The Arabs used to say,

When a stranger appears at your door,

Feed him for three days before asking who he is,

Where he’s come from,

Where he’s headed.

That way, he’ll have strength 

Enough to answer.

Or, by then, you’ll be 

Such good friends 

You don’t care.




No, I was not busy when you came!

I was not preparing to be busy. 

That’s the armor everyone put on 

To pretend they had a purpose

In the world.


I refuse to be claimed.

Your plate is waiting.

We will snip fresh mint

Into your tea. 

– Naomi Shihab Nye, The Red Brocade 

As the Young Adult Group reconvened for our first meeting of the year, we shared stories of where we had found the holy over our summers. One group member shared stories of the sense of welcome and radical hospitality she experienced while traveling in Newfoundland. She spoke of how the people there were eager to offer directions and assistance and viewed monetary repayment for their efforts as an insult. The conversation turned to what radical hospitality might look like here, in America, and how we might practice it.

Personally, I was reminded of a “civility practice” for which I was supposed to verbally greet everyone I met for one week. Outside of a few “drive-by hellos” while riding my bike, I failed miserably at the exercise. I justified this to myself in various ways. I see too many people for it to be practical. People looked like they were enjoying their peace and quiet. It felt awkward when people wearing earbuds couldn’t hear me. Maybe it wasn’t even always safe. (My friend took the civility practice much more seriously than I did, with the result that someone tried to follow her home as she got off the bus.)  But the truth is, I didn’t really want to practice greeting everyone I met because this kind of civility didn’t feel like true hospitality… But I did want to practice curiosity towards people I didn’t know and I did want to practice letting that curiosity propel me into new and brave conversation. I wanted to experience the expansive sense of love and welcome that Naomi Shihab Nye describes in her poem, a love that cannot help but leave both the host and the stranger changed.

These conversations on hospitality and civility remind me of the Multicultural Training I attended with 150 other Unity congregants this past Saturday. Like many of us, I could do a much better job of reaching out to people I don’t know in the Parish Hall after service (particularly to folks with the temporary name tags). But this training and this conversation on hospitality reminded me that even if I regularly greet people I don’t know, this may not be enough to truly welcome others. We named at the training that Unity as a congregation is predominantly white, financially secure, and highly educated. Those who have different identities than these, particularly a non-white racial identity, may not feel that Unity is a place that was created “by me, for me, and with me in mind.” While there is no single “fix” or even a single starting place, I do feel certain that if we entered church in the manner that Nye describes in her poem – with intention and care and a “refus[al] to be claimed” solely by those we already know – we would better embrace unfamiliar ways of being and a new, more broadly welcoming culture at Unity.

We could still all use a little more civility in our lives. But may we more often claim opportunities to practice deeper connection by through hospitality. May all people know belonging. May we all know that we come with something worthy to share. 



Author’s Note: The phrase “by me, for me, and with me in mind” is used by the organization Team Dynamics to describe the way that people with dominant identities experience culture.


3 Replies to “Hospitality”

  1. “For everyone born, a place at the table… A shelter, a place, a safe place for growing… And God will delight when we are creators of justice, and joy, compassion and peace.”

    This topic reminds me of my new favorite song that has been popping into my head before I even get out of bed in the morning and that drifts into my mind throughout the day. Each time I see an image of a smiling angel, reminding me that I am loved and that the world is full of love, if only I take notice.

    When I think of radical hospitality, I also think of an elderly, white-haired woman in a bright yellow sweater who slid into a back pew beside me on my first day at a new church 25 years ago. When I glanced down at her, she met my gaze with a smile as bright as her sweater. Half way through the service I found myself whispering to her about the denomination’s communion practice. (I had come from a Catholic Church with a strict protocol.) As I spoke to her in my hushed tone, I marveled at how I was interrupting the service for her without hesitation, and how I was so sure that she wouldn’t mind. I was right. As I later learned, this lovely woman, Elizabeth Stewart, made it her mission to wait at the back of the church each Sunday, looking for anyone new to welcome. She could have sat with any of her many friends, but instead, she was waiting for me.

    Elizabeth taught me a wonderful lesson, and I have tried to walk in her path. When I go to social gatherings at church or wherever, I try to look for the person who’s alone. Fast forward 25 years, and I am reminded how important Elizabeth’s mission was. Again, I’m church shopping, looking for an open and affirming place to call home. At the new church that I’ve found where I love the full inclusion and the pastors and the music and the social justice groups, I have not met an Elizabeth Stewart. Most often when I smile at new people around me and turn to face them, their glances slide over me, looking for someone familiar. Then their eyes lock on a friend and they come to life. Sigh. It takes a long time to make friendships. I’m joining groups and volunteering, and that helps. And I’m trying to be the Elizabeth Stewart. But so many have their friends. So many are claimed. I’ve been the stranger at the door for six months, and things are improving. I will do my best to make sure that no one else has to knock for so long.


  2. Marty Troyer from a Mennonite church offers “20 ways to welcome people to church”:

    In reading this list I thought, what would this look like from the “visitor’s/stranger’s point of view”? Rather than being merely prescriptive, this list could serve as a way of simply reminding all of us of what we are capable of doing at any given time, if we strive to extend our own comfort zone just a wee bit. Don’t most people want to feel welcomed? Don’t most of us respond positively to a genuine smile and/or kind word? If any of these ideas strike you as artificial, then don’t do them. People know when something feels “forced”. What would we see if we saw ourselves through the eyes of the visitor/stranger?


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