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Christine D. Pohl: Grace enters with the stranger

The practice of hospitality is central to Christian institutions and Christian leadership, says theologian and ethicist Christine D. Pohl.

November 23, 2010

Christian leaders have a critical role to play in restoring the institutional practice of hospitality, Christine D. Pohl said. And the best place they can learn about hospitality is often from those who are on the margins, she said.

“You have to be a stranger yourself,” Pohl said. “There has to be an intentional marginality, an intentional experience that becomes part of our spiritual discipline.”

Institutions are essential to the practice of hospitality, which Pohl says is not simply a matter of pleasantries but of finding ways to identify with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized people. “One can’t claim the role of host all the time; … it is a gift also to be willing to be guests and to share in people’s lives.”

A professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., Pohl is known for her work on hospitality, most notably in her 1999 book, “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.” She recently co-authored the book “Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission” with Christopher L. Heuertz. She has an M.A. in theological studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in ethics and society from Emory University.

Pohl spoke with Faith & Leadership about “Friendship at the Margins” and her commitment to the practice of hospitality. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: Has writing and teaching about hospitality changed your own religious practices?

It continues to be important to me for a lot of reasons. As a concept it made sense out of my commitments, but I didn’t start out understanding that hospitality was this robust practice. I thought of it more as entertaining, coffee and donuts or casseroles or whatever, but hospitality is significant when you look at the Scriptures. It’s significant, and it wasn’t coffee and donuts. It was struggling with Jews and Gentiles and how people were going to get along together and be in the church together and be one body.

Initially, I was primarily working in my Ph.D. program, asking questions about who is included, whose voice is heard, and thinking that somewhere in the Christian tradition we’ve surely dealt with these issues before. Maybe it was in the language of hospitality. I embarked on the journey not knowing what I would find, but it turned out to be pretty fruitful. It’s been several decades now of trying to help people see hospitality in a fuller vision.

The Catholic Worker [movement] uses the language and used the language of hospitality from the beginning, from the 1930s. There are a couple of traditions that already were thinking in terms of hospitality. These were communities that were rooted in an ancient tradition. For the Catholic Worker it was monasticism, but I think it was there to be found.

It doesn’t take long to look closely at the Scriptures and closely at the tradition and see that hospitality is a significant part of the Christian life.

Q: You write about the connection between religious institutions and hospitality. What makes the institution essential to hospitality in Christian life?

It is very hard to do substantial hospitality outside of community, and once you have a community you have some version of an institution, some version of a shared life that has its practices and rituals. It was partly that, and partly that when you’re welcoming people, when you think about the most basic things of welcome, it has often to do with welcoming people into some kind of space. Institutions also have a role in being space together, along with the fact that institutions have memories and the tradition then gets located and carried on through the institution. Those would be a couple of the reasons institutions are significant.

It is certainly a personal practice, but it is never just a personal practice. It is people located in a larger community and dependent on the resources and the insights of the larger community. You have to have somewhere that you welcome people into, and of course it can be a family, it can be an individual life, but oftentimes in the church as well as in ancient Israel, it was welcoming people into a community. So institutions are crucial. Part of the reason that hospitality as a practice got lost is because it also got lost from the institutional memory. Institutions stopped seeing it as significant. It was more about pleasantries than a key part of life together.

Q: You also write about ways institutions can be dangerous to hospitality. It seems like a two-edged sword.

I think it is. Often, the people who offer the best hospitality tend to be people who are marginal to the institutions and the communities themselves, people who have experienced themselves as strangers in some way. If they’re really comfortably located in institutions, it often reinforces the predictable patterns. You have this tension; you have people going to the edge but then coming back in. It’s paradoxical.

If the persons are fully connected, fully located, it can serve to reinforce their status and power. Welcoming strangers in can threaten those things, and so people become hesitant. You can’t really carry on the tradition if there’s not some way in which it is institutionalized.

Q: In the book, you and Chris tell powerful stories of marginalized people offering hospitality to other marginalized people.

In the Scriptures some of the most important accounts of hospitality are stories that have both the blessing and the tension that’s associated with offering hospitality to strangers. In the same way, when you stop telling stories about it as a practice, it kind of evaporates. Part of the crucial aspect of recovering any practice is telling the stories about it. There is so much blessing associated with this practice; when you tell the stories, they reinforce our imagination about what it could mean and what it could look like.

Q: What are ways that leaders, when they see that their institution has lost that leaning into hospitality, can help to regain it?

It would be important to listen to the people who are a bit more marginal to the community, from experiences, from places that are quite different, making sure that you’re attentive. I think about any seminary or institution where, if you want to know about hospitality, you’ve got to ask about how the strangers have experienced that place.

You have to be a stranger yourself. There has to be an intentional marginality, an intentional experience that becomes part of our spiritual discipline, ... that we go to the margins periodically and experience ourselves as strangers and see what we can. Dwell there in a way that we will learn the ways in which the institution is helpful or harmful to people who don’t fit right in the center of it.

Q: Do you have a kind of touchstone story about hospitality, either received or given, that animates you in all of this?

There are a lot. One that was really formative for me was in a church congregation. It was years ago in New York, and it was a modest-sized congregation, but it was a setting in which it was already a somewhat multicultural congregation, some pretty significant diversity in it -- we welcomed hundreds of refugees. That was an experience that was extraordinarily life-giving in terms of hearing the stories, becoming friends, truly friends, discovering that resources don’t flow just one way, and learning that one can’t claim the role of host all the time -- that it is a gift also to be willing to be guests and to share in people’s lives.

It was also probably some of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and that combination of the goodness and the difficulty has stayed with me. Some of the complexity of trying to do it, the dependence on one another but also how that work eventually surfaces our brokenness. That was probably one of the most formative ones.

Q: Hearing you talk, it’s clear why hospitality would be important in the nature of the church, but for you it is also rooted in the nature of God, right?

Absolutely. I think if we understand God’s welcome to us and the costliness of it, then we can’t really ever be the same. I mean part of it, then, has to be lived out in how we relate to one another, how we relate to strangers while we were still strangers. God welcomed us and so on, so I think that’s a key part. The communion of the Trinity, the mutual indwelling and welcoming that you see there that spills out into our lives, the power of the Eucharist as an expression of welcome and then a reenactment of welcome over and over again -- it seems to me that it just means that hospitality ultimately is absolutely central to the Christian faith.

Q: What do you make of the admonition in the Pastoral Epistles that if the inhospitable want to be leaders they should find some other line of work?

Well, I make of it that if we understand that the church is the household of God, then the people who are leading the church really need to have God’s character. And part of God’s character is to be hospitable. And so, I mean, certainly, we can look back at the early church and recognize the role of the leaders -- that part of it was really to care for travelers, for poor people and so on, and so they needed that kind of practice of hospitality. So I think, yeah. I mean, I can’t imagine -- it’s hard to imagine the early church without hospitality as a significant practice just because of how integral it was to forming community, to taking care of people, to the earliest church to the practices of worship itself.

Q: In the new book you quote Wesley that “one great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them.” It sounds blindingly simple doesn’t it?

I guess it is simple. It’s just hard to do it. We can grasp it conceptually, but he was exceptional in terms of his willingness to move into somewhat unfamiliar terrain and to see people’s situations and to connect with people across pretty significant boundaries. When he was working with other folks and they would say, “Well, I don’t know any poor people,” he would say, “Well, how can you not know poor people? You’ve stayed out of the way of knowing them, and then you plead -- what is it? -- voluntary ignorance as an excuse for hardness of heart.” He really did understand that we can live our lives in ways that keep us completely separate. We can put boundaries around our lives so we don’t even have to connect.

Q: What was it about Wesley that made him go out of his way to do that? What sort of habits and curiosity do you have to have to make you want to leave Oxbridge and go find out how poor people live?

It was pretty early, as part of their spiritual disciplines, that they would visit people in prison and the poor and would sort of take account of it as part of their spiritual growth. Early on, he saw people’s conditions and situations, but also that’s part of who responded, and so it’s mutually reinforcing. He went to the margins, but also it was the margins, at least in some cases, which were the most responsive.

Q: With hospitality, does it seem important that if he goes to evangelize it doesn’t do the same work as an extension of friendship?

A lot of his work and connection was in the form of discipleship, probably the constant visiting and staying with people and so on. He was almost always the guest, not very much the host except in the large settings, but oftentimes in people’s homes.

Q: I love this quote you have used from Jean Vanier that says there’s a relationship between hospitality and the vibrancy of a community, that they go hand in hand. Why is that?

He goes on to say that a community that doesn’t welcome is dying, right? It has to do with recognizing that we have something valuable to share. Once we’ve stopped reaching out, partly we’re making a statement about the fact that we don’t imagine there’s much to welcome people into anymore, but partly it’s also the recognition that the people who come in are people who bring life. Communities that close in on themselves are communities that have very little to offer anymore, but also are not benefiting from the grace that comes in the guest or the stranger.