Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 27, 2008
One night, he was hungry, so he went out wandering the streets looking for something to eat. He stopped in at a greasy spoon, ordered coffee and a doughnut when eight or nine ladies whom he describes as “provocative and boisterous prostitutes” came in.
“It was a small place and they sat on either side of me.” Campolo writes. “Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, ‘Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.’”
Another of the women spoke rudely to her, Campolo said. ”What do you want from me,” she asked her,” a birthday party or something?” Then it came out that the first woman, whose name was Agnes, had never had a birthday party in her life.
So Campolo waited until the women had left, and then convinced “the fat guy behind the counter” (as he puts it) to help him throw a birthday party for Agnes. Campolo told him he’d arrive the next morning at 2:30 with a cake, and decorate the place. But Harry (the fat guy) said, “No way. I’m the cook. I’ll make the cake.”
By 3:15 the that morning word had gotten out about what was up, and every prostitute in Honolulu (it seemed) was there. When Agnes showed up at 3:30 everybody screamed “Happy Birthday!”
“Never,” writes Campolo, “have I seen a person so flabbergasted… so stunned… so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to sit on one of the stools along the counter we all sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. As we came to the end of our song… her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried. Agnes didn’t want to cut the cake, but to take it home with a promise to be right back. As she left, there was a stunned silence.”
Campolo broke the silence: “What do you say we pray?” To which
Harry the cook, replied, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”
And Campolo answered: “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But it shows us, I think, the kind of genuine human miracles—the deep and real power of soul touching soul—that can occur when we let go of our defenses—and suspend our need for judgment—and actually do something to tear down those “strange and foolish walls of separation that divide us,” as A. Powell Davies put it. Such is the kind of genuine human community we build when we practice the art of radical hospitality.
“What’s so radical about hospitality?” you might well ask. I don’t mean “radical” here in any political sense (though, of course, all of our actions have political and social implications). I mean “radical” in the sense of “fundamental”—“essential”—“most important”—at the heart of who we are—that which touches us and engages us at our deepest level. To practice hospitality as the most important element of our being; to practice it consistently, unfailingly, in every instance. That’s what “radical hospitality” would mean.
Radical Hospitality is also the title of a book by Father Daniel Homan, a Benedictine priest, and Lonni Collins Pratt, a journalist from Michigan. It tells about the life of Saint Benedict, the sixth century mystic who founded the monastic order that transformed the church of his day. His main writing-- The Rule of St. Benedict as it came to be called—told his followers how to orient their spiritual practice, and how to organize their institutions (especially their monasteries). The practice of hospitality is very much at the center of Benedict’s Rule. “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ,” Benedict wrote. He saw the monastery as a “school for love”—a love which permeated all existence—which extended from the monks to all guests and strangers who found refuge within its walls. “This is the spiritual practice of hospitality,” one writer has put it, “to open oneself to an encounter with the stranger…” In this opening up—this interaction—both parties are blest and broadened and brought into the presence of the holy, the presence of God.
As Father Homan continues:
This is not the kind of hospitality we learn from Martha Stewart. “Benedictine hospitality is not about sipping tea and making bland talk with people who live next door of who work with you,” Pratt and Homan write. It’s about welcoming the stranger—the one who is different—and the stranger they are and the more different from us the better.
This is pretty frightening stuff. It’s demanding. It’s even dangerous. You never know what you’ll get when you open the door and let that other person inside. But we aren’t in charge of drawing up the guest list for this feast which is our lives.
In the hauntingly beautiful song, “Would You Harbor Me?” Ysaye Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock explores some of the risks we take when we open the door to the stranger on the other side:
“Would you harbor me?” she sings. “Would I harbor you?”
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew,
A heretic, convict, or spy?
Would you harbor a runaway woman or child,
A poet, a prophet, a king?
Would you harbor an exile or a refugee,
A person living with AIDS?
Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garret, a Truth,
A fugitive or a slave?
Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean, or Czech,
A lesbian or a gay?
Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?
Of course, it’s easier to open up the door to a stranger when we know who they are. (But, of course, then they aren’t strangers anymore.) It’s easier to like those who are like us. Indeed, to do otherwise—to decide to let the stranger in; to risk all in the encounter with the other—flies in the face of these uptight, fear-ridden times in which we now live. It’s a dangerous world out there. It really is. So, our tendency is to want to hunker down; to retreat into our homes, our fortresses; to lock the doors; build higher and higher walls around our borders; let nobody in except those we know—those like us—those whom we think we can trust.
But is a life based on fear any more than a living death? A life which refuses to open up new possibilities is stillborn: “He who’s not busy being born is busy dying,” as Dylan wrote. And being born into this world was probably the biggest risk any of us ever took—because, you know, none of us gets out of here alive. Or unassaulted. Or unscathed. Or unharmed. Or unbroken. But that’s the price we pay for being alive. “For without rain the heart would have no rainbow,” a friend said to me this week. Or, as Helen Keller wrote: “Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.”
A radical sense of hospitality opens us up to life—life in all its abundance and extravagance. As Annie Dillard put it in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
Radical hospitality opens our inner worlds to the “sparks and flames” of this abundant creation. It places us in harmony with a universe that is evolving. It reminds us of the fundamentally daring adventure which life is.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s not supposed to be. “Benedict is a realist about loving,” Father Dan writes. “He knows love comes only through effort and practice….It is not some warm, fuzzy feeling Benedict wants us to conjure up...”
Extending radical hospitality is costly. It’s fatiguing. It interferes with our control over how we’ll spend our days; our “other plans” we incessantly make for where we want our lives to be headed.
There is a story that’s said to have originated in the Russian Orthodox tradition, which equates well with Benedict’s rule. An older Orthodox monk tells a younger one, "I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. And sometimes, when I see a stranger coming up the road, I run to the window, and I say, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?'”
Such is the attitude of the one who sees in every face the reflection of the Beloved. But at times, that old priest (and we ourselves) could be forgiven on seeing yet another stranger coming up the road and saying, instead, “Oh, Jesus Christ! Is it you again?'” And running for cover, and crossing to the other side of the street, and locking the door and turning off the front porch lights.
Being there—being truly present—paying full attention-- for all of those who cross our paths is demanding, and exhausting. It’s tough work.
But in this dangerous world, it is our calling as religious men and women.
The practice of radical hospitality isn’t just a sacrifice we make. It isn’t just something we do “for the world”, as self-denying martyrs. There is an immeasurable pay-off for us, as well, in practicing the art of hospitality.
It is said that long ago, in a far-away town, an old woman used to sit at the city gates, watching the travelers pass by. One night as the sun was setting in the sky, a weary man who had been traveling all day, said to the woman, “Excuse me, but I am looking for a place to rest, and I wonder, can you tell me what the people are like in this town?”
The woman smiled and asked him a question of her own. “You have had a long journey and you must be tired. Where do you come from?”
The man answered, “My home town is My-chester.”
The woman smiled and asked the man, “Oh, what are the people like in
The traveler replied, “Oh you wouldn’t believe how awful people are in
My-chester. They don’t care if you are hungry and thirsty; they wouldn’t even pass the time of day with you. And if you ask them for help they turn away, or deliberately send you the wrong way. They are extremely rude and unfriendly.”
“My word,” replied the old woman. “Well, I’m afraid that I have bad news for you. The people here in this town are very much like the people in My-chester. I don’t think you’d like them very much.”
“Oh well,” he sighed. “I guess I’ll move on then.” So he went away disappointed, with no place to rest for the night.
The very next day, another weary traveler arrived at the city gates. He saw the old woman sitting there. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I am looking for a place to rest, and I wonder, can you tell me what people are like in this town?”
The woman smiled back at him, and asked the same question she had asked the first man. “You have had a long journey and must be tired. Where do you come from?”
“I come from We-chester,” he told her.
“Really? And what are the people like in We-chester?” the woman asked.
“Oh, they are so kind,” the traveler replied. “I like them a lot. They are always friendly, ready to help each other and generous to a fault.”
“Well,” the woman told him, “I think you will find a warm welcome here in this city. The people here are very much like the people in We-chester.” And with that, she welcomed him into her very own home.
We are better people because we are loved by others. And we are better when love and care for others, too. The practice of radical hospitality is the first step any of us can take toward the “disarmament of the heart” of which Dorothy Day spoke, and for which this old world of ours yearns more than ever. When we light the fires of welcome in our hearths, we stoke, too, the fires of love in our hearts. Then, we will be amazed at how that heavy coat of frost that obscures our windows will melt, and how (at last) we will be able to behold (as though created anew) this wondrous, beautiful world that now stands before us.