Christine D. Pohl is an associate provost and professor of social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. She speaks and writes most often about restoring hospitality as a central practice in Christian institutions and communities—and she doesn’t mean trying to outdo Martha Stewart. In this edited conversation, she talks about questions sparked by her most recent book, Living into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us.
Can you share examples of pursuing social justice through hospitality?
I think that hospitality and social justice are closely connected, but I wouldn’t necessarily understand hospitality as a means or route to social justice. Hospitality is a way of life, and when we offer hospitality, especially to folks who are usually overlooked or undervalued by the larger society, we make a strong statement about who is valuable and good to be with. When we welcome someone, we take seriously their humanness, their needs and gifts, vulnerabilities and contributions. In offering hospitality, we often also offer a place in community.
All sorts of injustices follow from being overlooked, whether the person is homeless or disabled or elderly. Consider communities that offer welcome—like L’Arche, which partners with people with disabilities, and Good Works or The Open Door, which build community with folks who are homeless. These communities provide a place for persons and an alternative vision for the larger culture.
To paraphrase someone from the Catholic Worker (newspaper), in the context of hospitality it is possible to see a person come back to life. It is as if we get to share in a small resurrection.
What have you learned about your relationship to God through showing hospitality to people who cannot give back materially?
Probably more than anything else, I’ve learned how dependent I am on God’s grace to do anything. Offering hospitality is challenging and wonderful, and, in practicing it, I quickly come face-to-face with my own limits—my finiteness and my sinfulness. I simply can’t do it on my own. I need God’s strength and forgiveness, and I need a community of brothers and sisters with whom I can share the burdens. But there is also so much gift and grace in the practice of hospitality—so many ways in which Christ is present in and through the person who is welcomed—that I am continually reminded of God’s grace and goodness.
What are the best church or community models you’ve seen for helping people to keep and follow through on their promises?
There are some things that can be really helpful. In small groups that include a measure of accountability, participants can help each other think about the promises they make and how they can keep them. Pastors and leaders can help their people think through the commitments they make and where they might expect to encounter difficulties. Covenant services and liturgies that help us remember the promises or vows or commitments we’ve made are helpful. Leaders who are careful to keep their own promises (and wise about the commitments they expect from staff and congregation) can be crucial in helping individuals really embrace the practice of promising.
What good first steps could a church take to help worshipers grow in gratitude, promise keeping, truthfulness, or hospitality?
To grow in any practice, whether playing the piano or keeping promises, we start with small, daily, deliberate steps. It is so important that leaders in a congregation or community model these practices, not flawlessly but faithfully. They can name the practice—and help folks see when it is operating well and when they’ve run into trouble. They can help people think through what regularly undermines gratitude or pushes us toward deception. They can help create an environment of grace and forgiveness in which efforts at living truthfully won’t be undone by infidelity or ingratitude. Leaders in the community can help the congregation celebrate when they have been faithful in hard circumstances or offered hospitality well. They can connect the practices to the character of God and teach on their role in discipleship.
Have you come across any good ways to spark renewal among church members who aren’t much interested in building stronger community?
This is a hard question because it is true that not every church member wants to be part of a stronger community. Some folks are content with a fairly “thin” version at church. There are good reasons for this. Some expressions of community are truly destructive. Sometimes people are tired of programs that try to “build” community. Others are overwhelmed by their responsibilities and relationships at home or work, and the prospect of more close relationships is simply too much.
But, as Christians, we are called to community, and while it can take many forms, it is not optional. So part of the problem is also theological. We need to take it seriously as central to our discipleship. Christian community is mostly a by-product of living faithfully with one another by keeping our promises, being truthful, practicing gratitude, and offering hospitality. If it is all framed by grace and undergirded by forgiveness, community can be beautiful.
Christine D. Pohl will deliver a plenary address, “Rethinking Christian Community: Moving Beyond our Ideals and Disappointments,” at the 2013 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Read her book Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us.