The Character of Hospitality – in Three Movements.

Gordon Smith Ambrose University President
Practicing Hospitality: In this blog series, President Gordon T. Smith explores the topic of Practicing Hospitality. Dr. Smith offers insights and personal reflections on the dynamics of offering hospitality as Christians, and the importance of this spiritual practice in today’s diverse world. This series is published bi-monthly, on the 1st and 15th.

The Character of Hospitality – in Three Movements.

We need to renew afresh our commitment to hospitality—as a fundamental practice, and as a vital and essential way by which we live out our Christian identity. This is one of the great calls of Scripture. In noting this, we are reminded that the church is only truly the church when it is marked by a radical hospitality, but also that a university such as Ambrose must embrace hospitality—towards each other, our neighbours and our world—as the practice that makes this a community of transformative learning and empowers women and men to be the means of redemptive engagement with our world.  And thus it is essential that we learn how to do this well; it is that basic.  

It is helpful to think of hospitality as having three distinct movements or elements, each fundamental to every encounter with another.    

First, to offer hospitality is to welcome the other. As the Apostle Paul puts it: welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you (Rom 15:7). To welcome is to invite the other into our space, into our world, whether it is into our home, our workspace or our company. The other is accepted, received, allowed to be: accepted as they are, and perhaps with different backgrounds, perspectives, opinions, and ways of being. We let the other be the other. Of course, what makes this doubly significant is that this is how Christ has welcomed us; and this is the Gospel, the radical welcome and acceptance of God in Christ who graciously invites us into God’s presence with all the baggage that we bring to the relationship.

We welcome one another; we welcome the immigrant, the refugee. As Christians, we welcome the Muslim who moves into the neighbourhood. These are now our fellow Canadians. They are welcome.

It needs to be stressed that a welcome is never imposed; we do not force another into a relationship. We do not hug someone who does not want to be hugged, as though hugging were a sign of love and acceptance. We do not touch a person who does not want to be touched. We call them by name, the name that they want to be called. We welcome with generosity—a welcome that must be genuine to be authentic. Nothing feigned and no pretense.

Second, to offer hospitality is to create a safe space for the other. You are only hospitable to me if I feel safe in your presence. My vivid memory of grades 3 and 4 is the deep fear that was a constant for me, brought on by grade 8 boys who were bullies, whose words and behaviour towards me was a continual threat. Yet the teachers and school administrators did nothing to prevent this abusive behavior.

Our commitment to hospitality at Ambrose means a number of things, including that this will be a safe place to teach and to learn. We will not tolerate sexual harassment or racist innuendo; we will press hard against anything that compromises the principle that Ambrose will be a safe place to live and learn. This does not mean that everyone will be in agreement on this, that or the other. This does not mean that views and perspectives will go unchallenged, for there certainly will be challenges. What it does mean is that a safe place leads toward new discoveries, transformative learning and growth.

The importance of creating a safe space is especially relevant for anyone who is in a power position, be that economic, political, military or organizational leverage, including the professor in the classroom. The MeToo movement has reminded us of the awful predicament of women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault from powerful men, men who must be called to account. But on some level, we all experience this—whether with a government official, a police officer at a traffic intersection, or whenever we are in a situation with a power differential. Teachers are in a power position in the classroom; coaches are in a power position on the volleyball court. So, too, are pastors in churches, and those who are not part of the majority demographics, which in Canada is Canadians of European descent. And the question is whether this power is used to protect, affirm, encourage—power as a means of service, power for the sake of the other. Parents create a safe place for their children, and this is a reminder that all human flourishing happens in a place of fundamental safety.

As a side note here: we are living through a pandemic, and in this context, hospitality means that we each do every possible thing we can to create a safe place for one another. This means vaccines, for our own health and for the health of those we live, work and study with. This means masks, as a key indicator that we care about each other and want this to be a safe place for one another. This is not a time to demand our “rights” or any kind of religious exemption; to the contrary, vaccines and masks are basic to what it means for us to be attentive to the well-being of one another.

And thirdly, to offer hospitality is to attend to the other, the most obvious way being to listen to the other; more specifically, we can speak of it as empathetic listening and attentiveness. In many respects, this is the first movement of love—to listen to the other: husband and wife, teacher and student, pastor and parishioner, civic leader and constituent. Even if a pastor or teacher does most of the talking, they can do so deeply attentive to this class, these students, those who have gathered for worship on this Sunday. We speak as those attentive to how our words are being heard; whether we are teaching bio-chemistry, psychology, business or the book of Genesis, we are attentive to how this particular class of students is processing what they are reading and learning.  

We will not always get this right. We will miscue on the welcome; we will apologize if we fail to create a safe place; we will learn what it means to listen. But this is the way of hospitality and it is of such importance that we will, with God’s help, grow in our capacity to be women and men of hospitality, always attentive to where and in what situations we are being called upon to offer a welcome, to create a safe place, and to offer an attentive ear.