Recovering hospitality

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By Nancy Kennedy

Recently, I wrote a story for the newspaper about a young couple from France who flew from Paris to Miami and then set out to walk to Argentina.

They came through my community on their way north to the Florida panhandle, then west to Texas and down to Mexico, Central America and South America. They estimate they'll get to the tip of Argentina in about two years.

Carrying just their backpacks, they walk 20 miles a day. At 6 p.m. they start knocking on doors, asking people if they could set up their tent in the yard for the night. They don't ask for anything else - they buy their own food from the market. Just a spot in the yard to sleep.

Some people say no. Some people invite them in and let them sleep inside their house. It probably helps that they're young and adorable. Laetitia is 23 and William is 26. They're from Bordeaux in southern France. About two years ago, they decided to travel the world while they're still young.

Laetitia said some people think they're crazy and some think they're brave. I think they're both. I cannot fathom leaving my safe, comfortable home and venturing into a foreign land, not knowing where I'm going to sleep each night, totally dependent on the kindness and hospitality of strangers.

Their story sparked an uncomfortable conversation at lunch as my friends and I discussed, not being strangers knocking on people's doors, but being the ones to open the door. What would our response be?

One friend said she thinks she would invite them in, or at least let them stay in her yard. The other friend said she likes to think she would let them stay, but she's not sure.

I am older and more jaded than either of my friends and utterly ashamed to admit that I would say no. My first thought would be for my safety. What if they had guns or knives? (I've seen way too many episodes of "Law and Order" and "CSI.")

But it's so much worse than not letting strangers stay in my yard. I'm even more ashamed to admit that I rarely even invite friends over for dinner. Hospitality does not come easily to me. It's just not my thing.

In the book "Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition," author Christine Pohl says true, biblical hospitality isn't what we think it is. Beyond tea parties and potlucks and having folks over for hot dogs, biblical hospitality has a moral dimension, offering food, shelter and protection to strangers and actually welcoming them into your home.

"Unless we travel in a foreign country, live through the devastation of a storm ... or run into car trouble on the road, we're unlikely to know what it is to be a vulnerable stranger needing someone else's help," Pohl writes. "In a highly individualistic and commercial society, depending on the generosity of others is difficult and sometimes feels degrading."

Besides, that's why God created Hilton Garden Inns, so we wouldn't have to depend on others or have them depend on us.

Still, Pohl says, in many societies (and some communities here in the U.S.) hospitality to strangers "remains a highly valued moral practice, an important expression of kindness, mutual aid, neighborliness and response to the life of faith."

In the Bible, the Israelites understood themselves to be strangers and pilgrims with an obligation to care for strangers in their midst. It was part of what it meant to be God's people.

It still is, but somehow we've lost that sense of spiritual obligation, Pohl says. I am a prime example. Even so, Jesus said when you welcome strangers, you welcome him.

Now confronted with my inhospitality, I can't see myself inviting the next person who knocks on my door to spend the weekend on my couch. However, I can extend a lunch invitation to someone I don't normally eat with. That much - that little - I can do, with the hope I can grow from there.

As I said, hospitality doesn't come easily to me, but if I call myself a child of God, it's not an option.