During my years at Seminary, I did my field placement at Trinity Church, Sigourney Street, Hartford. Trinity is a parish located in a very diverse part of Hartford. Its Asylum Street facade stands directly across from the home offices of The Aetna Insurance Company, while its Sigourney Street entrance leads into one of the poorest neighborhoods in Hartford. Just before my arrival in the mid-eighties, prostitutes would often plied their trade from the steps of the main entrance to the church.
Because of its location, Trinity Church was a wonderful tapestry of humanity. On any given Sunday, people from all walks of life gathered inside the walls of the beautiful sanctuary. Doctors, lawyers, college professors and insurance executives along with welfare families and street people carrying all their worldly possessions in with them hoping to escape the cold or extreme heat. And the people who gathered represented a multitude of ethnic and racial backgrounds.
As the youth minister my job came with many challenges. The twenty or so youth were as diverse as the congregation. About half of the young people came from affluent suburban families who had been part of Trinity most of their lives. The other half were poor, who came because the previous youth minister worked hard to bring them into the church and most these young people came independently of their families. Despite the diversity of the congregation, there was no unity among the youth. For the most part, the group was divided along economic lines. At most meetings there was a clear divide as the city kids kept to themselves and the suburban kids kept to their circle. If asked, both sides claimed to be open to what the others had to offer, but for some reason, they always blamed the other group for being cliquey and exclusive.
Attempting to have conversations on the subject only led to shouting and blaming each other for the problem. Deep down, I knew if I could get these kids to talk to each other they would bond and be the richer for it.
The opportunity came my first Maundy Thursday. The kids wanted to have a lock-in. So we agreed to have an overnight, but only if they were willing to keep vigil in the side chapel where the reserved sacrament was stored. They were reluctant at first, but the idea of having a lock-in away from their parents provided enough incentive for them to agree.
The rules were easy, teams of two would keep vigil through the night, rotating in and out of the chapel every half hour. While in the chapel they could pray or talk with their partner, but both had to stay in the chapel until the next team arrived. The final rule, I picked the teams. Despite the kid’s protests, I paired each youth with another youth who they felt they had the least in common. Through the night. they were faithful, each team did as they were told. I can’t say a lot of prayer happened that night, but something more important did.
Being stuck and alone in a darkened church can be magical. As each pair spent time together, they discovered they were not that different from the other. As teens they shared the same fears and insecurities, but expressed them differently. They all learned they faced similar challenges with parents, at school and with the future. And, without the pressures of the other members of their groups to keep them apart, they found they could actually like each other.
As the kids debriefed during breakfast, they spoke candidly and with great excitement about what they had learned through the night. During this final meeting they sat together on a large over stuffed couch no longer divided,but as one.
At funeral services, I often talk about God as Being and we as the emanations of being. And that which we connect with in each other as the light or the spark of the divine that resides within each of us. As I look back on that Maundy Thursday experience, I can see how the Holy Spirit was at work knitting together each life as they connected with the light that resides within the other.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus states, whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. . .” This is a discussion on hospitality and parallels a later statement in Matthew in which Christ declares, “just as you have done it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” ( Matt 25)
The concept of hospitality was an important part of ancient life. In a time when inns were scarce, hospitality went beyond the casual dinner with friends, but the actual expectation when called upon to house and feed a traveler, a perfect stranger for the night. In the Abraham saga, Abraham welcomes three strangers into his home and discovers he has entertained angels unaware. Jesus builds on this concept when he tells us whenever someone welcomes you, or anyone for that matter, they welcome Him and ultimately the Divine Creator itself.
As a community of faith we need to be a center of hospitality, not just welcome. Being a welcoming community is one thing as there is nothing that says more about the tenor of a congregation than how one is welcomed at the door. Hospitality,however, goes beyond welcome, it is what happens after the greeting, it communicates that we are genuinely interested in the other and unconditionally willing to make room for them at our table; willing, no matter who they may be to invite them into the conversation and discussion of the community.
Emilie Towns defines hospitality in the following way, “Hospitality. . . rooted in compassionate welcome is both a practice and a spiritual discipline in which we discover that in offering hospitality we may be welcoming something or someone new, unfamiliar, and unknown into our lives. This requires us to recognize another’s gifts and vulnerabilities, the need for shelter and sustenance, and encourages us to open our world views and perspectives as well as our hearts and souls.”
As a community of true hospitality it is not enough to just welcome the stranger at the door and to our table, we are asked to welcome them into our committee structure, not because we need warm bodies, but because we value the other’s thoughts, opinions and perspectives. As a community of hospitality we are asked to banish the, “we’ve always done it this way” approach and open ourselves to new ways and possibilities. As a community of hospitality we are asked to approach each person in our midst, as equals, as fellow children of God and not as newcomer and long-time member. As a community of hospitality, we must be willing to be vulnerable, open to journeying with the stranger beyond what feels safe and familiar.
Ultimately, as a community of hospitality, we are asked to do as the young people of Trinity, Hartford did, to take the risk each week of opening ourselves and our hearts to the stranger among us and to offer the Divine within us as we seek to connect with the Divine within them. Because when we do these things, we invite the Spirit to be among us.