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Divine Hospitality and the Work of Welcome

By November 5, 2015 No Comments

Some of our regular readers likely know that this academic year I’m serving Western Theological Seminary in a new capacity: associate dean for diversity and cultural competency. I’m proud to work for a theological school that has identified growth in diversity and cultural competency as core to its mission in the twenty-first century. From now into the foreseeable future, we will implement strategic actions that enable us to value diversity, practice cultural self-assessment, manage the dynamics of difference, and unlearn racism.

One question frequently arises as we undertake this work: how to avoid defining diversity in managerial terms and instead to understand it as flowing from our core theological convictions. There is no single theological argument for diversity. No single way to articulate God’s ministry that puts to death certain patterns in our life together and raises to life others. So let me suggest one that is biblically grounded, that resonates with our school’s identity, and that might be taken up in a variety of organizations and communities of faith: HOSPITALITY.

HOSPITALITY begins with God, not us. God receives us into a space not our own, into connection with God. The Spirit has united us to God in and through Christ so that we dwell with God. We are attached to God, because God in Jesus Christ has welcomed us widely. We receive this welcome with gratitude, with thankfulness enacted in our worship of God and in our fellowship and solidarity with each other.

While this hospitality is first and foremost gift (something we receive rather than earn), it does not result in passivity or insularity. Being welcomed by God so freely, so fully, so unexpectedly, and so unconditionally shapes us into a welcoming people. Having been embraced by God, we embrace others. And not just those with whom we have natural affinity. For the church is not a homogenous group consisting of those who look like us, talk like us, think like us, or vote like us. It is a community in which the stranger becomes a guest so that the guest might become a friend. The cultivation of this kind of community requires work.

Leanne van Dyk, former academic dean and vice president of academic affairs at Western Theological Seminary, was installed as the tenth president of Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA) last week. She has named racial reconciliation as a core commitment of her presidency. In her inaugural sermon, she said this:

“Welcome is work because, as fallen and broken people, we seem to prefer to curl in on ourselves in fear rather than open ourselves in love. Welcome is work because, this side of heaven, it is predictably precisely what we do not do. Instead, we reject, we judge, we label, we build walls, we dismiss, we turn our backs, we shut our eyes, we stop our ears, we do not welcome. It’s easier that way – easier not to welcome. Welcome takes work.”

Given my role as associate dean, I spend a lot of time focused on the communal work of welcome. Hospitality is concrete, particular, embodied. And for white-dominant institutions, it is supremely challenging work:

  • It is the work of identifying and transforming institutional patterns and practices that benefit some more than, or at the expense of, others.
  • It is the work of identifying and transforming racial microaggressions, the ubiquity of which depletes and wounds the few people of color in our midst.
  • It is the work of learning about cultural differences and similarities and then avoiding the temptation to apply that little bit of knowledge so indiscriminately that we perpetuate stereotypes.
  • It is the work of speaking up, again and again. Niceness (whether that’s Dutch niceness, Minnesota niceness, or so-called southern hospitality) has no place in this work of welcome. Kindness and respect, yes. But a veneer of politeness that goes no further than a smile, no. This veneer too often reinforces white silence and that reinforces the status quo of exclusion. For this reason, such niceness itself needs to be put to death and resurrected as patterns of speech and action that resemble God’s extravagant hospitality extended to us in Christ.

Perhaps this work sounds too daunting, too overwhelming, too all-consuming. If so, that’s not all bad. Otherwise I fear we haven’t grasped the depth and breadth of the call to hospitality, on the one hand, or the pervasiveness of white dominance and racism, on the other. At the same time, it is good for us to be reminded that our work of welcome finds its source and sustenance in God’s. When we refuse God’s welcome and refuse to welcome others, when we segregate ourselves and perpetuate the very thing we want to dismantle (racism), we are reminded of God’s promise of a joyful feast when people of all ethnicities will come from east and west and from north and south and sit at table together. Grounded in this promise, we are empowered to live more fully into and out of God’s wide welcome.

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