Despite immense tragedy and dissonance occurring in our world, we live in a uniquely opportune time. Over the past 50 years, we have had the opportunity to encounter people of other faith traditions more often than ever before. In past eras of human history, we rarely got very close to one other—particularly geographically. Now, we are literally living on top of each another and are intimately impacted by individuals and communities different from ourselves and our families of origin. We have the chance to understand each other in new ways—to learn about faith beliefs and practices, to participate in each other’s cultural rituals, to become friends, and at times even to have people of other faith traditions become part of our family or extended family. However, this new proximity demands new forms of hospitality and presents us with unprecedented opportunities for creating a more just and humane world.
When it comes to religion, I think more and more of us are experiencing what Amy Hollingsworth has called: “holy curiosity.” We are curious about our world, and we are curious about how the Sacred is impacting it. More and more of us are curious about how we can cooperate with this Divine activity that exists both in our communities but also clearly outside of them. More of us want to do what we can to co-create a new kind of world.
I recently spoke at an Interfaith Iftar dinner hosted by the Pacific Institute. Iftar, which means “break-fast,” is the meal at the end of each day during Ramadan that signifies the breaking of the day’s fast. The theme of the evening was “building hospitality as a way of life.” One of the great blessings of intercultural conversation is that it invites us back to the deep roots of our words. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “building” like this: “forming, by ordering and uniting materials, by gradual means, into a composite whole.” To build you must order and unite materials in an incremental way so that your “composite whole” is made up of previously existing parts, but what is built turns into something quite different. This is the process for building, whether you are making a table, remodeling a closet or erecting a skyscraper. Because of my background in carpentry, building is significant to me. My father was a commercial contractor and I worked with him for many years first as an AFL-CIO carpenter, and then as a manager in the family business. With this kind of background, the word “building” elicits many memories. Building, as a concept, is deep in my bones—I’m always building something new at home. In some ways, I even see my job at the School of Theology and Ministry as one of “building” as well—building a new kind of school dealing with the issues of religion, spirituality and ethics.
The other significant word in this phrase, hospitality, is defined as “the act or service of welcoming, receiving, hosting, or entertaining guests.” “Hospitality” comes from the Latin word for “guest-house, or inn.” The Greek word usually translated as “hospitality,” philoxenia (fil-on-ex-ee’-ah), means “love of strangers.” The Greek word for love—“philo”—found in this translation of hospitality, is reserved for a family or brotherly type of love. Therefore, it is important to note that this is not merely a tolerance of strangers, or a friendliness toward strangers, but rather a love of strangers. You might also recognize that hospitality comes from the same root as hospital, the place we go to heal illness. Similarly, the act of hospitality “heals” the divisions in the human race. In opens up possibilities for peace and justice to kiss, and it allows us to become more fully who God created us to become – people who try to shape the world according to God’s true design, rather than our own. Hospitality makes us well as an individual and as a people.
So, we might describe the act of building hospitality as: ordering and uniting humans so that through learning to love strangers we (and they) may become healed and together create a new kind of humanity.
The founding story of our school, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, was rooted in this idea. A Jesuit priest, Bill Sullivan, and Raymond Hunthausen, the former archbishop of Seattle, wanted to create a university learning commons grounded in religious hospitality. Together they invited Protestant leaders to come and create a new kind of school, one grounded in our common identity as Christians that took our differences seriously, but took our similarities even more seriously. As you may know our Christian ecumenism has broadened to a place of interreligious hospitality. We now have an Interfaith council and we have people of many different religious traditions pursuing degrees. In fact, we had our first Muslim graduate walk across the stage at commencement in mid-June!
This way of doing hospitality can help us explore our holy curiosity in a way that honors those who are different from us, but it also requires a deep sense of trust—trusting that I will not lose my way in opening myself to your way. I must trust in myself, and in what I know; and I must trust in God to guide and protect me in this endeavor. Hospitality requires me to go deep into my interiority, to become more self-aware, to become more reflective, more attentive to what occurs behind my eyes and what occurs in front of my eyes.
The longer I am involved in interfaith encounter and dialogue, the more I am convinced of the great wisdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s recognition of the commonalities of the People of the Book. In fact, Islam, Judaism and Christianity have consistent messages about the critical role this virtue should play in our lives of faith. The Holy Koran values hospitality as a manifestation of righteousness, so much in fact, that it carefully lists the strangers and wayfarers we meet in the same category as parents, kinfolk and neighbors. In discussing the purpose of our existence, we are also told in the holy book: “Humans, we have created you from male and female and have divided you into nations and tribes that you come to know one another” (Surah 49:13). It almost sounds as if Allah separated us so that we would have to find our way back to mutual respect and knowledge of one another. Perhaps in our journey back to a greater appreciation for each other we will learn things that we could not learn otherwise.
The Jewish tradition also reveals an important message of hospitality. God tells the Hebrew people in Leviticus: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (19:33-34). Similarly, the Christian tradition has often used the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a model of true hospitality. If you have not heard this story from the Gospel of Luke, it goes like this: a man traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho is attacked by robbers, stripped, beat and left for dead on the side of the road. Two holy Jewish people passed him on the road, a priest and a Levite, but none stopped to help. Finally, a Samaritan traveling on the road saw the wounded man, and moved with pity, he bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn, and told the innkeeper that he (the Samaritan) would pay for all the expenses needed to nurse the wounded person back to health. The Samaritan, Jesus told the crowd, was the good neighbor and the righteous person.
The Good Samaritan story is usually interpreted as the story of a person of exemplary compassion. In the time of Jesus, this story would have offended many of his listeners because many Jews did not treat Samaritans with high regard. Martin Luther King, Jr., however, thought it was a story more about hospitality, and particularly the courage it takes to reach out to people different from ourselves. It could have been dangerous for the Samaritan to stop and help the man, yet the Samaritan courageously reaches out to him. If we are paying attention, we see this same courageous hospitality in the news all the time. Perhaps the most dramatic example of it the past few weeks has occurred at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This famous African-American church offered a Wednesday night Bible study open to the public. One Wednesday evening a few weeks ago, a troubled young man named Dylann Storm Roof came to the group and enjoyed almost an hour of the congregation’s hospitality. Roof then killed nine people for no other reason than they were black. I do not think anyone would have blamed this community if they closed the doors of their church to outsiders after this brutal, senseless attack. However, when the community resumed its Bible study a little more than week later, the congregation made it clear the Bible study would remain a model of hospitality and would welcome anyone who wanted to come.
There is a common message behind our traditions’ commandments to practice radical hospitality in our lives of faith. We are “interconnected” to one another in profound ways. I love the metaphor that Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, an esteemed Turkish preacher and author, uses when describing this reality: we are “all teeth in one comb.” However, the religions of the book teach us that hospitality is not just about connecting with the stranger—it is about connecting with ourselves as well. The hospitality that brings people of different worldviews together forces each of us to look deeper into our own religious tradition, to understand, at a more sophisticated level, why our tradition teaches and operates as it does. Trudy Conway, a Christian philosopher who married a Turkish Muslim man, says a fruit of the conversation coming from hospitality is that it purifies “the dialect of the tribe.” When we are hospitable to those who are different from ourselves, it helps us to see and motivates us to eliminate the shortsightedness within our own interpretations of our faith tradition. Situations of hospitality make us more aware of our own beliefs and assumptions. It pushes us to articulate, to voice, the religious tradition that lives in us and gives our days meaning, and motivates us to want to be better people.
Hospitality is one of the most difficult virtues to master in part because it is so central—so many other virtues radiate out from this fundamental practice. The spirit of hospitality is the grounding feature in other virtues, such as humility, courtesy, loving-kindness, patience, mercy and restorative justice, and hope. Hospitality does not come to us magically or easily. We can’t decide to become hospitable with an act of will—it is a difficult habit of the heart and the mind, and an “advanced” virtue. Hospitality requires me to make room in my own inner life because it invites those different from me into the inner sanctum of my thoughts and feelings about the things that are most important to me. This takes an enormous amount of courage, because if I allow you to draw close and for you to share you experience and the wisdom you have found in life that helps you make sense of your existence, and I do the same with you, I may need to modify some of my beliefs. I can fear that the firm ground upon which I stand in my inner world could begin to give way to new realities I have not considered. I can fear that some of my confidence in what I “know” and “believe” and even who I am may shift.
However, through the long process of regular prayer, meditating on our sacred texts and songs, participation in ritual and the life of faith shared by an entire community, our interiority is gradually changed—step-by-step, inch-by-inch. The fasting, prayer and efforts at enhancing personal holiness during the rituals of our traditions are ways to BUILD room in our inner world for the changes hospitality brings to our sense of self and sense of identity. Gradually, we are shaped into a new “composite whole,” people with new values or deeper values, people who have a broader horizon for understanding the world, and the people who inhabit it. Hospitality can stretch our capacity to change the world around us in new ways and we are stronger together than we are alone.
In this practice of hospitality, we are people of faith encountering other people of faith. Because of this, we are challenged to broaden our image of God. A Jesuit friend of mine from India, Paul Coutinho, wrote a very popular book entitled, “How Big Is Your God?” Paul grew up alongside Hindus in Goa, India. Because he experienced in the faith of Hindu people the same Spirit of God he had come to know in his years of prayer and study to become a Catholic priest, he credits them with challenging him to allow his idea about God to enlarge. He did not become less Christian or Catholic in this process. In fact, he came to understand his Christian and Catholic faith at a much deeper level. More importantly, he came to see truth and goodness and beauty against the broader canvas of our diverse world. In the process, his God got bigger. Similarly, Timothy Radcliffe, a famous Dominican priest looks at it through the images of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Isaiah:
“We need to learn other languages of faith,” Radcliff says, “extend our vocabularies: ‘Enlarge the place of your tent,” he quotes from Isiaah, “and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords” (54:2).
It is a real challenge to practice true hospitality, but it is something that God calls us to do. I think the mystical traditions in our religious heritages have caught on to the spiritual benefits of this practice better than anyone. Consider the wise words of Rumi, in his poem, “The Guest House:”
This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival…of an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably…meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from above.
This is tough work, but good work. With the problems we see in the world right now, I also cannot think of more important work.