THE REBOOT BLOG | January 14, 2021

Making Room for the Other

A Rationale (Part I)

By Priscilla Pope Levison

Seared into my memory is the early, Seattle-drizzly morning we dropped off our son at church for a week-long, youth mission trip. It was a small youth group with a handful of girls and four boys – three close friends, a trio – and our son. The trio had arrived early, no doubt shared transportation from their homes, and were already well-settled in the van’s back seat. The girls occupied the middle seats, leaving open only the front passenger seat next to the adult driver. Our son climbed in that seat, and off they went.

We waved and smiled as best we could, but we were crestfallen. We had spent days encouraging our son to give youth group one more try. He hadn’t had a good, welcoming experience up to this time because this group of kids, who had been at church together since they were babies, were tight. Really tight, as in no room, no empty seat, in their midst. We kept telling him, “This mission trip will give them a chance to get to know you; they will see how terrific you are.” Nonsense words and an empty promise.

Our son never did go back to youth group after that, and we didn’t mention it again. It was clear to us, even more clear to our son after a week’s mission trip in Mexico, that there was no room in the group for anyone else. Making room for the other, for a stranger to them, was not a part of this group’s DNA.

A leading spiritual writer of the twentieth century, Henri Nouwen, had a lot to say about the Christian practice of hospitality, not the sappy, shallow kind but the deep, deliberate kind where “change can take place,” that provides a space where “the stranger can enter and become a friend,” where the tight group makes room – literally! – for the other. Nouwen draws his point from the ancient meaning of hospitality from the Greek word, philoxenia. It is a combination of two Greek words: philo, the word for love and friendship, and xenos, the word for stranger. Connect the dots, and hospitality (philoxenia) suggests love for the stranger.

Consider Genesis 18:1-15, a passage which distills the essence of hospitality. Abraham and Sarah provide a lavish welcome for three strangers appearing uninvited at the entrance to their tent. Abraham immediately welcomes them with a bow, a gesture of honor, and rushes to offer water to wash their feet, a place to rest in the shade, and bread to eat. He then enlists Sarah to prepare homemade bread and their servant to cook the choice calf that Abraham selects himself. These same basic elements occur in every story of hospitality in the Bible: welcome, a gesture of honor, time spent with the guests, washing feet, specially prepared food, water for the humans and animals, rest in the shade, shelter, a place to stay for the night, and a blessing.

This story is a favorite of Jewish rabbis because of its central focus on hospitality. One rabbi claims that Abraham, for refreshing weary travelers, plants a tamarisk tree at Beersheba. Another rabbi elaborates the story by claiming that Abraham plants an entire orchard of trees as a sign of hospitality. As an observant Jew, Jesus embodies the virtue of hospitality, particularly in the way he shares food and table fellowship. “Jesus as gracious host feeds over five thousand people on a hillside, and later explains to the crowd that he is the bread of life, living bread for them from heaven,” writes Christian Pohl in her book on hospitality, Making Room. “He offers living water to any who are thirsty (John 6-7). He is himself both host and meal – the very source of life.” He was also simultaneously the host and the meal at the Last Supper, the final meal he shared with his disciples, and the meal which Christians continue to celebrate as the foretaste of God’s most gracious hospitality to come in the messianic banquet, when “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

Nouwen was right, as were Abraham and Sarah, and Jesus too. Hospitality is anything but sappy and shallow. It is deep and deliberate. It is strategic. It is well-planned and, just as essential, implemented by those whose eyes are trained on strangers, whose posture is outward-facing, whose practice is to make room for the other, even a seat among other youth in the back seat of a church van.