On Hospitality

This column is online at Questformeaning.org, a ministry of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

Dear PeaceBang,

I know that there are certain biases I have which keep me from being welcoming to everyone.   For instance, I don’t like people who prostelytize me.  But is that really a problem?  Isn’t being unwelcoming to them actually a mark of spiritual health?

Dear Biased,

Yea, it’s a problem. It’s a problem whenever we harden our hearts against any category of people because of their irritating behavior, or when we deride spiritual practices because they might make us feel personally awkward or uncomfortable.  I hear you asking me not only for permission to not welcome those people in your heart, but to applaud your rejection as a sign of spiritual well-being. Sorry, no cigar. Being open-minded and generous-hearted is at the core of our faith, and it’s not easy or comfortable. It requires us to genuinely appreciate diversity not only as a hypothetical, but as a lived and challenging reality.

When you’re out and about doing your thing and you meet someone who starts trying to save your soul, you’re completely within your rights to walk away. You’re not obliged to engage. You could say something like, “Thanks for your concern, but I have certain faith that my immortal soul is in the hands of a loving God (or benevolent Universe)” and move on.  Unless someone is proselytizing in a way that is abusive of you or the community and needs to be challenged, accept that they’re simply trying to share their good news with you, and respond politely. Remember that your response is just as much an expression of your faith as is their proselytizing.

I once saw a UU man at a General Assembly accept a pamphlet from a totally respectful Christian street evangelist, wave it over his head and say, “I got JEEEEZUS!” and then throw the pamphlet on the ground with a derisive snort. I consider his behavior a form of spiritual violence.

Since our theme in this column is hospitality, let’s define what we mean when we use that term. Hospitality isn’t about merely opening the door and saying, “You may come in, I permit you.” Our religious tradition calls us to something more mature and deeper than that. The moral virtue of hospitality asks that we provide food, drink and shelter to the stranger, even at a sacrifice to us and our kin.  In my family we had the expression “FHB,” which meant, “Family hold back” when someone stopped by unexpectedly for dinner. The idea was that you put less on your plate with an eye for making sure the guest got well fed. It is an ethic of deep generosity, and one that is practiced by many cultures the world over.

We are such individualists these days, and so accustomed to consider our comfort to be of paramount importance that we forget that community only works when we are willing to extend ourselves beyond the comfort zone, and to be present to people as they are. In the case of the proselyte, we must understand that winning converts is a religious imperative in many religious traditions and they’re just engaging in their spiritual practice when they witness to us. There is no need to take it as a personal insult, and there is no need to get angry and defensive while standing in our own truth. At best, we can guide the conversation to a place where we can find common ground.

If this little script is helpful to you, I hope you’ll use it:

“I know that you’re a member of a religious tradition that is really committed to saving souls. I just want you to know that I don’t think we can have a really productive conversation about that because my own theological tradition has been preaching universal salvation for hundreds of years, so we’re not going to find common ground on that issue. But thank you for caring about my soul. I’d be happy to accept your prayers on my behalf. In my own way I will be praying for your peace and well-being, too.”

I am not naive. I know that many of us have been witnessed to in ways that degrade our very being.  In those cases, you’ve got to excuse yourself and get out of the room. But much of the time, the person proselytizing truly means no harm. We miss out on a lot of potential friendships and partnerships when we presume that the former is always true. You asked about marks of spiritual health. Being able to stay in the conversation with those who initially make us uncomfortable is definitely a mark of spiritual health.

Dear PeaceBang,

As a trans person, I am constantly pushed away by other people’s perceptions of who I should be, how I should conform to their expectations or binary constructions of male/ female.   I guess my own practice is not to have this turn me into someone shut down and inhospitable myself.  Any tips?

I bet you’re tired of hearing this, but I think of trans people in our society as pioneers. By virtue of your courage and insistence on living your interior truth in an exterior way, you’re changing the world. My experience with out trans folk is that you’re constantly under a really extraordinary and unique kind of stress that very few people will ever be able to understand. Just having you out and in the community is mind-blowing for a huge number of people for whom the whole trans concept is brand new, and who will take a long time to even grasp the concept of trans identity. I’m sure it gets exhausting and infuriating to constantly be confronted with people’s confusion, hostility, dumbfoundedness and insistence that you’re not allowed to transcend gender binaries, but that’s what a pioneer does: they’re traveling new territory and it’s really bumpy riding.

I think of those pioneers who have represented groups of people who are being regarded with disgust, ignorance or confusion by the majority population and I think, well there are your special mentors in this spiritual work. Stock your shelves with their books, post their quotes on your walls, inscribe their prayers for strength and patience on your heart. These are friends in the spirit who know at least some measure of your struggle. Spend as much time with them as you do with intimate friends who are in your social circle.

Hospitality is connected to grace, which we might define as the constant surprise of encountering unearned love and blessing. If you have experienced the grace of knowing that you are right in body and soul as you are, as a trans person, that’s a wellspring of power that no one can take from you. Do you know how rare that is? Most of the people who freak out at the very fact of your being have never experienced that sense of rightness in their own bodies and souls. If you can cultivate a sense of genuine compassion for this sad truth, you will find that you are able to embody the heart of hospitality wherever you are. Those who have experienced grace can afford to be gracious.

And finally, this: To be truly free is the greatest joy any human can know. Consider that what scares and infuriates people most about you is not so much related to gender, but to freedom. Freedom is an endless banquet of riches, and some people are terrified of that feast. They’ve had it drummed into their heads by controlling people and institutions that the food offered there is dangerous or poisonous. The essence of hospitality is to invite people to the table with a smile, not to drag them to it. Pull out a chair and leave it there without judgment. Some people will dig into the meal right away, others may take time to get there, and others would rather starve to death. Meanwhile, let’s give thanks for the banquet that is set before us and nourish ourselves from it.


2 Replies to “On Hospitality”

  1. I love your reflections here, especially the last paragraph, which reminds me of a movie that illustrates this whole idea beautifully: “Babette’s Feast.”

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