Hospitality is Dangerous

She was dancing in the living room of Manna House. It was Christmas a few years back. We had music and she took the floor. As she rhythmically moved about, a knife fell from somewhere in her clothing and clattered upon the floor. In a graceful move she bent low, scooped it up and put it back in her clothing and kept dancing.

I would guess that if we had metal detectors at Manna House we would uncover knifes or similar weapons each day among the clothing and belongings of our guests. The streets can be dangerous. Some of our guests carry knifes for protection. Our simple rule is that they not be displayed or pulled out in a threatening manner.

Yet, on some rare occasions, a knife has been pulled, or a brick has been picked up, or a stick brandished about as a fight has broken out. Usually a fight just involves fists or “fighting words.” But the potential is always there for worse.

How do we respond to fights? We break up fights by getting between the assailants. We ask all the parties involved to leave. In a worst case scenario, which has happened just a few times, we have closed Manna House for the day.

Violence at Manna House is very rare; so rare we rarely think about how offering hospitality to strangers can be dangerous. Of course by now, most of our guests are no longer strangers. We know them by name and they know us by name. And they are just as concerned as we are to keep Manna House a sanctuary from the violence of the streets. We work consistently along with our guests to urge politeness, to not use denigrating or dehumanizing words, to treat everyone with respect. All this goes a long way toward keeping Manna House peaceful.

The threat of violence has also come as we have practiced hospitality in the form of the occasional police officer who wanted to throw his weight around. About a year ago, two volunteers were arrested for videoing police officers harassing homeless persons near Manna House. Several years back, I was told by a police officer to “watch my back” when I refused to allow him and his fellow officers access to Manna House. The official violence of the state comes down hard on our guests from time to time.

Given these realities, we would be naïve to think we can offer hospitality with no danger to ourselves. In “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” Christine Pohl writes, “In a fallen, disordered world, strangers may be needy, but they occasionally take advantage, bring unanticipated trouble, or intend harm.” And when the Christian people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France offered hospitality to Jews during World War II they knew they risked their lives in defying the Nazi regime. Disciples of Jesus practicing hospitality should be realistic about sin, about the brokenness in the world, in themselves and in the persons they will serve.

But Christian realism accepts the reality of sin without allowing sin the final word. The final word is not sin but redemption. Redemption means living into the hope that love is stronger than sin, stronger than violence, stronger even than death. Redemption means offering hospitality in a sinful world. Redemption practices the risk of hospitality so that strangers can experience welcoming love consistent with their being children of God. As Paul wrote, “Welcome one another in Christ as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).

Redemption cannot happen without risk and neither can hospitality. Ask Jesus who both urged hospitality when he said “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46) and also realistically told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

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