October 7, 2011
Welcoming the Stranger: Matt Soerens on Hospitality
As is appropriate during "Hospitality Month" at Strangely Dim, we welcome Matthew Soerens as our guest-blogger for this post. Matthew is the coauthor, with Jenny Hwang, of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2009). He serves as the U.S. Church Training Specialist with World Relief. He blogs on a regular basis at UnDocumented.tv. -----------------------------------------------------------------------
In recent years, God has been teaching me that this Martha Stewart-inspired ideal misses the heart of the biblical command to "practice hospitality" (Romans 12:13). Real hospitality, if we look to the etymology of the word, is loving strangers (from the Greek xenophilia). There's nothing wrong with entertaining friends and family, of course, but doing so doesn't necessarily touch the heart of hospitality. "If you do good to those who are good to you," Jesus asks his disciples, "what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that" (Luke 6:33). Christ's call is to go beyond the obvious, to welcome those who are strangers--in fact, even those who are enemies (Luke 6:35). When we host a banquet, Jesus tells us, "do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors" but rather "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Luke 14:12-13).
Jesus' commands sound pretty radical in our American culture. We teach our kids to be afraid of strangers--and while it is prudent to protect children, many of us carry this "stranger danger" mentality into adulthood. If an unknown person showed up at the door of a typical American home late at night, I imagine most people would be more likely to call the police than to offer them a guest room. By welcoming in a stranger, though, Jesus told his disciples that they were welcoming him--and that by turning away the stranger, they had turned him away also (Matthew 25:35). Scripture also juxtaposes the idea that strangers are a threat with the idea that by welcoming strangers, "some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Maybe the stranger to whom we extend God's compassion might end up blessing us more than we could imagine.
That's been the experience of many churches in the United States. Our society as a whole increasingly seems to favor xenophobia (the fear of strangers) to xenophilia (the love of strangers). In contrast, as immigrants arrive from various countries, some churches have sought to extend welcome. These immigrant strangers have become, in the words of Asbury Theological Seminary President Tim Tennent, "the greatest hope for Christian renewal in North America," as immigrant congregations fuel the fastest growth in American evangelicalism. That growth is happening despite that fact that most churches have yet to recognize the opportunity presented by the arrival of immigrants to their communities. In fact, the results of the Faith Communities Today survey suggest that just one in ten evangelical churches has any ministry oriented toward immigrants.
The arrival of immigrants to the United States gives American churches--and the society that we influence--the opportunity to put into practice the biblical value of hospitality. As we do, we can expect to see God bless the church in this country through these potential angels-in-disguise.