Amid the many dissonances of the current year, a persistent one has been tied to the tension between my reading and my circumstances. The invitation to write this piece about hospitality and Christian schooling landed right in the middle of that tension. I have been engaged in some fresh reading about Christian faith and hospitality, a topic that I have visited at various previous times in connection with how we think about teaching and learning in various curriculum areas. The present stimulus is a project on civics curriculum for Christian schools in which we are exploring civic hospitality as a way to approach differences in the public square. Yet as I work through a pile of books describing the importance of hospitality to the core concerns of Christian faith, I do so in isolation, unable to invite even family members into my house, connected to colleagues and students largely via screens. This comes in the aftermath of a political season not noted for widespread willingness to listen well to those outside one’s own ideological circles. When it comes to hospitality, the call seems clear, the need great, and the circumstances less than favorable.
On the theological front, the call to hospitality has been articulated with increasing clarity by a series of theologians over the past few decades. They have built a compelling case that offering hospitality is not incidental to the Christian faith, but part of its core. The hospitality that they have in mind is not hospitality in the sense of showing off one’s polished residence and culinary mastery to admiring peers or courting the wealthy with lavish spreads. Rather, it is welcome to strangers, to enemies, to the poor, to the marginal. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Leviticus 19, and a few verses later it varies the formula, adding “love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” In passages ranging from Abraham’s encounter with the three mysterious visitors and Rahab’s sheltering of Israelite spies to the prodigal son, the sheep and the goats, and the eschatological banquet, the Bible repeatedly pictures salvation in terms of welcoming the stranger, the unworthy, the outsider. At the heart of this is Christ’s own welcome. As Joshua Jipp puts it, “it is precisely through Jesus’ eating meals with outsiders that he creates the hospitable space where outsiders experience the saving presence of God and are thereby transformed from strangers to friends of God.” “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” urges Hebrews 13, “for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”
All of this needs more elaboration (I will suggest some reading below), but the big picture is pretty clear: hospitality matters in Scripture, especially hospitality offered for reasons other than bolstering the host’s comfort and status. Yet it seems easy to forget hospitality in our present circumstances. My students sit at carefully measured distances from one another, masks reducing the visibility of the facial expressions by which we connect with one another, or stare from tiled squares on a screen. Our campus has been closed to visitors except by arrangement. Staying home alone has become a way to love neighbors, helping to keep others safe. Social distancing is a term at once new and central to our experience. Can the call to hospitality still reach us?
I have no wish to downplay the importance of literal, food-and-fellowship hospitality, and the need for us to return to it when it once again becomes a way of caring for others rather than increasing their vulnerability. Literal welcomes matter. But the biblical treatment of hospitality also speaks to education in other ways, and they are less vulnerable to the changes in our circumstances. Here are four.
First, there is a long tradition of thinking of schools as themselves a form of hospitality to the young. The communal housing in which students at the early University of Paris lived in medieval times was known as a hospicium, or hospice. Before its post-nineteenth-century association with care for the dying, this meant a rest house for travelers. The students were hospites, guests. The same dwelling could also be called a paedagogium, a place of pedagogy; students were guests in the house of learning. Much more recently, Claudia Ruitenberg has argued that schools have to be places where the young are both welcomed into the resources of their culture and given enough space to be able to contribute to the conversation themselves. Is it conceivable that our students could think of our schools as offering them hospitality? Do they experience our schools as places of welcome in which they give as well as receive and are heard as well as addressed?
Second, if we would like to think of schools as places of hospitality for learners, that already implies attention to teaching and learning strategies. The language of hospitality will ring hollow at the school level if the pedagogical processes of the classroom do not model and practice hospitable interactions. How are outsiders represented in curriculum materials and in teacher commentary? What strategies are in place to ensure that marginal student voices are heard, that students who struggle are cared for, that students and families who experience themselves as outsiders are given a seat at the table and served well?
Third, if we, along with our learners, are to examine the hospitality or inhospitality that animate our practices, then at some point we will need to focus on hospitality as a topic. We will need to understand how a biblical view of hospitality differs from being nice to our friends and supporters. We will need to face and discuss the risks and limits of hospitality, and the challenge of accepting some risk in the interests of love of neighbor. When and where do such conversations take place? Does hospitality to strangers come up in class when political differences and social divisions are discussed? When students learn about world religions? When students learn a second language or study culture not their own? What opportunities do they have in the curriculum to learn to think in terms of hospitality as one important biblical frame for dealing with difference?
Fourth, all of this implies a hope that students themselves might begin to internalize not just ideas about hospitality, but the skills and dispositions that might enable them to be practitioners of hospitality to strangers. How might this happen? Which parts of our planning, our teaching strategies, our intentional modeling, our assessment, our communication with students and parents contribute constructively to this goal? Simply put, what can we point to that might plausibly be laying the foundations for a Christian practice of hospitality to strangers in students’ lives?
As I said above, the literal practices of hospitality matter, and there is genuine room for lament when we are forced to distance and isolate, even when such withdrawal is itself a form of care. An event such as Converge 2022 provides a significant opportunity to practice meeting well with people from a wide variety of backgrounds. It brings the opportunity to interact with educators who may not quite share your culture, your theology, your habitual concerns, or your precise assumptions. Taking time to listen well, to hold back from assuming too much too quickly, to find out why someone sees a matter differently, and to learn from different ways of pursuing a calling in Christian education are important ways of practicing hospitality to strangers in such a conference environment. Sometimes they will even take place over food and drink. The degree to which you are able to practice intentional hospitality to strangers will matter for the degree to which you learn from and grow through the event.
There will also be opportunities to discuss the larger questions about hospitality and schools described above. The commitment to the good of the neighbor, even when the neighbor is a vulnerable stranger at the door, that underlies the biblical vision of hospitality implies a way of imagining the world. If the Christian school might itself be a form of hospitality, if pedagogy should be hospitable, if hospitality is itself a worthy topic and lens to learn about, and if we hope that students themselves will not forget to welcome strangers, then hospitality remains vitally relevant even when we can’t serve a casserole. We may have to figure out how to live it in a new medium. As we do so, we might wonder whether the old, familiar practices that have been disrupted were really on target in the first place. How are other educators in other geographical and cultural locations wrestling with this? What have they learned that might be new to you? What could you gain from an open-hearted conversation that starts from the assumption that you have something to learn? In this way too, during your time at Converge, do not forget to show hospitality to strangers.
Want to think more about a biblical theology of hospitality and its relevance for current issues? Try these books:
Joshua W. Jipp (2017). Saved by Faith and Hospitality. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.
Christine Pohl (1999). Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Matthew Kaemingk (2018). Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Amy Oden (2001). And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Amanda Benckhuysen (2020). Immigrants, the Bible, and You. Grand Rapids: Calvin University Press.
Claudia W. Ruitenberg (2015). Unlocking the World: Education in an Ethic of Hospitality. New York: Routledge.