In twentieth century America, hospitality began to regain some cultural footing.

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s and offered soup kitchens, communitarian farms, and voluntary poverty as a way of expressing Christian hospitality. Some scholars even claim that Day and Maurin’s Catholic Worker movement provided “the most formative understandings of hospitality” in the twentieth century. Maurin expressed his conviction that a personal approach to care and responsibility was essential to the Christian life and to human well-being.

The Catholic Worker movement illustrated how much a small effort of hospitality could transform the lives of many communities. Day and Maurin invited discussions about the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor and conversed about the danger of hospitality: that people would take advantage of generous hospitality. Was it too risky to respond to the stranger in the 1930s America? Or today?

Today, the idea of welcoming a stranger into our home is fraught with danger. Tracy McNulty writes that our modern hospitality is a form of parasitism, where the stranger is a hostile invader of the host nation.

In this shift, the theological importance of hospitality appears to have been supplanted entirely by something that is mutually exclusive with it: in religious myth, the hospitality act was forbidden to have any economic dimension, and the stranger was held to be divine and to merit the absolute respect of the host. The more irrational side of our relation to the stranger—fear, anxiety, and hatred—seems to grow ever more virulent.

Therefore, the modern practice of hospitality is quite subversive. True hospitality is countercultural. “Hospitality is resistance,” as one person from the Catholic Worker observed. If the larger society ignores or dishonors certain people, then small acts of respect and welcome point to a different system. When the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves.

What does it look like to practice hospitality in the twenty first century? The Reformed Journal and here on The Twelve, we try to welcome strangers into discourse and discussion about what it means to be reformed and reforming in an ever-changing world.

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Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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