In the midst of global fears about nuclear weapons, terrorists, economic collapse—and a host of other anxieties—a small but growing number of religious voices are calling for the revival of a timeless spiritual truth: Hospitality. In the ancient world from Rome and Greece to Asia, the code of hospitality was so sacred that Hindus described it from the Upanishads as Atithi Devo Bhavah, which means “the guest is God.” Hospitality became a core of Abrahamic religions as well.
Men and women are stirring the grassroots, right now, to fan a revival of hospitality. In Michigan, several professors from the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit already have created an interreligious network exploring this idea, partly through a fledgling website called Essential Core. The seminary’s Professor of Biblical Studies Charles Mabee says that hospitality is powerful partly because it counters our culture’s obsession with competition. Even though hospitality pushes us to humble ourselves and serve our guests, Mabee points out that “we actually become greater through acts of hospitality; by them, we expand what is humanly possible.”
Starting today, ReadTheSpirit will publish an occasional series of articles from men and women fanning the sparks of this revival. Our first story comes from author Benjamin Pratt …
Serving Hospitality on Paper Plates
By Benjamin Pratt
The current Washington Post Magazine features two articles with dazzling pictures of extravagant Washington dinner parties brokered by and with the “in” people of money and power. Sally Quinn reports that at the Correspondents’ Association dinner she found herself sandwiched between the Kardashians and Newt and Callista Gingrich. In the midst of shoving and shouting throngs, she said, “I was shoved up against Callista’s hair and nearly broke my nose. It was scary.” Ouch, that’s not what I call hospitality.
Saturday, my wife Judith and I enjoyed a traditional summer neighborhood cookout—hotdogs, hamburgers, baked beans, watermelon, homemade desserts and lots of warm hospitality. Music, inviting smiles and laughter were abundant, making the gracious home around the corner from ours a welcoming place. But the setting, with an access ramp at the front of this residential house, is not a typical home.
I won’t forget eating a delicious trifle as I turn to the woman next to me to say, “This is really delicious. How long did it take you to make it?”
“Not very long, it is very simple to make,” she says quietly with a shy smile.
“I like it very much, Noreen. I like being here with you in your home,” I respond. She smiles a little broader but does not look into my eyes.
Noreen is one of five residents who live in this group home for persons with intellectual and/or physical disabilities provided by Fairfax County Community Services Board. Noreen does have a job. She travels by bus to the Commerce Department in Washington, DC, each work day to deliver mail to the offices within the building. She cannot read letters but can read numbers and is a welcome member of that work community.
Noreen’s mother, Barbara, has come for the party. Before she sits down, she caresses her daughter’s face which folds into her mother’s cradling arms and they radiate delight as their heads touch. Soon, Kenny, another resident, glides by walking backward while holding the hands of Kathy, as he leads her to a seat at the table. She is followed by Anissa, a staff member who supports Kathy because her disability prevents independent walking. Anissa is one of the staff caregivers who convey love, patience and respect for each of the residents. Eventually, Kenny treated us to his beautiful singing voice as he portrayed Bruce Springsteen singing “Atlantic City.” I think Kenny knows the words of every Springsteen song.
Community Service Boards serve many functions throughout our nation. Among these functions are meeting the residential, outpatient, and day-support needs of citizens with mental illness as well as offering opportunities for occupational and residential independence for citizens with physical and mental disabilities. Increasingly, these boards not only support the care of elderly citizens with mental disabilities and their families, but they directly assist families in caring for members with mental illness, mental disabilities and substance use disorders.
Judith and I are grateful for the trust and hospitality extended us at this lovely home. This gathering of residents, staff, family and neighbors was refreshingly devoid of preoccupations with power, money, class or intellectual acumen that characterized the glamorous soiree Sally Quinn wrote about. Instead, we met in the simple trust that each person would bring honesty, respect and generosity to the moment. And that was refreshing.
Hospitality means having enough love to welcome a friend or stranger, and to be more interested in that person than in one’s self and one’s own agenda. Hospitality and trust make space to truly listen to the other’s story. I am so pleased I was not at the Correspondents’ Association dinner. I am humbled and delighted that I was included at our Group Home’s neighborhood cookout.
Dr. Benjamin Pratt lives in the Washington D.C. area, where he has written two books that are widely used by individuals and groups: Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass, a Bible study with James Bond and—now finding its way into many congregations and secular groups nationwide—the new Guide for Caregivers, Keeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities Are Dragging You Down.
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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.