“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV).
Have you ever known someone who never meets a stranger?
Folks who live their lives in such a way that nearly everyone they meet becomes a new friend astound me with their generosity of spirit. I admire their courage and zest for life, which compels them to embrace even those they do not know well, knowing that each creature has gifts to share with the world.
As a faith leader, when I meet folks with those sorts of spirits, I see some of the Spirit of Christ who, although divine, shared meals with the poor, sick, and sinful, laid hands on the infirm, and drew close to the crowds without reservation.
Even in His dying moment, Jesus stretched His arms wide as though embracing all of us and declared forgiveness over us because we did not realize what we were doing. Jesus is the embodiment of the grace of hospitality, and I would argue that hospitality is the biggest gift we, the body of Christ, can offer the world right now.
The Fear Factor
The current social and political climates have caused me to take a step back to examine what Scripture teaches us about welcoming strangers among us. I confess that I focus much of my time concerning myself with the sins that other people perpetrate on each other. I concentrate on the news stories about hate crimes without giving much consideration to the ways that I allow hate and fear to fuel my actions.
The truth is that fear motivates so much of what we do. Our fears prevent us from loving and practicing hospitality in the ways that our faith demands of us. In today’s social media culture, many of us have a fear of rejection. As humans, many of us also have a fear of not knowing which prevents us from meeting new people and having new experiences.
We also often have fears of being powerless that cause us to try to stay in places that make us feel powerful. We allow our fears to impede upon our ability to love.
Before turning outward and critiquing national and international leaders, I want to encourage us, especially during this introspective liturgical season called Lent, to look within to ask ourselves how we are practicing the kind of hospitality that Scripture and the example of Jesus Christ demand of us.
Love Thy Neighbor?
Many of us have learned the classic stories about hospitality in Sunday School and Sunday morning sermons.
We have heard about Abraham and Sarah, who unknowingly hosted angels who foretold the birth of Sarah’s son. In the passage from Hebrews I cited at the top of this article, the author alludes to that passage from Genesis. Despite the many admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible to care for the foreigner, widow, and orphan, we, like the lawyer in Luke 10, often ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
In response to that question, we have heard Luke’s well-known story of the Good Samaritan who, despite his vastly different culture and faith, cared for an Israelite stranger he found injured on the side of the road. Even after hearing such a dramatic story of sacrificial love, we continue to struggle with caring for our neighbors. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the story is the way it condemns us for the times we fail to show love to people who are just like us.
We have become politically motivated to care for immigrants in recent months, as we should, but we mistreat those who sit right next to us in the pew or who share our offices at work!
Jesus tells Israelite listeners the story of an Israelite man who was robbed as he traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest passed by and walked on the opposite side of the road to avoid helping. Then, a Levite, a religious leader from the priestly tribe of Levi, passed him. Only a Samaritan, a man who was from a different culture and faith background, cared for the man.
Many commentaries have explained that the priest and the Levite probably did not interact with the victim because of concerns about ritual purity, but does that not cause us to consider our priorities? We cannot prioritize legalism over mercy and love. Here was Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, essentially urging His listeners to ritually defile themselves because mercy is at the heart of the Gospel.
The Missing Link
What the world needs from the church is for us to be the church. The time is now for us to commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ in our actions. It was the way the early Church first began to thrive.
As J. Ellsworth Kalas puts it in his book The Story Continues: The Acts of the Apostles for Today, “The Christian church was born in a time and culture when the marketplace of beliefs was crowded to its borders. Religion was everywhere … This meant that it was easy to talk religion, but also that it was difficult for the decision to get serious. No wonder, then, that the followers of Christ were known as ‘people of the Way.’”
The earliest Christians stood out, and they increased in number because they lived their Christianity; for them, it was not simply an interesting intellectual idea. They attracted converts because of their countercultural way of viewing religion as more than a list of philosophies.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided a practical understanding of this concept in his sermon “A Knock at Midnight,” which appears in his 1963 book of sermons called Strength to Love. King preached, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state … if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace.”
In other words, from the Scripture we read, to the prayers we pray, to the songs we sing, our worship is real and lived and must transform us from the inside out. The church is not a place to go; the church is a thing to do. We call the physical buildings in which we worship churches, but the church is the body of Christ, at work in the world.
So, what does living our faith teach us about hospitality?
A Place Where Ministry Happens
One of my mentors in ministry began a new pastorate at the end of 2016. After examining the needs and challenges of ministry at her new church, she chose as her theme of her church “Radical Hospitality.” The new framework of thinking about the church as a place where radical hospitality happens has changed it in practical ways in just a few short months.
Church members are beginning to imagine their worship space as first and foremost a place where ministry happens. That sounds obvious, I know, but so many churches have gotten away from thinking of themselves as being ministry spaces above all else.
One of the most drastic changes she has made as pastor has been to reimagine the parsonage, the house that is owned by the church for use by pastors and their families. That house now serves a dual purpose. It is both a “meeting house” where retreats, Bible study, and meetings can occur, and it provides accommodations for the pastor and visiting ministers.
Knowing my colleague, and understanding what it means to be “radical,” I am expecting that in the months and years to come, her new ministry will continue to grow and transform to become more welcoming for all people.
It is our task, as the Samaritan did in the Gospel of Luke, to embrace all we meet. As Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, we do not know the actual identity of those we encounter each day. Scripture teaches us that if we open our hearts to the possibility, each stranger has gifts to share with us that will enhance our lives. My fellow people of the Way, let us go forward with joy to spread Christian hospitality.
Jaimie Crumley is a minister, blogger, podcaster, and ministry consultant. She blogs about race, gender, history, and Christian faith at iamfreeagent.com.
Share your thoughts on ministry and hospitality below.
On June 5, 2020, it had been just over a week since a white Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, killed George Floyd, an unarmed, African American man. Protests were underway outside Central United Methodist Church, an interracial church in downtown Detroit with a long history of activism on civil rights, peace, immigrant rights and poverty issues.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the church was no longer holding in-person worship services. But anyone walking into its sanctuary that day would have seen long red flags behind the pastor’s lectern, displaying the words “peace” and “love.” A banner reading “Michigan Says No! To War” hung alongside pictures of civil rights icons Fannie Lou Hamer and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as labor-rights activist Cesar Chavez. In line with her church’s activist tradition, senior pastor Jill Hardt Zundell stood outside the building and preached about her church’s commitment to eradicating anti-Black racism to her congregants and all that passed by.
In our sociology and political science research, we have both studied how race, religion and politics are intimately connected in the United States. Our recent book, “Race and the Power of Sermons on American Politics” – written with psychologist James S. Jackson – uses 44 national and regional surveys conducted between 1941 and 2019 to examine racial differences in who hears messages about social justice at church. We also examined how hearing those types of sermons correlates with support for policies aimed at reducing social inequality and with political activism.
For centuries, many Americans have envisioned that their country has a special relationship with God – that their nation is “a city on a hill” with special blessings and responsibilities. Beliefs that America is exceptional have inspired views across the political spectrum.
Many congregations that emphasize social justice embrace this idea of a “covenant” between the United States and the creator. They interpret it to mean Americans must create opportunity and inclusion for all – based in the belief that all people are equally valued by God.
Politics in the pews
In our book, we find that, depending upon the issue, between half and two-thirds of Americans support religious leaders taking public positions on racism, poverty, war and immigration. Roughly a third report attending worship settings where their clergy or friends discuss these issues and the importance of politically acting on one’s beliefs.
African Americans and Hispanic Americans tend to be more supportive of religious leaders speaking out against racism and attempting to influence poverty and immigration policy. On the whole, African Americans are the most likely to support religious leaders expressing political views on specific issues, from poverty and homelessness to peace, as we examine in our book.
Black Americans are also more likely to attend worship settings where clergy and other members encourage them to connect their faith to social justice work. For example, according to a July 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 67% of African American worshippers reported hearing sermons in support of Black Lives Matter, relative to 47% of Hispanics and 36% of whites.
Race also affects the relationship between hearing such sermons and supporting related policies. When statistically accounting for religious affiliation, political party and demographic characteristics, attending these types of congregations more strongly associates with white Americans supporting progressive policy positions than it does for Black Americans and Hispanics.
White worshippers who hear sermons about race and poverty, for example, are more likely to oppose spending cuts to welfare programs than those who hear no such messages at their place of worship.
This is not the case for African Americans and Hispanics, however, who are as likely to oppose social welfare spending cuts regardless of where they worship. In other words, while hearing sermons about social justice issues informs or at least aligns with white progressive policy attitudes, this alignment is not as strong for Blacks and Hispanics.
Clergy of predominantly white worship spaces are often more politically liberal than their congregants. Historically, this has translated into members pushing back when clergy take public positions that are more progressive than their congregation’s.
This may explain why white parishioners who chose to attend congregations where they hear social justice-themed sermons tend to be more politically progressive, or more open to sermons challenging previous views, than are other white parishioners.
From words to action
However, when it comes to the connection between hearing sermons and taking political action, race doesn’t matter as much. That is, when taking into account religious affiliation, party affiliation and social demographics, people who hear social justice-themed sermons in their places of worship are more likely than other Americans to engage in political activism, regardless of their race.
For example, during the months following Floyd’s murder, Black, white and Hispanic congregants who heard sermons about race and policing were more likely than others to have protested for any purpose in the past 12 months, according to data from the 2020 National Politics Study. More specifically, white Americans who attended houses of worship where they heard those types of sermons were more than twice as likely to participate in a protest as other white worshippers. Black and Hispanic attendees were almost twice as likely to protest, compared to those attending houses of worship where they did not hear sermons about race and policing.
The difference between people who attend houses of worship with a social-justice focus and people who did not attend religious services at all is even more striking. White Americans who heard such messages at religious services were almost four times more likely to protest than white Americans who did not attend services; Black and Hispanic Americans were almost three times as likely.
Today, many Americans are pessimistic about inequality, political divisions and ethnic conflict. Yet, as these surveys show, social justice-minded congregations inspire members to work for policies that support their vision of the public good.
Kenya, in red, located in eastern Africa. Map courtesy of Creative Commons
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Some churches in Kenya have barred politicians from addressing their congregations, saying campaigning during services disrespects the sanctity of worship.
The national Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches have all issued bans, as many of the politicians begin early stumping for next year’s general elections. The Methodist Church, however, is keeping the church doors open for all.
The Rev. Joseph Ntombura, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya, has said his church is not dissenting from the effort but is taking a different approach. The bishop said shutting the doors to politicians would mean discriminating against some of its members.
“The church is for all people,” Ntombura told Religion News Service in a telephone interview. “Human beings are political, so there is nothing wrong with inviting the politicians in church.”
According to the bishop, congregations need to hear the views of politicians on issues of national interest, such as the sharing of resources. In the past, Ntombura said, the church has invited other experts to speak to congregations on important matters, and politicians are no different.
“Some of the politicians are our pastors,” said Ntombura.
The Rev. Joseph Ntombura, with microphone, presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church in Kenya, prays over former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero, left, in Nov. 2015. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili
Kenya is about 85% Christian. About 33% of that group are Protestants and 20.6% are Catholic. The rest belong to evangelical, Pentecostal and African denominations. Muslims make up 11% of the population.
In issuing the bans on politicking in church, denominations have said they feared that church services would become campaign rallies and that candidates would use language bordering on hate speech in an attempt to win votes or sway the views of congregations. In the past, politicians hijacked church services to sell their agendas or criticize their opponents. Some have appeared in the churches with huge sums of money as offerings or as funds for church projects.
The no-politicking effort gained momentum this month when Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, the Anglican primate of Kenya, announced his church’s ban.
“Everyone is welcome in the churches, but we have the pews and the pulpit,” said Ole Sapit on Sept. 12, during the ordination of Kenya’s first Anglican woman bishop. “The pulpit is for the clergy and the pews for everyone who comes to worship.”
On Sept. 15, the Roman Catholic bishops said their places of worship and liturgy were sacred and were not political arenas. They urged politicians to attend Mass just like any other worshippers.
Analysts say the churches are seeking to reclaim their position as “honest arbitrators” in a country where elections often generate violent conflicts.
The most deadly came in December 2007 and January 2008, when two months of ethnic fighting left at least 1,000 people dead and more than 600,000 displaced from their homes. Among them, 30 people, mainly ethnic Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, were burnt alive in an Assemblies of God church in Kiambaa Village in Eldoret.
Henry Njagi, program and information manager at the National Council of Churches of Kenya, said resistance to church guidelines on political speech risks a repeat of the events of 2008.
“When things went wrong, they turned around and accused the church of being silent and abandoning Kenyans,” said Njagi. “So right now is a call on political actors, aspirants and other stakeholders to listen to the church … and stop toxic politicking.”
Though the politicians have not been as present at mosques, Muslim leaders say they are supporting the ban on toxic politicking in the churches.
“I support the Christian leaders. Such a ban is long overdue,” said Sheikh Hassan Ole Naado, national chairman of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.
He added that Muslims were not facing the issue at the moment.
“When you go to a place of worship, you know what you are supposed to do. They are taking advantage of people who are gathered for worship. It should not happen in the first place,” said Ole Naado.
This Sunday, July 10, 2016 photo shows the First Baptist Church, left, the First Baptist Church of Christ, center, and Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Macon, Ga. About 170 years ago, the two Baptist churches were one congregation, albeit a church of masters and slaves. Then the fight over abolition and slavery started tearing badly at religious groups and moving the country toward Civil War. The Macon church, like many others at the time, decided it was time to separate by race. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)
The faith community should guide the way on reparations for America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and help the nation’s process of reconciliation and healing, religious leaders said during a panel held to discuss the issue.
U.S. religious groups have seen widespread interest in reparations, especially among Protestant churches that were active in the era of slavery. Many are starting or now considering how to make amends through financial investments and long-term programs benefiting Black Americans.
“The faith community not only can lead but should lead, and is in a unique position to lead,” the Rev. Iva E. Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said during the Wednesday panel organized by The Associated Press, The Religion News Service and The Conversation.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted last year to create a $1 million reparations fund, likely to finance programs supporting Black students, nursing home residents, small-business owners and others. The vote followed years of research into how the diocese had benefited from racial inequality and slavery.
“If not the faith community, who? And if not now, when?” said the Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, the first Black cleric to hold the post of bishop of the diocese.
“Perhaps one of the reasons why so many in our society are saying, ‘Well, I can be spiritual, but I don’t have to belong to any religious organization,’ is because religious faith communities have failed to live up to their scriptures and to our words,” Sutton said. “We need to put our money where our mouth is. And reparations is one way to do that.”
Panelists were asked what they tell those who oppose reparations on the grounds that they’re not guilty of slaveholding or racism and shouldn’t be asked to pay for those crimes. Sutton said it’s not about guilt but a responsibility to repair the damage caused.
“Reparations is not a transfer of money from white people to Black people,” Sutton said. “It’s rather what this generation will do to correct the wrongs that previous generations have started.”
University of South Carolina history professor Nicole Maskiell, who has worked with congregations involved in reparations initiatives, praised faith communities for being first and leading by example.
“That takes courage,” she said. “It takes commitment, and it also takes a willingness to tell the truth.”
The Minnesota Council of Churches has cited a host of injustices — from mid-19th century atrocities against Native Americans to police killings of Black people — in launching a first-of-its kind “truth and reparations” initiative.
The initiative engages a diverse collection of 25 Christian member denominations, including some that are predominantly Black, and will model some of its efforts on South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is based in Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd last May sparked global protests over racial injustice.
“When I was growing up, white supremacy was a problem of the South. … Within the last five years, just here in Minneapolis, we’ve had the killing of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Daunte Wright,” said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, the council’s director of racial justice. “All of this within 7 miles of each other, each one of those young men all at the hands of police, all unwarranted killings.”
“How did we, as a city of Minneapolis, how did we get to this point? And the only answer one can arrive at is white supremacy.”
Jacobs, who belongs to a Wisconsin-based Mohican tribe but was born in Minnesota, said the initiative seeks to address social justice concerns of African Americans and Native Americans in a unified way: “We are so much stronger together than we are doing our justice work in silos.”
Panelists said they’re hopeful that the latest attempts to address reparations will turn into meaningful action because the country is in the midst of a historic reckoning on racism, because young people are engaged and seeking justice and because faith communities have come together to demonstrate.
“Every night over the roar of the cries for justice, you could hear the indigenous drumbeat. … We’re there,” Jacobs said. “I have linked arm-in-arm with rabbis and imams and bishops and pastors.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who has sponsored a bill that would create a commission to study slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present, said she hopes it will be passed by the House in late June.
The commission would also recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.
Support from the faith community, she said, is crucial: “It can help people, Americans, grapple with, understand and feel comfortable with doing the right thing.”
“We’ve come this far by faith, our beliefs, whether or not we’re reading from the Quran or the Torah, we’re reading from the Bible or any other faith book somewhere in there about love and charity and somewhere in there about restoration. I know there’s something in there about redemption,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s what America has to do.”
Associated Press writers David Crary and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
(RNS) — In a period of significant pressure on our democracy, our health and our overall well-being as a people, faith has provided a hidden infrastructure that has held America together. We miss out on much good when we do not recognize the role of faith and religious institutions in our communities.
Last month, the Bridgespan Group released a report confirming what many of us already knew: While faith-inspired organizations, congregations and individuals make up a large percentage of America’s civic and social landscape — especially when it comes to providing aid to low-income people and those on the margins — they are significantly underrepresented and overlooked by philanthropic institutions who fund in these areas. Although faith is often in the headlines as a subject of political intrigue and a tool of partisan warfare, in the lives of millions of Americans, faith is felt closer to home, helping them to survive and make it week to week, day to day.
If you’re not familiar with the basic state of play, the findings of the Bridgespan Group might strike you as something more problematic than simply a missed opportunity. The report finds that “faith-inspired organizations account for 40 percent of social safety net spending across a sample of six cities, which vary in size and demographics. Yet, while some individual philanthropists and community foundations have recognized faith-inspired organizations as platforms for impact, that perspective has not translated into funding from the largest institutional philanthropies — particularly those seeking to address the effects of poverty and injustice.”
The report quotes Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and executive director of the Pillars Fund, a grantmaking organization that invests in American Muslim organizations, who rightly points out: “Secularism is the dominant narrative in the U.S., but often less so in vulnerable communities, in my experience. It’s a disservice to not even acknowledge it.”
Indeed, while it is certainly within the rights of philanthropic institutions to “not do religion,” such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based philanthropy in much of this country and in many places around the world. At best, a categorical rejection of religious engagement among institutions working in significantly religious communities amounts to an acknowledgment of an organizational deficiency. At worst, it adds up to a willful act of disruption and disrespect for the values, beliefs and culture of the communities that are “served.”
The problem is not just in philanthropy. In politics and public life, faith is often viewed as a sword or a shield for one’s own agenda. Religious communities are too rarely considered on their own terms, categorized instead as political foe or ally. This dynamic contributed to an unfortunate and harmful tenor of conflict between some governments and religious communities as we sought to mitigate COVID-19. These conflicts emerged, in part, because many elected officials viewed religious communities as a problem to solve rather than a potential partner. Politicians need to start viewing faith communities as not just sources of votes, but sources of wisdom and expertise.
Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) detected a lack of understanding for how faith and civic health are tied together, and in particular, how faith communities are helping people build relationships and work together across difference. In 2019, they launched a funding and learning initiative, Faith In/And Democracy, to support faith-inspired organizations and efforts that are helping to hold our communities and our democracy together.
As an adviser to this program, I have been able to see the tireless, often thankless, work grantees of the program have advanced. We set out to determine if there was a distinct field of faith organizations and actors supporting our civic life, and our efforts have been met with a resounding “yes.” In its pilot year, over 130 qualified organizations applied to the program, and five were selected to participate in a robust learning community that included a range of advisers as well as philanthropic leaders committed to this work. Together, we grappled with what COVID-19 might mean for our grantees’ work, and we saw up close how they discovered creative ways to persist in their mission despite numerous roadblocks. During an election year when some sought to stir up religious resentment and conflict, our grantees were working to strengthen our democracy and build bridges of faith between disparate communities.
Through the crises of this year and my experiences working in the White House under President Obama, I have come to rely on the fact that if there is a crisis or challenge in the news, there are people of faith at work to address it for the common good. Faith is always at work.
As we turn our focus from lockdowns to vaccinations, public officials are turning to religious communities for support. In recent weeks, Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci participated in a service with D.C.-area clergy focused on the vaccine. Dr. Fauci has referred to the imperative to get adults vaccinated as a “‘love thy neighbor’ opportunity.” After relative dormancy during the Trump years, President Biden has reestablished and reinvigorated the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which should ensure the federal government is able to effectively partner with the faith community to keep the national response to COVID-19 on track.
If respected, valued and included, people of faith and religious institutions can be partners on so many of the issues at the top of the national agenda. For example, the Biden administration should not merely welcome the support of people of faith for the anti-poverty provisions in the American Rescue Plan, but rather, invite faith leaders to champion the provisions, to claim them as a harbinger of a new national commitment to better care for the “least of these.”
Likewise, we cannot have a conversation about strengthening our democracy without recognizing the role of faith as a molder of civic character and a shaper of civic consciousness. Faith communities’ value to our democracy does not only show up for “Souls to the Polls,” but in the countless ways in which faith beckons Americans outside of themselves and toward their neighbors. In many communities, congregations serve as civic incubators, forums for strengthening muscles of service, negotiation and love.
Philanthropy, governments and other sectors should never instrumentalize faith, nor impose their values on faith communities. The point is not that faith communities should be viewed as potential avenues for advancing someone else’s agenda — rather, that so much of what we struggle to do and be is already attended to by the resources inherent in many religious communities.
Nothing does what faith does the way faith does it. We’re going to need it in the days ahead, just as it has been here — quietly, at times — all along.
(Michael Wear is founder of Public Square Strategies, LLC, and an adviser to PACE’s Faith In/And Democracy initiative. Heserved in the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s faith-based initiative. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)