Sunday, July 01, 2007

Welcoming the Stranger

In a comment at the Chalice Blog, I reminisced about a visitor we had a couple of summers ago. I used that incident in a sermon later and thought I would publish it here. We have many challenges when it comes to being inclusive and I was pleased with my congregation for their welcoming reception of the stranger stranger.

RADICAL HOSPITALITY: Welcoming the Stranger
by Rev. Kit Ketcham
October, 2005

It was just a normal Sunday, with the normal familiar smiles and
greetings as people passed by me before joining others in the sanctuary.
There had been the normal “hi, so nice to see you today!
and.....how’s your mom?
and........what do you hear from so and so?
and.......welcome to our UU congregation! would you like a
nametag?
and...........yes, I think there is a plan to go out for a meal after the
service; I hope you can come.
and........how are you feeling these days?”

UU congregations are always on the lookout for visitors and this
congregation was no different. We want to be able to say hello, offer a
friendly smile----and a nametag!------and demonstrate the best welcome we
can offer to someone new, someone who was perhaps hurting, perhaps
lonely, perhaps unfamiliar with UUism, or----perhaps a longtime UU looking
for a new church home. It’s our normal Sunday routine.

On this particular Sunday, however, members of our small
congregation took one look at the visitor coming through the door and did
a double take. No, it wasn’t President Bush, coming to see how we liked
his environmental policies or disaster response; it wasn’t some glamorous
movie star or bedraggled reality show survivor; it wasn’t the mayor of the
small town or any other well known local personage.

This visitor’s appearance was startling in itself, and I could feel my
own apprehensions rise up. Why would anyone choose to look the way
this person did? I quickly began to think about how best to approach this
individual; how would others in the congregation respond to him?

And then, I saw one of our greeters step forward toward our visitor
and the two ordinary looking people who had come in with him. I saw a
friendly smile on the greeter’s face and then a handshake; I watched as
the greeter helped them prepare nametags and gave them orders of
service; and when the three visitors came to where I was standing, outside
the sanctuary door, I had been given a clear model for how we were
going to welcome our unusual visitor.

“Cat”, as we came to know him that day, is a Native American who
has adopted the unusual practice of changing his appearance to resemble
that of his totem animal, a tiger. Cat is tattooed with tiger-like markings; he
uses special contact lenses to give his eyes a catlike shape and color; his
nails are shaped into claws; his face has been surgically altered to a more
feline shape and his teeth are sharp and fang-like.

Cat is not your typical visitor. Wherever he goes in the community,
people stop and stare and perhaps walk the other way. Now, I don’t
know all the reasons Cat looks the way he does. There are lots of
questions in my mind about how he has chosen this path.

But on that day, my task and that of the rest of us attending that
service was to welcome Cat and his friends, to make a place for them
among us, to offer them the simple hospitality of our sacred space, of our
worship time, to invite them to have a cup of coffee and a cookie after the
service, to go with our group to the Chinese place for a meal after church.
This was not necessarily our first gut reaction, as you might expect!

We humans are almost automatically suspicious of anyone who doesn’t
look or seem like us.
And hospitality can be tough when we are faced with offering
acceptance and welcome to someone very different, someone who may
appear a little frightening or unusual.

We are protective--of our children and ourselves, we are concerned
about how we may look to others, we are leery of being conned or taken
advantage of, and we may worry about the effect of a stranger on our
children or on our quiet lives..

What is hospitality? We often associate it with “the hospitality
industry”, meaning hotels and travel agencies and restaurants and tourist
attractions. We may think of it as greeting guests in our home, inviting
friends to join us for a gathering,

My dictionary says that to be hospitable means to welcome guests
or strangers with warmth and generosity. So then, what is radical
hospitality? Again, my dictionary says that radical means “carried to the
farthest limit or extreme.” So to provide radical hospitality seems to mean
that we welcome the least welcomed, the one who is most different from
us.

Over the past months, we have seen our country challenged by the
need to be radically hospitable in many ways. We have seen millions of
strangers who need radical hospitality; some of them have received it,
some have not.

We have cringed as we watched hordes of people on rooftops
crying out for help; we have heard horror stories about how many were
rejected or told to wait and we have heard heart-warming stories about
how many were rescued, taken in, cared for by people who were radically
different in culture and in circumstances.

What does it feel like to be a person in need of hospitality, radical or
otherwise? We have probably each experienced this need in mild ways. I
remember a moment many years ago, traveling with my significant other,
and being told late at night after 16 hours of driving that we needed to find
somewhere else to sleep, because we were not married and would not
be welcome in that home.

What does it feel like to be hundreds of miles from home, without
familiar belongings, perhaps separated from children or parents or pets,
having to set up housekeeping far, far from one’s homeland with little or
no hope of going home again soon? To be dependent upon another’s
willingness to offer radical hospitality?

One of the most poignant passages in the Hebrew scriptures is the
verses in Psalm 137, where the psalmist writes, after the destruction of
Jerusalem: ” By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we
remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps, for there
our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “sing us one of the songs of Zion” and we answered, “how can we
sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

In one of his famous parables, the teacher Jesus tells of a king who
is rewarding his faithful servants for their loyalty.
The king tells his servants, “I was hungry and you gave me food; I
was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you
welcomed me; I was sick and you took care of me. I was naked and you
gave me clothing. I was in prison and you visited me.”

But the servants are confused and ask when this all happened,
because they don’t remember such events. And the king says in reply
these memorable words: “inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the
least of these my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.” meaning
that every effort they made to make another person comfortable and at
home was as important as if they had done it for the king.

In our current society, the struggle about who deserves hospitality
and who does not is intense and far-reaching. Many Unitarian Universalist
congregations have recognized their own need to increase the level of
hospitality they extend and have undertaken the work of becoming a
Welcoming Congregation, a task our congregation is currently engaged
in, because gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender men and women are
among those to whom hospitality is often denied.

Ironically, one of the chief bulwarks of homophobic religious
denominations is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew
scriptures.

This story is about two angels in human form who visited a man
named Lot, a citizen of Sodom, to warn him that the city was about to be
destroyed by God. An angry mob of men saw the two angels arrive at
Lot’s home and descended upon the house, demanding that Lot surrender
the two men to them, that they might “know” them, a word which
occasionally, in Hebrew, refers to sexual intercourse, though infrequently.

This story has been misconstrued to say that the sin of the city of
Sodom (from which the word sodomy comes) was homosexual behavior.
However, according to many Bible scholars, the real sin in this instance (in
addition to the sexual violence implied) was the mob’s destructive
behavior toward two strangers who were receiving hospitality from Lot
and his family. It is important to note that hospitality has always been an
important religious principle in most world religions.

A small book entitled “Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love”
written by a Benedictine monk, Father Daniel Homan and his associate,
Lonni Collins Pratt, has been on my reading list recently. I acquired it not
long after we met Cat and started to think about what a miracle it had been
to receive him and his friends on that Sunday last spring here at the UU
Congregation of Whidbey Island.

In this book, the authors discuss a triad of relationships that need to
be in balance, if we are to offer our best selves to the world. These three
relationships are 1st, “solitude or cloister”---our relationship with ourselves;
2nd, “community”--our relationship with our closest friends and family; and
3rd, “hospitality”---our relationship with the world beyond our community.

Let’s consider these three sets of relationships. FIrst, we need
enough time alone, in silence and stillness. When we are alone in silence,
it’s hard to ignore ourselves. We are separated from most of our normal
sources of approval and enrichment, such as work and socializing.
When we are alone in silence, we are not serving and nurturing
others; we have the opportunity to look straight into our own hearts and
minds, to face who we are as individuals.

But it can be scary to be alone------we are likely to want to turn on
the radio, get in the car, go find people. If we can stick it out beyond our
initial desire to end the solitude, we can find that solitude is our friend and
we may learn to welcome it as nourishing and as an opportunity to see
ourselves in a clearer light.

When we are ready to be with people again, we rejoin our
community, refreshed by our time alone and with a deeper well of
reserves to offer to those we love.

The second kind of relationship is with our companions in life, our
dearest ones, who give us the support we need to go on in life. They
provide the tenderness of friendship and are a source of stability, wisdom,
and awareness. Some of our companions we choose----our friends, our
mates. But we are also born with a built-in community, one we don’t
choose-----our families of origin, and we all have members of our families
that we might not choose!

But all these other people, these chosen and not-chosen loved
ones, are lessons in the making. In our relationships with our community,
we learn more about ourselves, we have more opportunities to grow and
change than we can find in solitude.

Third, we also need others, people who are not close to us, for the
simpler, less complicated yet often more challenging relationships they
offer.

Though we may offer hospitality---warmth and generosity---to
ourselves on occasion and to our friends and family when we are
together, it is the moments spent with those we don’t know well who offer
us our greatest opportunity to be hospitable, to offer radical hospitality--
warmth and generosity and welcome to people who may scare us, make
us uncomfortable, challenge our complacency and give us opportunities
to grow.

There is another piece I’d like to offer here------what does it mean to
receive another’s hospitality? This can be harder than it seems. We often
like to see ourselves as the giver of hospitality and may feel self-conscious
if others offer it. When we receive hospitality, we are in an unfamiliar
place. The one who offers it to us may be very different from us, in beliefs,
in appearance, in abilities, in culture. We may feel very rejecting of some
of the values of the one who is offering hospitality.

An example: we are the recipients of Trinity Lutheran Church’s
radical hospitality, for we UUs are very different from them, even though
we share religious roots. They have invited us to use their sacred space
and we pay rent so that we can share the costs of this space with the
Lutherans, the Seventh Day Adventists and other community groups. This
sanctuary reflects their presence and some of the symbols and items
which are important and holy to them, even as we have our own symbols
and items displayed.

Among us, there are some whose past experience with some of
these symbols and items has been unhappy. This is one of those
occasions when we are challenged to grow in ways that may seem
uncomfortable and unwelcome. When we wish to experience hospitality
extended in its fullness, we take stock of our discomfort and use it to grow
into a new understanding and appreciation of the goodness of our hosts.
It can be very hard, but it can also be very rewarding.

This discomfort, by the way, is one of the classic issues for UU
churches which rent space from Christian churches.

Radical hospitality is a two-way street: we extend our welcoming
warmth to all who come into our lives, offering our generous spirit and
hoping it will be received with warmth and friendship; we receive that
welcoming warmth from others with gratitude for their generosity and a
commitment to understanding and appreciating those who extend it.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION:
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended,
but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us
go in peace, remembering that our response to others reflects our values
and our beliefs. May we offer radical hospitality to all who need it, and
may we gratefully accept the hospitality offered to us by others. Amen,
Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


NOTE: More information about our interesting visitor can be found at this link We got to know him a little bit that day, though he did not return to another service; I was pleased with my congregants' response, though they later expressed some uneasiness about his effect on the children who saw him. It was a challenge!

6 comments:

Miss Kitty said...

WOW. This was just what I needed to read this day. Thank you, Ms. K.

And I am SO glad you pointed out the breach of rules of hospitality in the story of Lot. Seems most Bible readers don't get that deep into the story to figure that one out.

Christina Martin said...

I'm surprised to see you using such prejudiced words as "homophobic" to describe those whose views are different from your own.

Miss Kitty said...

Christina: Perhaps Ms. K should use "Negrophobic" to describe people who believe that individuals of darker skin color are inferior? Their views are just different.

ms. kitty said...

I don't think it's any more prejudiced than words like "arachnophobia", the fear of spiders. After years of thinking about the difficulties of homosexual people and seeing the hatred and fear many show toward them, I think "homophobia" is an apt word.

Even the most sincere beliefs often come from a place of fear. The more we learn about folks with a same-sex orientation, the more we are realizing that this is not a chosen orientation; it is inborn. And the question that comes up for me is "if God created a person to be homosexual, why would God order that person not to be who he/she is created to be?"

People whose interpretations of the ancient Jewish purity laws include considering homosexuality a sin somehow overlook all the other things mentioned in the laws as sin: combining crops in a field, combining different fabric types in a garment, eating shellfish or pork, etc.

Religious faiths do differ considerably on this issue, but I think it's important to apply logic and reason to the situation and to consider the great commandment of Jesus: to love God and to love one's neighbor as oneself. As the Bible also says, "Perfect love casts out fear". So I think there is also an injunction to consider our sources of fear and work to eliminate them.

It's not a sin to fear something; when our fear results in oppressive and cruel behavior toward it, we need to take a look.

ms. kitty said...
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ms. kitty said...
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