Radical Hospitality: What Does True Welcome Look Like?
Sharon shows up at our door after supper, looking tired. We live in a neighbourhood in which these visits are more frequent. The minute we open the door she will barrel past us into our home, because she so badly needs a place to feel welcome. She’s been walking the streets all day, and she is hungry and and lonely. It rained all day, but she has no coat. She gave it to someone at the shelter. She is also angry with her shelter for giving up her bed when she didn’t come back last night. She looks me straight in the eyes, speaking tensely and rapidly: “I need a place to sleep. You have to help me.” Her mental health needs are obvious tonight, and we are her friends; she trusts us. Yet, we are exhausted from a busy week, we are about to unwind and rest, the house is quieting down for the evening, and we have reached our emotional and social capacity for visitors this week. No one has the energy to give her.
And yet… here is Sharon, at our door. Do we invite her in, or do we tell her not tonight, please? And if we say no, how will she still feel loved? It’s almost impossible for her.
Radical + hospitality. Radical meaning out of the ordinary, passionate, pushing beyond social expectations, going the extra mile, offering a gesture of extraordinary love. Hospitality meaning making the ‘other’ feel like part of a ‘we’, and helping them feel safe, at home, welcome in our space. Sometimes hospitality means feeling exhausted and giving anyway. Letting them know they matter to you. That this moment is made better by their presence.
Radical hospitality is something I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time now. Does radical hospitality = love? And does it mean in your own home, or everywhere: in the streets, at work, in community? Does it mean people we know? Strangers? Family? That man or woman on the street begging for money, whose eyes we are afraid to meet because we don’t want to have to enter their pain?
Yet it is by entering their pain that we find mutual humanity and understanding.
Does it mean making home with others wherever you find yourself? Letting them through the gate that protects you from the world?
I think that radical hospitality is how strangers become friends. How the people we make the ‘other’ because they are different and we fear them, become people we accept because we have more in common than we ever dreamed.
It’s wonderful to invite someone into our home for tea or dinner, but how about someone we wouldn’t normally invite? Someone whose social struggles make you feel awkward or uncomfortable–someone who never gets invited to dinner because they seem hard to handle or messy in relationship?
For the last few weeks, I have been reading the book Radical Hospitality by Daniel Homan and Lonni Collins Pratt. They share that “in an age of terror, it is difficult to look into the eyes of a stranger without cringing.” That we are quick to close and lock our doors, and feel safest with friends and family we know well. I found this book on the Isle of Iona last October, a small and unforgettable island where travellers sojourn all months of the year, coming in crowds off ferries, and trying to find home in themselves. I was a stranger on this island and in my moments of loneliness, the island, the people who lived there, and the other travellers showed me radical hospitality and so much love that I miss them to this day, and will always be grateful. I was away in a new place and I was completely at home.
In Radical Hospitality, they write about the mutuality of hospitality–of the gifts we receive in return when we demonstrate acceptance to others and receive acceptance back: “We hide out, isolate ourselves, and deny our natural need for others. We erroneously think we need safety the most. What we need most is acceptance. You probably can’t understand me and I might not understand you, but we can accept each other. We need to connect and feel the deep acceptance of another human being … locks and firewalls can never do for our tired souls what friendship and companionship do.”
My heart is focused on communal living and the mutual gifts have been incredible. Where I give acceptance, I receive it. When I let someone else be themselves, they let me be myself too. I have for the past 18 months lived in a community house that supports and loves those facing mental heath issues, loneliness, poverty, trauma, and more. After 18 months, I still need to offer welcome and hospitality to my roommate, who is slowly building trust with us, but still fears being the outsider and still finds herself anxious and worried about whether she is cared for and belongs. Sometimes radical hospitality looks like one afternoon, or one evening of time with someone you care about. Sometimes it looks like years of offering love to those who despite all your efforts, still fear that they are not wanted and need to be reminded over and over.
I’ve learned that the opposite of welcome and hospitality is loneliness. I have been there too, with loneliness striking hard. When we have nowhere to feel at home, we begin to feel very lost. There is a poem I love from a poetry collection Some Ether by Nick Flynn. He writes about his father who is homeless, and who he sometimes can’t find in the middle of a winter night. His dad, somewhere out there in the cold snowy streets is lost:
“A candle could keep you alive
the engine of your lungs
will heat the air around you, someone will
miss you, they will send out dogs
You must be somewhere, right?”
We can choose to keep the gate closed–often that feels easiest, for me included. It’s tempting and it’s safe. Or we can choose to open a walkway through the brick walls, so that we can lay bare our vulnerability. I still don’t know how to do it well or right, and I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I’m trying. What I do know is that there have been times when I truly needed someone else’s radical hospitality. And I have many friends facing huge struggles and loneliness who need it right now. For those who feel excluded and unwanted, it can be the one thing that begins their healing and gives them the courage to look beyond themselves for love.
An open hand. A seed planted. The start of something beautiful. Who will you invite today?