There is always an element of vulnerability included in hospitality. By inviting others into your home or life you always allow for the possibility that others will reject or judge you. For me, I can tell how willing I am to be vulnerable with people by how much cleaning I need to do to feel comfortable inviting them over. Some people have an open invitation to walk into my mess at any time, while others require various degrees of preparation: from quickly shoving things in the closet to deep cleaning the baseboards. The cleaning is both a literal defense against being truly seen and a fairly accurate thermometer for how comfortable I am inviting someone into my home.
Recently I started reading a book, The Gift of Wonder, by Christine Sine. The book is all about recapturing the wonder of God through a child-like approach to the divine. In it, she posed the question ‘How can we prepare a meal ‘In the presence of your enemies’ and offer open hospitality to those you disagree with?’ This question really sat with me, because it required stretching myself on a number of fronts. As much as I would like to think that I could do this on a regular basis, I don’t. Not really. So I started thinking about what it would take to actually make this happen.
First, there is the very real hurdle that my life is, in many ways, designed to insulate me from those who are ‘other’. As human beings, with a very ingrained sense of tribalism, we self-select to spend our lives around those who are like us. This is an ancient phenomenon that is only exacerbated by modern technology and freedom of movement. Sure we can be very tolerant of others, but we can also arrange our lives so that we have as little interaction with them as possible. This makes it difficult when you start trying to think of ways to invite the ‘other’ to share a meal, let alone when you start asking who are my enemies?
Where are the opportunities I have to interact and form relationships with those who are different than I am, maybe even, radically so? For me, I think this is a public school, local government, and my direct neighborhood. Each of these areas offers my family inclusion based on proximity rather than beliefs. In these areas I have the opportunity if I choose, to try and build basic relationships with a diverse group of people. From this point, I would then have to bridge the gap and take a chance on offering my hospitality and being willing to accept it in return.
The second hurdle is a bit more nebulous, it is more a lack of skills than a lack of opportunity. I don’t feel well-equipped for navigating what can be difficult conversations in person. Part of this is personality, but more I think, is a distinct lack of civil discourse in our society. The constraints and human cost of in-person conversation don’t exist in the digital world, and that makes it easier to take extreme positions and use adversarial language that we wouldn’t use otherwise. The art of conversation, of civil discourse, and polite disagreement are skills that many of us don’t get to practice often and that our society doesn’t value highly. But these are necessary to cultivate a safe and inviting environment. As much as offering hospitality can make us vulnerable, accepting it can be equally challenging, and putting yourself in a vulnerable position requires desperation or trust.
Recent studies suggest that small talk, rather than being a waste of time, is important for helping us build relationships and belong in our communities. I have been challenged to practice this more, as both a way to build on the relationships around me and as a way of practicing those conversational skills that get rusty without use.
As I have sat with this question of how to offer open hospitality to those who are ‘other’ I have been challenged to stretch myself to connect with those who are other, those I disagree with, and those who I usually avoid. In doing so, I must step into vulnerability, which is uncomfortable and, at times, risky. But, as Brene Brown describes it in Rising Strong, vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for in life, things like love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust. If preparing a meal for someone, and inviting into my mess, can help connect me to the deeper joys of life and the wonder of God than I am willing to take a little risk and intentionally walk into a more open sense of hospitality.