True Christian hospitality is not a recruitment strategy designed to manipulate strangers into church membership. Rather, it is a central practice of the Christian faith--something Christians are called to do for the sake of that thing itself. Hospitality draws from the ancient taproots of Christian faith, from the soil of the Middle East, where it is considered a primary virtue of community. Although it is a practice shared by Jews and Muslims, for Christians hospitality holds special significance. Christians welcome strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love of Jesus Christ. Through hospitality, Christians imitate God's welcome. Therefore, hospitality is not a program, not a single hour or ministry in the life of a congregation. It stands at the heart of a Christian way of life, a living icon of wholeness in God.
-- Diana Butler Bass, Christianity For The Rest of Us
It has become increasingly clear to me how important I find congregational hospitality to be. It is important to me first and foremost because I know what it is like to be an outsider. It is also important to me because I believe that radical inclusion lies at the heart of Jesus's message and life. To me, hospitality at the congregational level and social justice at the broader scale are two manifestations of the same phenomenon--inclusive, universal love.

Years ago when I was an active Quaker, while traveling through Nebraska, I visited a Quaker meeting for Sunday worship. At the close of worship, I was almost universally ignored. Finally, just as I was almost out the door, one single person noticed me and said, "Welcome". I appreciated that at least one person there made a belated effort at hospitality, but it was really a case of too little, too late.

I later came to realize that this is pretty typical for Quaker meetings. Probably the only Quaker meeting where I really felt welcomed as a visitor was the first one I visited in the late 1980s, in Colorado. It was an amazing case of beginner's luck. When I moved to California in 1993, I started attending some Quaker meetings in the area. After worship one day at a Bay Area Quaker meeting I had a conversation with a member about transferring my membership from my previous meeting back east. He told me that applicants for membership were treated the same whether they were transferring or applying for the first time. Applying for membership in a Quaker meeting is not a trivial process; they set up a clearness committee, and you have to subject yourself to an interview process. I had already undergone that experience once, but this individual told me that I would have to go through the entire, rigorous process all over again, to prove I was Quaker enough for them. No, thank you. Not all Quaker meetings are quite that unwelcoming, mind you; I had already transferred my membership once before without having to go through that. But it set a certain tone for me. I felt like it was going to be hard to find a new congregational home.

Over the years since that time, I would occasionally attend various Bay Area Quaker meetings for worship, but never for very long at a stretch, because I just didn't find a home at any of them. As a result, my spiritual cravings were not being met and they lay dormant for a long, long time. I stopped feeling religious.

Somehow, something inside of me last year felt the need to reconnect with this spiritual side. I finally decided to take the plunge and step inside a mainline church. I was nervous, really nervous, about taking this step. I was afraid that I was a little too heretical to fit in, and I still had some scars from attending a fundamentalist church as a youth that made me afraid of anything too orthodox. I found a UCC church that interested me, a progressive church, but I was scared about what I might be getting myself into. I drove there one week before services, then chickened out and sat in my car, parked outside, watching people go inside. The following weekend, my girlfriend offered to come with me for moral support. And so we went. And one thing about that visit really stood out--people were welcoming. When the service was over, I was debating whether to go downstairs for coffee when one of the worshipers turned to us and extended us a personal invitation. How could I turn such an invitation down?

Hospitality comes in many forms. To me, any rules that set up barriers to full acceptance are contrary to the spirit of hospitality. That is one reason why I find the concept of closed communion so off-putting.

I recognize full well that superficial hospitality can sometimes be deceiving. Religious cults, for example, may be seductively hospitable to strangers. Sometimes that is what draws people into such cults. The point is that hospitality should not be, as Diana Butler Bass points out, a tactic. It should instead flow naturally from a religious faith grounded in acceptance, love, and universal inclusion. Hospitality alone may not be a sufficient requirement for an appealing and vibrant faith, but it in my view is a necessary one.

Some strains of Christianity evolved all sorts of elaborate explanations to justify exclusionary worship practices. The idea that an activity like communion is a sacrament that can only be available to the ritually initiated is justified on a carefully constructed theological edifice. But I think that Jesus has no use for such edifices:
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, "Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" (Mark 2:16)
Jesus lived a life of inclusion. That is what hospitality is about.


Cynthia said...

I was shocked to read of your experience at Quaker meetings. Are not Quakers justice- and outreach-minded? Perhaps so focused on the inner light it is difficult to see anything else.

Funny how we Christians do not see Communion as an act of hospitality, no strings attached. We've given it an ego with its own requirements for meaning and being to the point that it excludes what does not look like itself. We've projected ourselves onto it.

Mystical Seeker said...

Quakers are very justice minded and outreach focused in their ministry, but worship is different somehow. It is a quiet and solemn occasion, and no one speaks to anyone to break the silence until the meeting finishes. It is true that after the meeting, people shake hands and there is sometimes a coffee hour, but there is a strange sort of reserve that maybe carries over from the inward-focused mysticism of the silent worship. Quakers are not really proselytizers, and they don't push themselves on you.