by John Fenner
How are we, as members of communities of faith, called to welcome the stranger?
In previous posts I introduced the Habits of the Heart as described in Parker Palmer's Healing the Heart of Democracy , pondered their importance to healthy congregations, and explore the first habit, the understanding that we're all in this together. In this post I'll explore the second habit: An appreciation of the value of "otherness."
Who among us hasn't had the experience of being the other? When I moved from my birthplace in New York to Vermont in the early 1980s, I was labeled a "flatlander"; when I later moved to Hawaii, I was a "haole"; when I backpacked through Southeast Asia, everything about me - my pale skin, my height, my clothes - screamed "other; and when I moved to the mountains of North Carolina twenty-three years ago, I was (and still am) a "yankee." These are just a few of my experiences of being "the other." I imagine there could be an entire dictionary of terms for "otherness."
The ways in which I experienced this "otherness" have ranged from fear for my physical safety, to a sense of hospitality so deep and welcoming that it brought tears to my eyes. I guess that I would say that these helped me become a student of hospitality, of welcoming the stranger, of looking for and appreciating the value of otherness. These experiences helped draw me into racial equity work - where the otherness of skin color has granted privileges to some and oppressed others. These experiences, in part, drew me into Courage and Renewal work and the importance of hospitality in our circles of trust. And these experiences have drawn me into various communities of faith...communities that work at and appreciate the value of otherness.
All of the great faith traditions embrace the virtue of hospitality and most see it as a moral imperative.
In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah, or commandment from God. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the "bringing in of strangers") to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).
Hospitality was a crucial practice among early Christians and continues to be lifted up today. The New Testament (Romans 12:13) exhorts followers to Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to the stranger. A Greek word, xenos, found in the New Testament, incorporates a profound truth (paradox!): the word means both "stranger" and "guest".
In Islam, the Holy Prophet Muhammad said that hospitality was a symptom of faith. This notion was not limited to one's near and dear ones, rather each guest, regardless of religion, was served well and taken care of.
In Buddhism, hospitality (sakk?ra) is the act of being welcoming and helpful to guests, strangers, and travelers alike. Hospitality is thought of as a basic level of generosity and as such is a foundation for the spiritual life.
Offering hospitality is fundamental to Hindu culture and providing food and shelter to a needy stranger was and is a traditional duty of the householder. The unexpected guest is called the atithi, literally meaning "without a set time." Hindu scriptures enjoin that the atithi be treated as God."
And so, with the virtue of hospitality, of appreciating the value of "otherness" as a foundation for all of the great wisdom and religious traditions, I have been interested in exploring how well it is being practiced by the communities of faith that I come into relationship with.
My experiences and observations again represent a broad continuum. I've witnessed and been a part of communities who have struggled mightily with the tension of welcoming and appreciating otherness, while maintaining the core of their own rituals, practices and beliefs.
I've also witnessed and participated in communities that demonstrated very little tolerance for difference. In one church, some members recoiled in fear and struck out in anger when outreach to the "unchurched" threatened to disrupt their neat and tidy beliefs and worship rituals.
Appreciating the value of otherness, for me, goes beyond tolerance - beyond "you're welcome as long as you play by our rules." Appreciating the value of otherness entails a level of engagement, inquiry, dialogue, and interaction in which all members can freely share their gifts, learn from each other, and ultimately grow spiritually together. This is hard work and takes time and practice. It takes a willingness to be stretched and to sit with discomfort. It takes a belief that there is "that of God in everyone."
For me, it goes back to my own experiences of being the other - the times I was welcomed and the times I was rejected. Because of these experiences, I try to remember to extend welcome in all situations and locations. I fail time and again, stumble in my ignorance around some manners of difference, and try again. I am helped by my friends, colleagues, and fellow community members who embrace hospitality and struggle to deepen their appreciation of the value of otherness.
What about you? How do you practice this habit of the heart? How is the appreciation of the value of otherness cultivated in your community of faith? What happens when this habit in not embodied? Are their limits to the appreciation of otherness when it comes to our places of worship? Let me know, I'm curious.
John Fenner is director of Courage & Renewal Programs for Clergy and Congregational Leaders. For more information about these programs, click here .