migration and the real-life, intimate consequences of our policies. Could we dare as a nation to stand on the side of love, to say “come, whoever you are” and let’s talk—what do you need? What do we need? How can we make something better for us all? OK—this is idealistic talk, yes, but I wonder what we can do to take little steps in the direction of responding to this situation with attention instead of fear.
This feels like an overwhelmingly big project, and I don’t have any really great ideas about immigration reform, so it’s a good thing this sermon isn’t about immigration. But it is about hospitality, and I’ve decided that hospitality is, in the end, a potential response to just about anything. If hospitality is, as I suspect, a choice to move toward whatever we encounter with compassion and a desire to know and be known in love, instead of being caught in the perception-warping response of fear, then this can turn into a truly all-purpose spiritual practice. So I wonder some more: How do I need to show hospitality to myself? Am I hospitable to those with whom I share my home? My office? What does hospitality look like at school, in the shopping mall? What about the vendors selling The Contributor [Nashville’s homeless street newspaper] on just about every corner: How can I show them hospitality? Or wait, how grateful am I for the hospitality they are providing, waving and smiling whether or not I buy a paper, making me feel less afraid to meet the eyes of a stranger on the street? How can an institution such as a college or university and the neighborhood in which it is situated engage in hospitality toward each other w? How do we welcome a variety of stakeholders to the table when we’re making important decisions on whatever level? What happens to immigration policy if we ask questions about why so many folks migrate across borders AND we take the time to listen carefully to the complex answers to those questions? If hospitality is a spiritual practice, the good news is that you get to pick the question that interests you, and go!
More good news: I see signs that the human capacity to respond with compassion is as real as our tendency to fear.
In this church community, I witness ways in which compassionate welcome of the stranger creates a more abundant life for all. As this congregation’s membership coordinator, I often have conversations with new folks here, who wonder about our lack of shared dogmatic statements of belief. Typically, when folks are wondering what holds us together as a community, we point to our seven principles, and that is a very good answer. However, after some years of observing how we are with each other, especially around the issue of “belief” (which is, after all, usually considered to be central to the idea of religion), I have started saying something slightly different to newcomers who are trying to get a handle on how we “do church” without shared statements of belief. I will say to them something like this: You know, I think most folks experience church as a place where people go to be around folks who believe the same way. In that context, when someone makes a statement of belief that differs from my own beliefs, my response will tend to be fearful—Oh no, one of us must be wrong. Here, we hold many different beliefs, and if you express an understanding of something that is different from what others believe, folks here are liable to respond with interest, curiosity, or even delight—Oh, tell me more about that! Why do you think that? How did you come to that idea? How is that for you? We are a questioning sort of people, more prone to be delighted by doctrinal difference than to be comforted by sameness. Here, you are welcome no matter what you’re wearing, doctrinally speaking.
Now, I do recognize that we have some way to go in being comfortable with and welcoming of other kinds of difference, but I tend to think relational skills are transferrable, and I hope that our work with programs like Building the World We Dream About will move us in the directions we need to go. (And, by the way, if you want a concrete opportunity to practice the spiritual discipline of hospitality, we still need more greeters!)
If hospitality is, as the dictionary says, “the reception and treatment of guests and strangers with warmth, friendliness and generosity,” then that hospitality depends upon our willingness to question our fears in order to see and acknowledge those “guests and strangers” as fellow human beings; as a UU committed to affirming the interconnected web of all existence, I might even be moved to consider hospitality as an appropriate response to the nonhuman parts of the web as well. Hospitality becomes not just the mechanics of welcoming—the open door, the food and drink, the kind word—but what liberation theologian Leonardo Boff recognizes as a crucial disposition of the soul, a willingness to meet Mystery in everything, and the primary virtue required of us if we want to create a world we can live in instead of the world we are on our way to destroying. Feeding, sheltering, welcoming—these are spiritual practices because they teach us to see, to be mindful, and to recognize each other and ourselves in our neediness and in our power to be generous. They are transformative because they invite us out of fear and into love.
May we all live in love.