Invite in the Stranger

From the Director

Last Sunday morning at hoop one of our regulars brought along a guy who was helping him install a TV. They had to wait to get a part from Best Buy, which wouldn’t open for two hours, and the guy had hoop shoes on, so Rich invited him. Ozzie joined in, made some shots, sat on the side between games, and talked small with us. He said it was the first time he had played in a couple years and that his particular style came from LA, where he had lived until recently.

Later that same day my son got into an argument with my nephew who was visiting from Wisconsin. My son came in from his room with his face red. His cousin, he said, was saying things that weren’t true about race and policing and about stereotypes more generally. My son didn’t want to talk to his cousin anymore, and he didn’t want his cousin in his room. 

I told my son that his anger made a lot of sense but that his cousin was a guest in our house. You can tell him what you think, I said, but you can’t expect him to change his mind and, more important, you have to continue to help him feel welcome here.

Both incidents that Sunday, along with the political environment on one hand and summer evenings sitting out on the porch on the other, have had me thinking about hospitality, which feels out of place and out of time in too many ways to count. When, for example, did I last stop by someone else’s home or workplace unannounced? When did someone—a friend or stranger or somewhere in between—last show up at my place and surprisingly end up sharing a meal? Why had I made a case to my son that immediate hospitality should take precedence over a principled commitment to justice?

Most of my days reflect a way of thinking about time, productivity, predictability, and, whether I like to admit it or not, ease—a way of thinking that makes it almost impossible for Rich to invite Ozzie to play hoop and for Ozzie to accept, or for my son to tell his cousin he vehemently disagrees with him but here, still, is a bowl of pasta. 

I’m not an especially welcoming person and I haven’t lived in an especially welcoming world—though, as an educated white man, it has been pretty welcoming to me. Most of what I know about deep hospitality comes from stories and poems from other times and places, cultures other than my own. Instead of hospitality, we in the US and particularly in Oregon seem to have politeness, which is worthwhile but thin. A number of sectors and fields have also, for generations, been building and broadening efforts around inclusion, though there is still much more to be done.

What do these different ways of being with others serve? What are the goals they point toward? Politeness seems to point toward civility, or smooth ways of being together. Inclusion seems to point toward justice, or right ways of being together. I’m wondering to my surprise if hospitality might also point toward justice, toward right ways of being together.

What would it look like if we somehow committed ourselves, in our personal, professional, and even our political lives, to radical hospitality? To spontaneous drop-ins, to lingering tea instead of the iron rule of the calendar, to inviting in— whenever possible and according to our means—the stranger? What might an experiment in hospitality—an ethic of absolute, brimming welcome—do for other efforts we make, from civil discourse to social justice? 

From one perspective, hospitality simply looks too fleeting and individualized to mean much, too superficial, too closely identified with the hotel industry. But from another perspective, hospitality looks like the kind of orientation toward others—and particularly toward strangers—that many of our personal, professional, and political encounters sometimes seem to lack. 

No matter who you are, where you come from, or what you believe, whether stranger or enemy or friend, hospitality asks that I open the door and welcome you in, that I provide to you what I would want my child provided if she were a stranger in a strange land. Hospitality is at once a reminder about vulnerability and about safety, about need and about resources. And because it’s a habit, an attitude, or an ethic, rather than a full-on system, it seems to be within reach—and the more I think about it, the more I wonder if its effects could be far reaching. It’s probably ridiculous to think that an experiment in hospitality could help with some of the serious challenges—systemic and otherwise—that we face right now. But because it’s ridiculous, I keep wondering about it. I wonder about an anachronistic experiment in radical hospitality, with all the risks it would entail. I wonder what it would require of me and the people I encounter each day of my life, and I wonder what this kind of opening up might open up.

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