Radical Hospitality

A Miami Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship sermon

Rev. Amy Russell (MVUUF Minister 2007-2013) – May 3, 2009

The monks of the St. Benedict order live by a spiritual ethos that teaches them to listen and be open to the spiritual wisdom that the world offers them. This means that they practice a hospitality toward strangers that might seem odd to us. They welcome anyone in their doors; they feed them and they listen to them. Their approach to strangers is one of invitation with the intention to listen to whatever the stranger offers. After all, they perceive that any stranger could be a holy teacher.

Father Daniel Holman is a St. Benedictine monk who lives in a monastery in Oxford, Michigan in a beautiful mountainous region. Father Dan was taking a walk one day on the grounds of the monastery with his elderly friend, Father Noel. It was one of those gorgeous spring days, like we’ve been having, where you just worship the fresh air and the beautiful greenness that has appeared in the world like magic. The monastery has acres of rolling grass that invites you to just stretch out and feel its softness. There is also a working farm on the grounds where the monks invite the community to help them in the farming of crops.

While Father Dan and Father Noel were walking and engaged in conversation they noticed some hay wagon drivers who were leaning against their wagon. Dan stopped and noticed that the young men were clearly passing a joint back and forth, looking very relaxed as they enjoyed the scenery.

Father Dan looked over to the elder Father Noel, who had been born in Italy and had been a monk all of his life, and had obviously not recognized the telltale smell of marijuana. Father Noel smiled graciously at the young men, and exclaimed with great relish, “Young men, we are so glad that you are with us today to enjoy our grass.”

Such hospitality. Such warmth we will probably not find in our neighborhoods.

Greg Mortenson experienced such hospitality when he was cared for by the people in Korphe as a stranger who had wandered into a village, sick and hurt. The book, Three Cups of Tea, describes how this act of hospitality by these villagers changed Greg Mortenson’s life forever as he committed himself to building schools in Pakistan. The kind of hospitality that Mortenson received opened him up to a life that he had not imagined, a life where his interactions with strangers changed their lives as well as his.

When we meet a stranger, we are often inhibited by our lack of knowledge of this person. When we know nothing about a person, we may make assumptions about them by cues such as her clothing, her age, her way of speaking, her smile and gestures. We wonder, “Who is this person? Is he/she like me? Is he/she different? Will I have anything in common with this person?” Sometimes when we’re feeling a little uneasy with a person, we may wonder, “Does she like me? Am I a person that she would like?”

So we often find ourselves asking questions to start a conversation. We may ask where they live, what do they do for a living, how did they find themselves in wherever we have met them. And then as they start to reveal themselves by their answers or lack of answers to these questions, we may start to categorize them in order to understand how we can relate to them. We often try to find that one thing that we may have in common, that then might make us feel comfortable.

But imagine Greg Mortenson’s experience with the strangers he met in Pakistan, the villagers who spoke a local dialect that he didn’t know, who dressed very differently, who lived on the side of a mountain and made their lives off that mountain by herding goats and growing what little could be grown. Mortenson’s experience of life as an American was so completely different from theirs and yet they simply took him in, cared for him, gave him their best blankets and shared from their meager food supply. They asked no questions, they found nothing in common with him but simply their humanity. And it was in that radical hospitality that Greg Mortenson had a life transformation realizing that he had to return to this mountain to build them a school. And despite his inadequate resources, he was able to raise enough money to not only build one school but to go on to create a foundation that continues to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Nanette Sawyer, in her book, Hospitality, the Sacred Art, speaks of “transformative spiritual hospitality” as a deep hospitality that comes from our “inner core” and can change our self-understanding as well as our relationships to others. She sees this kind of hospitality as a kind of movement – taking in, being with, and giving out. It sort of reminds me of breathing- in-with-out. She says the qualities of “receptivity, reverence, and generosity” reflect this pattern in our honoring hospitality. The receptivity is a way of opening ourselves to others. Sawyer sees this receptivity as not just a way to open to others, but as a way of opening ourselves to a spiritual life. Becoming receptive is a spiritual practice in opening ourselves to what the universe offers us.

An open attitude can lead us also inward toward a reverent state, a peaceful and inner calm. An open reverent attitude can also lead us to acceptance of ourselves. When I recognize the goodness within someone else, I can sometimes see my own goodness, on good days, anyways.

One of our UU ministers, Sarah York, had an experience with strangers which taught her more about how her openness to others led her to more acceptance of herself. She was invited to come speak to a group of prisoners in a local prison. She was very nervous not knowing what to expect. She was escorted into the classroom in the prison where the prisoners were waiting for her. She looked around and saw mostly young men, some women, who were serving short sentences mostly for drug-related crimes.

Rev. York led them in a values clarification exercise, one that many of you may have participated in because it came out of the Building Your Own Theology workshop. The exercise asked them to grapple with the moral dilemma of a man who stole some medication from a pharmacy for his sick wife. The prisoners got quite involved in discussing heatedly whether there was a moral justification for his action. They seem to really engage themselves with Sarah York despite the fact that they didn’t know her. They related to the exercise.

Later, she led an exercise that asked them to prioritize certain values and the importance of these values in their lives. Among other values such as wealth, popularity, love, and freedom — the majority picked self-respect, even above freedom. York realized from the discussion how important valuing self was especially to people who were not valued by society. Through this experience, she saw how her openness to the people she met in prison allowed her a moment to value them and in turn to value herself. She was able to see through their mistakes and see them as valuable human beings. She also felt valued as a person who was open to their experiences in life.

You know most of us are shy in some ways. I know you would find it hard to believe that I have been shy most of my life. When I was in third grade, I was in a new school and was so afraid of speaking in a place where I knew no one. I was so afraid in fact, that I couldn’t raise my hand to tell the teacher that I had to visit the bathroom. And I wet my pants. I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life. The teacher whisked me out of the classroom telling the class that I wasn’t feeling well and called my mother to bring some dry clothes. I still think of that teacher with gratitude.

When I was in high school, I was still shy. Being shy and having to move into a new community and a new school is especially hard. When I moved to Dayton and starting attending high school here, I felt like I’d never find a friend. And I was too shy to reach out to anyone. I did decide to join the International Club. There I found a young woman who was a year ahead of me who welcomed me into the club and helped me to feel like I belonged. Later, I was elected president of that club only because no one else wanted the job. During my senior year, my responsibility was helping our two foreign students to feel accepted. That was very hard because the high school I was in wasn’t very welcoming to strangers. But having to help them to find a place allowed me to finally overcome some of my hesitancy in approaching others. I began to open myself up when I saw others who needed me to help them.

Shyness is a natural state of humans because we feel fearful of others. What are we afraid of? I guess we’re afraid of what others will think about us, that they will judge us in some way, that we’re not good enough. Being hesitant to speak to people we don’t know for some people is stepping outside of their comfort zone. We often hold ourselves in because we’re not sure we trust others. And that not trusting others is often because we don’t trust that we are somehow good enough for others to like. Most of us crave acceptance from others.

Lonni Pratt writes of her experience of acceptance when she arrived in the Benedictine community. She went to visit a friend in the monastery at a difficult time in her life. Her daughter had been in a near-fatal auto accident. She also was experiencing a feeling of being shunned in her own church community as people were gossiping about her. She arrived at the monastery and felt immediately accepted. She writes, “With the monks, I was suddenly accepted–accepted during a time when I felt rejected, violated, misunderstood, and betrayed. I remained because these monks loved me without question. I didn’t have to prove anything. I didn’t have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful or young. I just had to let them love me.” The Benedictine rule of hospitality is that each person is accepted and cherished.

We welcome newcomers in our community every Sunday. Some of you are here for the first time. I do hope you will find this community welcoming. I hear from some of our newcomers that they feel very welcomed when they first arrive.

Our third principle is “acceptance of others and encouragement toward spiritual growth”. But what does that really mean? How do we truly open our hearts to others? When we welcome newcomers into our midst, I hope that we do more than just say “hello”. To truly accept others means to invite them into our lives. So, when we’re talking with new people, could we find out more who they are without being too intrusive?

Could we ask them about their spiritual journey? What they learned growing up about religion and how that may have brought them to our door? Perhaps we can find out what their interests and hobbies are and introduce them to people with similar interests. When young adults come visit us, I hope we invite them to meet other young adults and tell them about our young adult group.

And we can share with them what we have found in this Beloved Community. By sharing why we are here and what made us decide to stay we may give newcomers an idea about what kind of place this is. I often see the women in the women’s group inviting newcomers to join them for lunch. Sometimes, families will ask other young families to join them in an outing. And often I understand that many of you have invited new people to visit one of our small group dinners. All these invitations welcome people into our community.

Radical hospitality means an openness to people who are not necessarily the people who look like us, who have similar interests, or who have similar backgrounds. Radical hospitality means that we welcome every newcomer who comes to our door for who they are, for what they bring to our community in their own unique way. That means without judgment, we spend time getting to know new people, finding out who they are and what they bring.

Catholic priest Henri Nouwen says, “When we are willing to detach ourselves from making our own limited experience the criterion for our approach to others, we may be able to see that life is greater than our life, history is greater than our history, experience greater than our experience, and God greater than our God. That kind of “poverty” of heart that makes a good host.” He refers to a poverty of heart that is an openness to new experience and new ways of seeing life.

We’re gonna sit at the welcome table, one of these days, hallelujah!

All kinds of people around that table, one of these days, hallelujah!