Practising a theology of welcome can stretch us all. Yet, developing a theology of welcome that offers genuine hospitality is surely vital, for if we don’t practice it, we exclude the Christ that welcomed all. If we gather in groups based on outer appearances or outer behaviors, we are excluding the Christ who ate with tax collectors and sinners. Being a welcoming people can be uncomfortable or it can be uncomfortably transforming—empowering us to be the radically welcoming community that Jesus taught us to be.
In my first year at Coventry I’ve asked many of the regulars what drew them to the Cathedral in the first place – and what persuaded them to stay. For some, of course it was the beauty of our building and our worship – signposts that point to a beauty beyond all our imaginings. Others, though, cite the discovery of a group of people who welcomed them and made them feel at home. That’s a delight – and the strong sense of identity as a Cathedral community is something to celebrate too….as long as we are always mindful that in celebrating that identity we don’t unknowingly exclude those who might not fit the mould or demand that they settle down and conform. I'm very certain that we're not yet the Church God calls us to be...indeed, I've never been part of such a glorious, perfected body! We're broken, imperfect and disabled. We need the resources, fresh insights, different experiences of God and of his world that the stranger brings...but do we dare to acknowledge this?
Benedictine hospitality demands that we open our lives to others as well. Benedictine hospitality demands the extra effort, the extra time, the extra care that stretches beyond and above the order of the day. Real hospitality requires that we consider how to take the concerns of the poor, the hungry, the lonely, the dying into our own lives.
It is not enough simply to change our minds about things or to come to feel compassion for something that had never touched us before or even to change our own way of life to let in the concerns of others. Real hospitality lies in making change happen so that our community becomes a haven for the helpless, our members ready to act as a voice for the voiceless. Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and minds and our hearts and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.
Some have shared that their experience as newcomers has not been like this. Rather than stepping into a space made ready for them, they’ve struggled to be recognized, unsure that anyone has really noticed them at all. I’ve heard of some who loitered at the west end for several weeks before anyone engaged with them…who didn’t feel that anyone here cared much about their lives once they left the building….who still see the phrase “Cathedral Community” and swallow hard, as their experience has been of coming into a group that exists for 2 hours on Sunday but has no common life of mutual love and support beyond. An aside – unless our Sunday mornings are just the tip of the ice-berg of our community life, I’m not sure that we really qualify as a community at all, any more than the passionate crowd who gather to support the Sky Blues, but then go their separate ways. That might be something to ponder.
Welcoming in Christ’s name means rather more than offering a cup of coffee, though it’s true that the small things that add up… Saying hello. Smiling at the unfamiliar face sitting beside you. Remembering someone’s name and using it (that's specially important and helpful in our welcome to children...If they don't believe that we love them for their OWN sake, then how can they believe what we try to tell them of a loving, welcoming God?). Larger steps. Asking that person you’ve noticed in worship for the past month but haven’t formally met to Sunday lunch. Suggesting you meet for a coffee mid week. Even, giving a cup of cold water.
Hospitality is at the root of reconciliation...Words of wisdom from a contemporary Benedictine website
“Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step toward dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.”
The crucial thing is that everyone —everyone—is received as Christ. Everyone receives a warm answer—on the phone, at the door, in the office. The Benedictine heart is to be a place without boundaries, a place where truth of the oneness of all things shatters all barriers, a point where all the differences of the world meet and melt, where Jew and Gentile, slave and free, woman and man all come together as equals.. And once over the threshold, what comes next for a stranger turned guest in a Benedictine house?After being greeted by the brothers and the Superior, guests should be welcomed to join in Lectio Divina, to share a meal and to have their hands and feet washed. Through these three things, guests have the opportunity to deepen their understanding of God, to share in community life and to be served as is befitting those made in the image of God. I wonder what our equivalents might be.
Finally, of course, we cannot reflect on welcome without turning to Matthew 25. This undergirds the Benedictine teaching, but it is sobering reading for it shifts hospitality onto another plane altogether, beyond most “normal” aspirations.
‘Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took Me in” and let due honour be shown to all. When, therefore, a guest is announced, let him be met by the Superior and the brethren with every mark of charity. And let them first pray together, and then let them associate with one another in peace… let Christ be adored in them as He is also received.’ In other words, the reception of guests should be equal to the reception of Christ himself, in whose image all are made. By receiving others, we are welcoming Christ. Thus, if we are truly Christians, we show this in our treatment of others.
Just think about that for a moment. About what it would really mean to welcome each one of our visitors – tourists, school children, students, confused street dwellers...EACH ONE OF THEM as if they were Christ, the One for whom our souls long, the One for whom this building exists, the One for whom WE exist. Let's pause for a moment to picture him walking through the west door, coming to the welcome desk, asking “May I come in”...Imagine the joy. We have loved him for so long. We come here week by week to seek his face. And here he is at our door.
THAT'S the joy with which we should offer our welcome. The joy that transforms the unknown stranger into the person we most long to see. And you know, if we can aspire to that, I very much doubt it we'll have to worry about our community diminishing in the long run. Authentic hospitality attracts...so let us open the doors of hearts as well as those of our building, as Christ himself invites us to do.
For Everyone Born, a Place at the Table
For everyone born, a place at the table,for everyone born, clean water and bread,a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,for everyone born, a star overhead,and God will delight when we are creatorsof justice and joy, compassion and peace:yes, God will delight when we are creatorsof justice, justice and joy!For woman and man, a place at the table,revising the roles, deciding the share,with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,for woman and man, a system that's fair,and God will delight when we are creatorsof justice and joy, compassion and peace:yes, God will delight when we are creatorsof justice, justice and joy!For young and for old, a place at the table,a voice to be heard, a part in the song,the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,for young and for old, the right to belong,and God will delight when we are creatorsof justice and joy, compassion and peace:yes, God will delight when we are creatorsof justice, justice and joy!For gay and for straight, a place at the table,a covenant shared, a welcoming space,a rainbow of race and gender and colour,for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace,and God will delight when we are creatorsof justice and joy, compassion and peace:yes, God will delight when we are creatorsof justice, justice and joy!For just and unjust, a place at the table,abuser, abused, with need to forgive,in anger, in hurt, a mindset of mercy,for just and unjust, a new way to live,and God will delight when we are creatorsof justice and joy, compassion and peace:yes, God will delight when we are creatorsof justice, justice and joy!For everyone born, a place at the table,to live without fear, and simply to be,to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,for everyone born, the right to be free,and God will delight when we are creatorsof justice and joy, compassion and peace:yes, God will delight when we are creatorsof justice, justice and joy!
Shirley Erena Murray
Words © 1998 Hope Publishing Company