catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 19 :: 2012.10.26 — 2012.11.08


The most under-reported reality of urban America

As a program director for Mission Year, which organizes yearlong service and discipleship opportunities for 18-29 year-olds, I have learned radical hospitality from neighbors in Chicago and many other cities.  In every city where we have placed teams, we have stories of neighbors offering hospitality and care for our volunteers.  In New Orleans a house of girls never worried about their safety because their neighbor, an older African American man, reassured them that if anyone gave them any trouble, he had their backs.  Neighbors in Chicago bought our team a window A/C unit when they heard the volunteers’ apartment didn’t have one during an especially hot summer.  In Philly, church members brought by a year’s supply of laundry detergent because they know our volunteers are on a limited budget and they just wanted to let them know someone was looking out for them.  I have heard story after story of neighbors have coming through for our volunteers.  In Atlanta, Chicago, Philly, Oakland, Houston, Buenos Aires and New Orleans, we have seen volunteers get invited over for meals, welcomed into churches and included into community events.  In each city I have witnessed this same phenomenon, this same grace. This might very well be one of the most under-reported realities of urban America.

One team that was placed in Little Village, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, experienced the hospitality of the neighborhood right away.  As they pulled up on their first day, they were greeted by an army of friendly faces, including kids, who ran out to help them carry their luggage up three flights of stairs into their apartment.  I always ask our volunteers how these same neighbors would be treated if they were moving into their hometowns.  Would it be the same?  In most cases the answer is no.

Carlos, an immigrant from Mexico whom I got to know through a church ministry, talked to me about the contrast between American and Mexican hospitality.  He said, “If you came to Mexico, you would be welcomed, invited to dinner and embraced by every member of the family.”  I have experienced this in traveling to South America.  One family in a shantytown in Buenos Aires, Argentina prepared a lavish feast (asado) with chicken, ribs and steak for me and a co-worker who went to visit a missionary team down there.  Our friends told us that the family did not have a lot of money so their hospitality was literally very costly for them.  I can only imagine what it must be like for immigrants who know and expect that kind of hospitality to receive hatred, fear, rejection and animosity when coming to our country. According to the Billy Graham Center, less than one in ten immigrants will ever be welcomed into the home of an American.  How heartbreaking is this when we have such rich resources for the practice of hospitality?

Scripture clearly talks about hospitality: “Welcome the foreigner, remember you yourselves were foreigners.”  Hospitality was a major cultural value for Ancient Israel.  Practicing hospitality and receiving hospitality are sacred opportunities to remember the stranger and remember our own foreignness.  Almost all of us are all immigrants in this country.  Many of our ancestors came here uninvited and took land illegally.  

It’s important we try to feel what others are feeling when they move into a foreign place.  My friend Billy had an awful transition from Guatemala to the U.S. He worked in horrible conditions in fields in California around dehumanizing situations.  He lived in a closet for months in a worker camp.  He thinks every person from the U.S. should experience what it’s like being an outsider in another country; to not know the language, customs, rules, laws.  It can be humiliating, scary and lonely.

I have heard many people say that foreigners and immigrants in the U.S. need to learn English.  I have even heard followers of Christ express this sentiment.  My response is, “If you feel so strongly then why don’t you teach them?  Why don’t you volunteer at an ESL class and take time to walk alongside an immigrant or refugee?”  So much of our collective attitude toward immigrants is simply fear and bigotry hidden behind national security.  When we show this kind of attitude we show that we have not yet been formed by grace.

Jesus showed hospitality to those his society considered unacceptable and of low social status.  The hospitality of Jesus symbolized God’s acceptance of the marginalized and challenged the existing social order.  Hospitality revealed God’s inclusive Kingdom.  The Kingdom is about welcome.

One year when we had Mission Year volunteer at Emmaus Ministries, I got to experience a whole different level of hospitality.  Emmaus reaches out to male prostitutes in the Uptown neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, calling the men “guests” not “clients” and treating them like they are part of the family. They provide a meal every day, which is not that unusual for ministries.  What is unique is that they serve the meal at one table and everyone sits around the table to share the meal.  Volunteers, executive directors, cooks and the male guests sit and eat together.  This breaks down the barriers between the server and the served.  Sitting around the table and hearing the guys’ stories of struggle and redemption was a beautiful picture of hospitality in the spirit of Jesus.  Hospitality is a tangible way for people to experience God’s grace.

God is a God of welcome, a God of hospitality. Receiving the grace of hospitality changes us into hospitable people.  As we open our homes and tables to outsiders, we become people of welcome and children of God.

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