Can you recall the most extravagant welcome you have ever received? Mine was a visit with to the village of Kikongo in the Republic of the Congo.
We had begun our journey in Kinshasa the capital of the Republic of the Congo and had headed for the remote village of Kikongo that was inaccessible via roads. As we approached our destination by air, the pilot flew low to buzz the field where we were to land in order to scare away any animals that might be in it. Having buzzed the field, the mission aviation pilot slowly circled back to land on grassy runway. As the plane turned we could read “Kikongo” which was painted on the roof of Glen and Rita Chapman’s home. Our ABC delegation was already jazzed with anticipation, but nothing could have prepared us for the reception that awaited us. As soon as the plane touched down and began to make its way back toward the center of the field we could see and hear the villagers who had gathered to welcome us dancing, singing, clapping with drums beating out the rhythm. Children were running back and forth excitedly; the village elders – all to welcome us. As we stepped out of the plane we were welcomed with flowers, and an official declaration by the village chief. We were overwhelmed by their hospitality. The warmth and genuineness of their welcome made us feel like royal guests or as St Benedict expressed it: “we were received as though we were Christ himself.”
Certain cultures are noted for their codes of hospitality: the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula; the Far East, the native Hawaiians. For some of them hospitality is expressed in very formal and codified ways. In Japan, one always has a business card ready to present to another as a form of welcome and hospitality. In the South when I grew up in a working class/farming culture hospitality meant offering overnight accommodations to relatives who were passing through. And part of that ritual of hospitality meant that they got the beds and we made up pallets for us on the floor – which we kids loved. It was part of acknowledging the respect and affection that guests were due. Guests were to be honored.
Regardless of the culture, food and drink always are a large part of making people feel welcome and included. In New England you might be offered a bottle of Moxie; in the South CokeCola; and here in Wisconsin – “May I get you a cup of coffee?” is a common sign of hospitality. To be invited to table, to share in a cup of coffee; a glass of lemonade, a piece of pie, strawberries and cream or a full blown banquet is one of the most significant ways we welcome another.
Hospitality in scripture and the Christian tradition is not about entertainment. It is about honoring and receiving others into our lives as gifts of God. It is to welcome others as we would welcome Christ himself. The parable of the mustard seed is a wonderful image of hospitality where the kingdom of God is described as a shrub in which the birds of the air are sheltered. In Christ’s love there is a warm embrace, a place of shelter for all, for all are beloved by him. In Christ there is a heart of hospitality for you.
Hospitality requires space within our lives and our hearts for the other, even God. To offer welcome to another, is for us to care enough to be thoughtful of the other. The best gifts aren’t always the most expensive ones, but they are always the most thoughtful ones. So it is with hospitality. Forethought makes the gift of hospitality personal.
Even the simplest act of Christian hospitality such as offering a cup of cold water in the name of Christ brings blessing. And remember that Christ in his extravagant love has opened his arms of welcome to you.