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Essay

Welcoming the Stranger

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It will probably be obvious once you begin reading that I am not Theresa if for no other reason than I refer to being a grandparent and Theresa is on maternity leave. I am Mary Vanden Berg, a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was asked to fill in for Theresa so for a little while, I will be the person behind Theresa’s name. I have a husband, three grown children, and one new grandchild. I love God, the church, my family, and my students at Calvin, to name just a few things. I work on topics like atonement, sanctification, aging, and death, which my husband thinks is depressing but I find life-giving. Thanks for reading!

 

            Hospitality is a word that has had renewed traction in Christian circles for at least the past fifteen years or so. While an exact definition may be hard to pin down, most people know what is meant when the word is used. Its not a word like ‘epistemology’ that your average person would need to look up.

             For many people, hospitality carries connotations of welcome, befriending, or embracing, to name a few. In fact there is a whole industry that is identified as the hospitality industry and one can major in the management of this particular industry at some colleges. If you talk to the people who work in this industry that includes things like hotels and restaurants, they will tell you that a good part of their goal is to help people feel comfortable and “at home” when they are away from home. My former professor, Dr. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., once defined hospitality this way: “making space for someone and helping them to flourish in that space.” That just about sums it up.

             The problem is, while we can come up with a nice, neat way to talk about hospitality, it is not as easily practiced. Well, at least it is not so easily practiced in its entirety. By that I mean that I think we do pretty well making space for someone most of the time. But the tougher part is helping someone flourish in that space. That step takes considerably more effort.

             Think of the average church you might have visited. While there are always exceptions, my experience has been that I am welcomed warmly by those sitting near me. Maybe I am invited to a coffee or fellowship time of some sort after worship and on occasion, the person that invited me stays with me during that time. Only very rarely have I been invited to someone’s home for coffee or dinner. Space is made for me but not much help in the realm of flourishing in that space.

             By contrast, my mother was the queen of hospitality. We rarely had dinner with only our immediate family at the table on Sundays. We tended to live in areas with high student or military populations. These people would regularly join our family of eight for dinner. These were not one time invitations. These were relationships. I encountered evidence of this a few years back when I ran into a person who had been the recipient of this hospitality as a young man. He fondly remembered being embraced by our family, particularly my parents. My parents continue to receive greetings from all over the world from persons whom they welcomed many years ago.

             When I look back at those experiences I realize that my parents did not seem concerned that these persons were not from our Dutch background, although some were. It did not matter that they often looked different from us or that English was their second language. My mom didn’t seem to stress out over whether her food would be adequate enough or the parsonage clean enough, although both were always the case. She simply welcomed the stranger and expected that if he or she felt at home with us, they might also feel at home in our church. And sometimes that is exactly how it worked.

             The key, I think, is that she and my father had the unique ability to accept people where they were, whether that was the railroad “bum” in Houston, British Columbia, or naval officer in Oak Harbor, Washington, or the international students in Ann Arbor, Michigan. All were welcome to get to know us, and we them. And sometimes, in this encounter, these strangers found themselves believing in the God in whose name my parents did all of this and being transformed by that knowledge.

             A pastor I know once said, “come as you are, but don’t expect to stay that way.” Right. But first we must make ample space for the stranger, those not like us, to come and listen and learn the ways of the kingdom.

 

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