Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Heb 13:1-2)
When my family first came to Canada in 2004, there was apprehension about many things. Thoughts revolve around lifestyle choices, worries over ability to cope, concerns about affordable housing, questions about safety on the streets. Uprooting ourselves from our comfortable setting in Singapore was easier said than done. Amazingly, God was there walking with us, as we embarked upon a journey of uncertainty. How do we know? He was there speaking the language of hospitality.
There were three comforting arms of hospitality. Firstly, we know we came with the prayers and love of our friends and family in home, church and colleagues. Secondly, we were embraced by a loving community at Regent-College. Thirdly, Vancouver for all its flaws, is still a very welcoming city. This three-fold hospitality is a major factor in helping us to adjust: Assurances from Home (personal level), Warmth within the new Community (neighborhood level) and a welcoming culture at large (society level). (That is one reason why Vancouver has been consistently ranked among the top best cities to live in.)
As I was pondering about the word 'hospitality,' I cannot help but feel that this is also the heart of evangelism. Conventional evangelism methods focus on something like tract distribution, mass rallies and even 'friendship' evangelism. These things have worked in the past, but are getting less popular. Moreover, many cities are now adopting a secular and pluralistic culture, meaning it is no longer that easy to share the gospel in the traditional sense. Even if the rallies and 4-spiritual laws manage to bring people to the faith, many new converts fail to sustain their initial fire for God. Some went back to their old ways. Some were let down by what the modern church has to offer or not offer. Some lost their faith. The few that remained, did so because they have experienced hospitality in some way.
Flying 8000 miles meant that we have to give away many things. From furniture to cutlery, from electronics to books and for the kids, from clothing to toys. For me, I have to surrender the privilege of having a domestic helper as well as the conveniences of affordable food delicacies. We miss our friends, our family and even our business associates. In our hearts, we were preparing to rough it out in faith. With our hands, we were prepared to work. I managed to find some work amid my busy studies, at $10 per week! A simple cup of Starbucks coffee would have wiped out nearly a quarter of my earnings. The whole experience may have been low in monetary payback, but high in community acceptance.
Imagine our surprise when neighbors start to knock on our doors, asking if we need stuff. Graduating students donated things like DVD player, plates, cups, chairs. Some sold off their stuff at unbelievably low prices. We were invited to meals. We were greeted with warm hugs and mugs of coffee when we visit churches on cold Winter Sunday mornings. Even the society at large welcomed us by not discriminating us based on skin color, or citizenship. For example, at the public libraries, we can borrow up to 50 items on a free library card, as long as we can produce a local residential address that proves we are residents. We do not need to be citizens or Permanent Residents. Our kids too did not need to pay school fees while we are there. It felt immensely comforting to be welcomed into a strange and new land.
What does it take to build a welcoming culture in the Church?
For Patrick Keifert, he thinks that we can build a welcoming culture by 'welcoming the stranger.' In his book of the same name, he argues that worship and evangelism are not separate works but one. He observes that churches are often very unhospitable to people who are different from the rest. He extends the word 'stranger' to include those who attend churches but fail to be accepted within any group inside the church. Like it or not, church people tend to distinguish one another based on class, race, age, or life situations. People generally gravitate toward those who are more or less like them. It is thus common to feel like a stranger within the church home. While trying to be in church on time, trying to serve in the various ministries and trying to participate meaningfully in Sunday worship, have we forgotten that worshiping God also includes 'welcoming the stranger?' That was what Abraham did when he saw the three strangers outside his door (Gen 18). That was what Jesus did when he saw Zacchaeus the tax collector shunned by the community. That was what the writer of Hebrews urged us to do, to welcome strangers by showing them hospitality (Heb 13:2).
In our affluent society, what is most needed is not more money, more time or more things. These are important, but let them not become more important over people. Jesus did not die for money, for things or for more time to pursue our businesses. He died for real lives. We need a little more love and understanding. We need not more time to ourselves, but to give more time to others. We show hospitality when we realize that it is not about us. It is not even about others. It is about our love for God, that is reflected through our love for others and then ourselves. True hospitality means building bridges to make meaningful connections. True hospitality encourages. True hospitality opens up our homes and our hearts. True hospitality welcomes the stranger. May we adopt eyes of hospitality to reach out and touch someone who is hurting or needy today. Perhaps, the first step is to ask them for permission to let us help them.
Thought: Who are the strangers within your circle of influence? Can we like Jesus ask them to 'invite us' into their homes?
"He who practices hospitality, entertains God himself." (anonymous)