Meditations on what I’m being taught by spending a year away from my family and community on a professorial exchange between Avondale College and Southern Adventist University.
Travel always requires dependence. This seems counter-intuitive to me, as I also associate traveling with independence. One must have a certain amount emotional, financial and personal autonomy to take off and be in another place for any length of time. But I am being reminded more and more of how much I depend on others for information, generosity, tolerance, and even personal care when I’m living in a new place.
The past two months have taught me this in humbling ways. My husband Tommy and I arrived in Sydney and were picked up from the airport by our friend who not only took a day off work, but had to borrow a larger vehicle in order to accommodate us and all the luggage I had brought for a year. We have stayed with friends for extended lengths of time, while we set up house for me close to the Avondale College campus. Food isn’t cheap or effortless to provide and the constant stream of meals my (old and new) friends have provided have made me realize how much welcoming others into a new location requires effort and intentionality.
Even before I arrived on campus, great efforts of generosity and hospitality were exerted on my behalf. Other faculty and staff made sure the paperwork for my courses was done in a timely manner; office space, equipment, and training were all organized for me. There are so many things I don’t know how to do! I need instructions and help all the time in order to complete the procedures that are common knowledge for my peers here. I have made mistakes that others had to correct. This professional hospitality, making sure I get the explanations I need — it has been rich and on-going.
Since my husband isn’t here fulltime, I find that church members, colleagues, and friends reach out to me to invite me to dinner, Sabbath afternoon socializing, and recreational outings. These aren’t just casually flung out comments — they require my new friends to rearrange their lives and be inconvenienced. (They also only take on real meaning when I accept them!) When I’m invited to go camping or cycling or other activities that require equipment, I have to borrow some of the accoutrements. And there’s an astonishing amount of good will to lend/provide what I need. Again, I have to be willing to ask for and accept this help.
Hospitality requires all parties to adjust themselves. I’m in a new place. I’m in the homes of people whose assumptions and habits are different from what I’ve experienced. At home, I’m the one who reaches out to others, but here I’m dependent. I need to adjust, but also, my hosts are adapting to me as well, trying to make things as easy for me as possible. I sometimes say things or make observations in ways that can be perceived as rude. Worse, I don’t always even notice when they are adapting to my presence or that my being there is preventing the relaxation that only comes when you’re surrounded with people you don’t have to be “on” with or explain yourself to. This requires both humility and gratitude on my part. And sometimes it is hard to be grateful all the time. I don’t like being aware of my dependence and weight in the world.
Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition has been extremely helpful to me in this process. She reminds us that welcoming others is core to the Christian faith (notice what our central act — communion — actually is, a shared meal), but that it isn’t cost-free. It usually involves something like food, the preparation/clean-up of which is often thankless, time-consuming and even expensive. The entire gospel is a welcome message — extending an invitation to and including people in the Kingdom of God, where our central metaphors of those of houses and meals and conversation. We need to be intentional about adjusting ourselves to and being part of these systems of hospitality and welcome.
At its best, Christian hospitality is equalizing. Our Scriptures are full of references to the ways in which we have been exiles and strangers. I am the stranger now, the dependent one. But I’m going to be returning home, and I know the experience of being welcomed has made me much more acutely attentive to how I’m receiving people in my church, my town, my workplace. I will be less concerned with efficiencies and productivity and more in tune with the pleasures of slowing down (patiently!) to experience life, or an event, with people for whom this place, this community are new.
For now, as I get to eat novel kinds of food, participate in different scheduling rhythms and holidays, learn fresh ways of practicing my profession and the different expectations that hold in this place — I am aware that I am one of those “least of these” that Jesus talked about. I’m on the receiving end of obedience to the command: “when you see the stranger, take her in.” It’s hard to be the one who weighs heavily on the community, but it is a reminder of my actual state of dependence and need, just in case I begin to rely on some sort of artificial individualism. And I hope to bring back some of the bountiful Australian hospitality with me when I return. Vanilla slice and a flat white, anyone?
Lisa Clark Diller is Professor of Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University. She is currently enrolled in a year-long faculty exchange program at Avondale College of Higher Education. Learn more about the exchange here.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Jesus as Guest: Hospitality in the Ministry of Jesus by Beverly Beem.
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