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The Company We Keep: Hospitality and Mutuality

| Naomi King

by Naomi King

Naomi KingMoral communities in which roles of host and guests are not tightly defined but allow for mutuality are communities that recognize a multiplicity of gifts.
—Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, (1999) p.122

Often in religious community we speak of nurturing diversity as welcoming. When we use the language of welcome, we are embracing the language of hospitality. When you think of hospitality, are you most comfortable as guest or as a host? How comfortable are you with being both stranger/guest and host at the same time? How easy is for you and your community to move fluidly between those roles?

Radical hospitality makes room for and is grounded in:

  • the generous care of every person's gifts, 
  • the belief that every person has gifts worthy of and necessary to the flourishing faithful community, and 
  • the commitment to answer the calling of each other's gifts into the life of service, worship, leadership, membership, and spiritual growth.

Some of us may find we're only or mostly comfortable as hosts. I've found myself drifting into kitchens because I can often help, and have some gifts to give. When there's no way to incorporate what I bring, I might have nothing else to offer and only everything to receive. That usually leaves me feeling cold and alienated. What about you? Do you love to be the one who receives only, because you have nothing to give? Who really has nothing? A warm smile, a funny story, attention, kindness....Even when I have been struggling with my own demons and difficulties, I still have had something to give. Being called to give, as well as receive, has often been the lifeline that helps me out of those struggles. Receiving when we know and can trust that we'll also be giving back to the relationship and to the community is much easier on a person's spirit and dignity.

There is a lot of power in being the one who welcomes others, particularly those who are not welcomed elsewhere. When strangers are seeking religious communities, it is very often because we have not been welcomed elsewhere. We are disconnected, apart, even shunned. 

It is true that people who live generously and welcome folks who are unwelcomed elsewhere risk becoming unwelcomed themselves. We are known by the company we keep. Live in community with those who are feared, despised, or otherwise set apart from the main of society, from the generally accepted and belonging, and you could become one of the feared, despised, or otherwise set apart. But if you are making that as a choice, to be part of the unwelcomed, then you have privilege and are choosing to set that aside each day. One of the challenges for those who make that choice to join in community with those who are otherwise unwelcomed and dispossessed is the continuous decision making that comes from choosing whether to set down the power of being able to return, even for a little while, to the relative ease of the generally welcomed and accepted.

How generous are we to the people we do not know? The people who frighten us? The people who are live in very different circumstances than we do? I've found myself seeking others like myself in strange environments. I'll seek out the hearing impaired and those I know living with chronic illness. I'll seek out others who have lots of experience of being unwelcomed, of living as strangers in the middle of supposedly wonderful hospitality. It is spiritual work to stretch and be generous in meeting and being with people we do not know, especially if they are people who frighten us or seem very unlike us. Yet, like other challenging activities, this practice of stretching into a mutual and radical hospitality can be enormously rewarding. Some of the relationships and experiences I now value the most are with people I would have missed had I played it safe and not stretched myself -- and had not the other people involved risked in the same ways and stretched themselves. 

What happens when we're creating community together where everyone is both host and guest?  Let's find out, one heart and moment at a time.


Naomi lives, laughs, and ministers with City of Refuge Ministries, in south Florida and everywhere digital.

Tags: community

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Since I am a much better host than guest, I like the idea of creating a space where everyone can be both host and guest. Thank you for this very well-thought out essay.