‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.’
It’s just before 9am here on the campus of St. John’s University of Tanzania, our home for our time here. I am sitting in the shade of a tree in our front yard. In the distance I can hear roosters, traffic going back and forth on the ring road surrounding the campus, and people walking up and down the dusty path that leads into the heart of the campus. Further in the distance is a hill with about a dozen cell pone towers on its top, offering a reminder to me of the wider world beyond and my own place within it in San Diego. Yet, for these ten weeks of sabbatical those towers and the working life they point to remain far away and we are gifted the time and space simply to be here, to learn and to grow.
Such time and space has helped me to become more aware of the hospitality of God that is so abundantly present around us – a divine generosity that is everywhere, at all time and in all places. This morning I encountered that generosity in the chapel service here at the university. Ordinarily, the service is in Swahili yet whenever the chaplain notices that I am there, he adds English phrases and scriptures in an attempt to include me. It’s a small kindness but in that simple act of translation, a stranger is welcomed. Yesterday, at the English service at Dodoma’s Anglican cathedral, another act of inclusion occurred as a man who had no legs dragged himself down the aisle to the front of the church during the sermon. As he got to the front pew, another Tanzanian saw him, warmly welcomed him with a smile, and lifted him into the pew next to him. ‘Ubuntu’, is the African concept that perhaps speaks to this ease of inclusion that just seem obvious and natural to the common life people share here. It means, ‘I am because we are’, or put another way, ‘a person is a person through other persons’. It expresses a collective identity, a communal sense of belonging and being that lends encounters with others a generosity of spirit and a freedom to allow the other to enter in as they are. In the villages, as Monica experienced this past Saturday, it also means that to be received by one is to be received by all, as she was welcomed by dance and song and hot cups of chai.
For our part, we have tried to reciprocate this spirit of welcome by offering to others our company and attentiveness in conversation. We had also made sure before we left to come with some small gifts from California, including footballs (soccer balls) with ‘U.S.A.’ emblazoned across their fronts to gift to the children of the villages we visit. You can see in the picture here one of them being duly inspected by a couple of village men. I think it passed the test and perhaps we are too – at least we think we are as people are inviting us back into their homes again and again. Yet the truth is that hospitality is a gift that does not call for reciprocation. It is, as God’s love, gratuitous. Indeed, true hospitality can only be given freely and without the expectation of a return and as such it is freed from the anxiety that can so often hang over our social interactions that asks if we are likeable or interesting enough to be interacted with again.
It seems to me that the Church can also suffer from such an anxiety, wearily fretting over whether the newcomer will ‘like church’ enough to come back a second time. The irony is of course that the reality to which such a person is being invited to enter into is at its heart free from all anxiety, for the presence of the divine that the Church gathers to worship is one that has no need to be liked, no need of any sort of all. When faith communities can make a deeper living connection to that well-spring then the worries about its place in society and in people’s priorities have the space to dissipate and people are freed to recognize holiness in the simplicity of its presence. Children, it seems, enter into such anxiety-free and mutual hospitality with ease. Around the dinner table one night recently, we asked our own children what they were enjoying about being here in Africa. One of them said that he liked it that we could make ‘fast friends’. His parents have liked that too. The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. Thank you, Lord, for the gift of being received.