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Grassroots identity, hospitality, and accountability.

For the images with which I begin I am indebted to Martin Bell in his book The Way of the Wolf. "To be human is to be hungry. All children are hungry. They are born hungry. Most children are always hungry. Some children are starving. It is terrifying to see a starving child. It is more terrifying to be a starving child. Starvation is horrible. To be without food is hell." (1)

One's identity as a human being is tied up with hunger. One's identity as a Christian is likewise tied to hungers: physical and spiritual. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, and because our God loves to turn our conceptions upside-down, God moves back and forth between being guest and host to address or meet these hungers. God is host in that God created the universe and all that lies therein and called it good. God created humankind in God's own image and made every living thing and gave humanity dominion over it--every tree with seed in its fruit, every green plant, etc. (Gen. 1:26-31). God offers the world to us on a platter, so to speak, and says dig in; it is yours.

What God asks in return is acknowledgement of God the creator, to take care of the good creation and to treat it all with respect and dignity. Human beings were to act as godlike hosts to the rest of the creation. Having turned creation over to human beings, God becomes guest, "visiting" that creation.

Long before the days of Motel 6, the Holiday Inn, and bed & breakfasts, back when public inns were rarities, entertainment (hospitality) of a stranger/sojourner as a guest was considered a sacred duty. Hospitality in the ancient world was discharged more from fear and for protection than from generosity. One might entertain the deity or the deity's messengers, as Abraham and Sarah entertained the angels in Genesis. One never knew when one would need a host, being dependent on another.

A traveler entering a city would come to the open place, and, unless a breach of etiquette occurred, someone would invite him/her home and grant the customary graces. Guests were treated with respect and honor and were provided with food for their animals, water for their feet, rest, and a sumptuous feast. One of the most intriguing aspects was that guests enjoyed the protection of the host, even if they were enemies, for three days and thirty-six hours after eating with the host, the length of time that the food they had just eaten sustained them. Hospitality was an expression of virtue, of right living.

Hospitality was likewise a high virtue in the ancient Greek culture, and those who did not practice it were considered barbarians. "Zenos" was the Greek word for guest, literally meaning stranger, yet the same word means "host." Likewise, the Latin word dealing with hospitality, "hostis," is the root for two diverse yet related streams of meaning; it literally means enemy, stranger. From it have come such words as hospice, hospital, hospitality, but also hostility. Extending welcome to the stranger brings risk; its effect can yield healing and nurture or hatred and hurt, or, as we put it biblically: a choice of life or death.

Likewise in the Christian tradition, Jesus and his life/identity exemplifies the choice between hospitality and hostility, life and death, as he moves back and forth between being guest and host. Jesus said that humans cannot live by bread alone. He said that to hungry human beings. He said that to starving children. Yet, Jesus was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, for going among the people eating and drinking, for being a winebibber, for eating when he was hungry and sleeping when he was tired. He was a great guest but an even better host.

The least, the lost, the last, the littlest, the children, the leper, the sick, the mentally deranged, women, the disreputable, the poor, the criminal, the tax collector--Jesus welcomed them all. He touched them, talked with them, healed them, gave them the bread of life as they ate and drank together. John's Gospel presents what some have called "hospitality Christology." Jesus declares right before his death that he will not leave his disciples "orphaned," bereft, stranded, without a home or identity. Jesus himself becomes the bread of life and the living water, so that, if one eats and drinks of him, they will never hunger or thirst. Curiously enough, what has been called the extension of the body of Christ, the church, eats and drinks, feasts and fasts. The central act of the church is the common meal. The ultimate mythical fulfillment of the church is the heavenly banquet. We in the tradition of the disciples on the road to Emmaus encounter a stranger, and in the breaking of the bread we recognize Jesus.

Is not our identity as Christians today likewise tied up in our willingness to extend hospitality to strangers? If we say we want to be like Jesus, will not Jesus hold us accountable to act as God's host to the stranger, the prostitute, the prisoner, the hungry child, the unemployed, the immigrant, those struggling with mental illness or homelessness, the kid at risk of not graduating? "When did I see you hungry or thirsty or in prison" has become the gospel mandate of the Lehigh County Conference of Churches (LCCC). What better way for the church of today to be the body of Christ than to feed Christ's sheep at soup kitchens and food banks, to calm demons by making a safe haven for people struggling with mental illness?

The Vision of the LCCC is: "striving to be the face, feet, hands and heart of God's grace in the [Lehigh Valley], leading the faith community in feeding, clothing, healing, housing, and uniting God's children." Charles, the LCCC Soup Kitchen Coordinator often remarks that "people have a hard time hearing anything else when their stomach is growling. Once their belly is full, they are ready to be filled with something else: hope, openness, God, a readiness to try life again."

We believe it is our sacred duty to risk reaching out to strangers, offering protection and sustenance, especially to those despised or looked down upon by the culture. I could relate many stories of walking with people who were hungry or homeless or kids from the 'hood--how the small efforts we made gave them the hope and determination to turn their lives around. But, I want to end with an example that I hope you hear as a challenge to go and do likewise. Like many faithful churches and groups our Interfaith in Action Committee dutifully studied what the various faith traditions had to say about homelessness. It was all very nice to remember "a wandering Aramean was my ancestor" and to remember the stranger and alien among us as our people had once been strangers too. It was a whole other question when I asked the group if they would be willing to sit down and share a meal with some of our homeless clients.

"Do you need some help down at the soup kitchen?" one asked. No, I was not talking about feeding the hungry, as important as that is. I was talking about sitting down opposite somebody who has lived outdoors for several years, engaging them in conversation, human being to human being, in a way where it is totally unclear who is the guest and who is the host. I was talking about taking a risk of entering into relationship with somebody one would not ordinarily get to know through the breaking of bread. What happened? The rabbi came in his golf shirt and flipped hotdogs with John, a recovering alcoholic, and they talked Eagles football. I sat across the table from Tyrone and Bill, who keep us in stitches telling us jokes and stories. The haves and have-nots vision of one another was stretched as each reached out to the other.

We began that day strangers but ended as friends, because God calls us to embrace real hospitality--not some domesticated social grace of polite conversation over a light meal, but holy hospitality, the survival mechanism of God wherein we are deeply aware of the possible peril of someday being in a place without the necessities of life. So, we reach out to strangers and implore them to come into the safety of our tent, trusting that God will provide the same in our hour of need.

"To be human is to be hungry. All children are hungry. They are born hungry. Most children are always hungry. Some children are starving. It is terrifying to see a starving child. It is more terrifying to be a starving child. Starvation is horrible. To be without food is hell." (2)

Bread of life; cup of salvation. Feed one another until we want no more.

(1) Martin Bell, The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images (New York: Ballentine Books, 1983 [orig., Seabury Press, 1968, 1969, 1970]), p. 33.

(2) Ibid.

Christine L. Nelson (United Church of Christ) has been Executive Director of the Lehigh County (PA) Conference of Churches since 1999. Ordained in 1978, she has served local parishes in the Pennsylvania Southeast and Penn Northeast Conferences of the U.C.C. Among her community awards is the Wallenberg Tribute Award of the Institute for Jewish Christian Understanding of Muhlenberg College. Her community involvements include serving on the Muhlenberg College Board of Associates and the Lehigh Valley Health Network Board of Associates She is a frequent contributor to the (Allentown) Morning Call religious and editorial pages. She has been a member of the National Association of Ecumenical and Interreligious Staff. She received her B.A. in psychology from Edinboro (PA) University; an M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, S. Hamilton, MA; and a D.Min. (1998) from Hartford (CT) Seminary, with a thesis titled "Saying Yes to a Future Shaped by God: Change and the Church." She has chaired the Stewardship Council of the United Church of Christ and served on the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. She has also been President of Phoebe Home and served on the Phoebe Ministries Board of Directors.
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Author:Nelson, Christine L.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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