Fred Niedner: Hospitality is holy work
By Fred Niedner July 12, 2013 11:20PM
Updated: August 14, 2013 6:07AM
One of my heroes died recently, someone who made the world a more hospitable place. Heidi Moll Schoedel co-founded and for nearly 25 years directed Exodus World Service, a charitable, volunteer organization that assists refugees from all over the world at building new lives in the Chicago area.
Only 51 at the time of her death, she leaves as her legacy not only a loving family, but thousands of strangers forced from distant homes and homelands, welcomed here with donations of basic necessities for setting up housekeeping, and more importantly perhaps, with the gifts of time and friendship, crucial graces that can eventually turn exile into a place of belonging.
This is holy work. Scriptures of all major religions prescribe and encourage hospitality. Torah commands Jews to love the strangers and sojourners in their midst and to treat them like family, “for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Jesus placed welcoming strangers high on the list of criteria by which the nations will be judged, and the Qur’an teaches that genuine hospitality includes not only feeding guests and strangers, but showing them love, respect and peace.
The oldest, most common biblical word for working “salvation” or “deliverance” means literally “to make a place” for someone. Even the Almighty makes hospitality a top priority.
People engaged in the “hospitality industry” have become pros at this work. Hotels, restaurants, theme parks and cruise lines make billions on hospitality, and after our travels abroad this summer, my wife and I can attest not only to the persistent care with which so many who pursue this vocation cultivate a culture of hospitality, but also the deep sense of gratitude it creates in recipients.
We asked ourselves repeatedly how we might bottle this generosity of spirit. What if we all made hospitality our calling?
Surely others have entertained similar dreams and resolves. Yet, most of us who don’t earn a living by practicing hospitality find it difficult to make room for strangers and foreigners.
The most recent immigration reform bill is hung up somewhere between the Senate and House of Representatives. It may well perish there, leaving our millions of “undocumented” neighbors in limbo a while longer.
The trail of attitudes and actions that has George Zimmerman on trial for murder in Florida began with instinctive suspicions about folks who don’t look like “us” or belong in our neighborhoods.
Why do we fail at hospitality? We fear being used, perhaps, and suppose those “others” will take and take and never give back. Also, like many four-legged critters, we’re a turf-protecting species. Moreover, we commonly assume that the neighborhoods, cities and nations we have created will last forever and always look as they do now, or become even brighter and shinier.
History, as I witnessed repeatedly last month in the ruins of several ancient cities, teaches us that nothing lasts — not our ethnic or religious ratios, not our cities and institutions, and certainly not ourselves. We are transients here, and guests. The world doesn’t belong to any of us. We’re merely passing through.
Which perhaps explains why in several ancient languages, the words for “host” and “guest” or “stranger” are the same. Ultimately, there’s no difference between the two. Gathered at a table, each receives something precious from the other.
As its mission statement asserts about the form of welcoming it practices, “Exodus World Service transforms the lives of refugees and volunteers.” Both hosts and guests reap in abundance when crossing paths in a spirit of hospitality. And each of us gets oh, so little time in which to receive its sweet graces.