Last week, I led an adult mission trip to the western tip of Virginia, Lee County. (By the way, the trip was though the organization Appalachia Service Project. Great organization!) Our group spent the week digging a trench and installing a retaining wall to help with drainage around the house and installed insulation on the bottom of the house to help with heating and cooling. There are 12 people living in about a 900-square foot house….and moisture is causing mold in the house. Our work assisted in improving the quality of life and health of the family.
Now, there are many pros and cons to short term mission trips like this. Those arguments have been laid out and analyzed, both the social and theological implications. And I don’t want to get into that here. What was probably most striking for me, and what I am wrestling with the most, is the notion of hospitality – how it was given and received.
The giving wasn’t hard. Our group, our congregation, prides itself on extending hospitality to the stranger – to the one who comes from the outside, the one who may not have the abundance we have, the one who comes, seeking relationship with us. We extended hospitality in many ways, from speaking with the family, to our service project, to being as open and inviting as possible for the sake of relationship with the family.
Yet, receiving the hospitality of the family was a different matter. I can recall countless times that family offered us water to drink, a snack to share, a chair to sit on, and thoughtful gifts. One of our couples on the trip celebrated their 26th Anniversary. The family learned of this, and upon returning from some errands in town, generously gave the couple some cookies they had bought….”we would’ve bought a cake, but we couldn’t find the right one. I hope this will do.” And, like their offers of water, snacks, gifts, this gift was met with a response of awkward acknowledgment at best. We were all often hesitant and uncomfortable in taking up their generous offer to be gracious hosts to us throughout the week.
That raises a big question for me: “What is so difficult about receiving hospitality from others – neighbors, particularly strangers, and especially those we perceive to have less resources from which to offer hospitality?” My church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), among other churches, stress welcoming and inviting the stranger – open doors to the church, the Christian community. But yet, we’re hesitant to receive hospitality from those we want to welcome and invite – not entering through their open doors, their community. In fact, I’d even go as far to say we are unwilling and in some ways, unable to receive hospitality from others. If that’s true….what is that saying to those strangers and neighbors that we so want to share God’s love and be in relationship with? The answer to that question would suggest many things, one being their hospitality isn’t a worthy gift. It has no value to us.
That makes me uncomfortable….because it’s a bit condemning for not only me, but for the church I love to serve, and for the faith I confess. Being welcoming and inviting is certainly important for Christians and for the church today. But I think we’d do well to address our inability to receive hospitality from the other – the integrity of our faith, how the other experiences God through us, and our own pursuit and longing for transformational relationships, is at stake.