Forty United Methodist churches joined together for the inauguration of President Obama in Washington in January 2009. These churches opened their doors to those very many people who had traveled from across the country to be there, from as far away as New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia. They were all offered a friendly place for rest and refreshment and about 90 people slept on the floors of a Methodist Sunday school classroom. On inauguration day, again the church was able to provide hot beverage and fellowship while watching the event on a projection screen (1). The numbers helped in this way were not great, but that does not matter. Every kind gesture is a seed sown for the future.
While hospitality is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, it is also an essential part of most if not all faiths.
Throughout the Holy Bible the sharing of food together is often mentioned as a token of friendship and commitment. This entire code of hospitality in the Middle East was so strong that it is expressed in a biblical warning, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’(2). And of course Jesus shared his Last Supper with his Disciples before his Crucifixion and Resurrection. We celebrate this meal each week in our Holy Eucharist.
On holiday with my family in Turkey a few years ago we experienced two memorable examples of generous Muslim hospitality. We were walking around a small isolated village, in need of refreshment: we were hot and thirsty. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves engaged in a somewhat stilted conversation with a local man. He spoke very little English. Nonetheless, from the rather tenuous link that he also had a friend in London - ‘did we know him?’ he asked - we were invited back to his modest stone built cottage to meet the rest of the family. After much nodding and handshakes we sat on cushions on the floor among them and shared cool beer. The conversation was difficult but the genuine warmth and hospitality was undoubted.
A few afternoons later we were drawn towards the sounds of music and dancing in another village. Following the sound we found a massive party in full swing in the front garden of a huge, if rather less than grand, house. Many of the guests were wearing national costume. Displaying the worst of bad manners, I recall that we were trying inconspicuously to take a photo. Immediately we were spotted and most graciously beckoned into their midst, where we were introduced to everyone and plied with huge quantities of good food, much of which seemed to be arriving continuously from various kitchens along the street. This turned out to be a circumcision party for a twelve- year old lad, dressed in traditional white for the ceremony. We pinned the customary Turkish dinar to his clothes, to add to the many notes already there. We ate and drank heartily while some of the men and boys tried to teach their dance to my own sons, somewhat unsuccessfully I recall! It was altogether a wonderful and happy occasion.
Such hospitality is fundamentally important to Muslims. It defines who they are and they judge themselves and each other on the generosity of their welcome to strangers as well as friends (3).
But the Muslims are not alone in this generosity of welcome. Hospitality is also seen as very important to the Sikh faith. Here it is grounded in the 500 year old tradition of langar, which is the free distribution of vegetarian food to both rich and poor, regardless of caste, color, religion or status. The United Sikh Association of New York University has organized langar events there every year since 2006. This free food from their community kitchen is offered to all students as they sit on the floor, as is traditional, in a symbolism of brotherhood, equality, hospitality, community service, and selfless-service (4).
Hindu culture also believes that appropriate hospitality should be offered to any visitor to the home, even to an enemy. After all, they say, ‘A tree does not deny its shade even to the one who comes to cut it down.’(5). The uninvited guest should be treated as good as God, says the popular Hindu proverb.
Sadly too many of us in our daily lives now seem too busy to relax and welcome the unexpected visitor into our home. Gone it seems are the days when we could all have an open house for our friends and neighbors. How often do we deny ourselves the healing of companionship? It may not always be obvious how hospitality is being used as a source of healing, although the opportunity is always present if we are sensitive enough to find it.
The idea of hospitality as a source of healing has perhaps been seen nowhere more clearly than in the international and free barbeque ministry, On The Move (6). Founded in 1998 by Martin Graham, the idea is simple but effective. Lay Christians are recruited as leaders from the local churches across all Christian denominations to take the message of Jesus Christ into town centers, usually in the open air. There a free barbeque is served to all who stop by, in a spirit of love and generosity. There is worship and there is healing. The leaders are encouraged to move out of their comfort zones, to minister to those who are broken, needy, lonely, in fact in need of any healing. The movement takes the love of God in the power of the Spirit to the many people who are ready to receive it, as the leaders pray with the guests for the healing of these needs. The success of the movement is seen in the coverage of its missions in 26 countries and across the five continents. Its history has been described in the book Sizzling Faith: The Dream that got the Church on the Move! (7).
Such has been the success of On the Move that it has gathered its own momentum and the ministry is now being copied across the world through other Christian groups. On the Move has fulfilled its mission and has wound down its own program. But the success of On the Move shows that we do not have to be an ordained minister to be a source of healing to others. Certainly within the Christian churches there is an increasing interest in the use of the laity to work alongside ordained priests in their ministry. Henri Nouwen saw his ideas of a healing ministry based on the symbolism of the Wounded Healer as being practiced by all Christians, not just pastors.
Hospitality is just one aspect of an important healing ministry that is to be found across all the religions. While some religions have more established healing ministries than others, all are there for anyone in need of pastoral care and support in times of trouble and where many find nourishment for spirit and soul.
2. RSV Hebrews 13.2.
3. For more on Islamic hospitality see Hospitality: A Worldwide Islamic Tradition 2005.
4. Sikhnet, Sharing the Sikh Experience, http://www.sikhnet.com/news/united-sikh-association-serves-langar-nyu-students 6 April 2009.
5. Mahabharata 12.374 cited at http://hinduism.iskcon.com/lifestyle/810.htm
7. Martin Graham, Sizzling Faith: The Dream that got the Church on the Move! Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, 2006.