My colleagues and I wound our way through the darkened corridors before dawn. We looked around for the signs that would lead us to the chapel at the Benedictine Mission House in Schuyler, Nebraska. A silent monk rounded the corner just as we saw the sign leading us to the chapel and entered the bronze doors. Without words opened our prayer and song books to the correct page and motioned for us to sit down.
A few minutes after sitting in silence, the bell rang, everyone kneeled and morning prayer began in the pre-dawn hours. The liturgy felt awkward. I was working pretty hard to keep up, not knowing the order – the times to sit, stand, bow, sing and pray.
But, not once, did I feel unwelcome. Even in the silence, the monks greeted us with smiles and warmth. My spirit was nurtured in this unfamiliar, but wonderful experience.
I walk into a new United Church of Christ church nearly every Sunday in the Iowa Conference. I am most grateful on the Sundays when a member welcomes me with a handshake and give me some directions to where I need to prepare for worship. I am sad to say that this doesn’t happen nearly as often as I would like.
I am entering churches as a scheduled visitor, often the guest preacher. What is the experience of people who come unannounced? What if the visitor was young, from another city, had never visited a church before or was a different race from the majority of people there? I bet that it would be even more awkward and possibly unfriendly experience for them.
Most often when churches think about hospitality, they are trying to boost their membership. But, that is not really the reason we do hospitality. In the Rule of St. Benedict, they say of hospitality, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for him himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt. 25-35).”
If we think of welcoming each stranger as Christ, hospitality becomes a radical practice of faith, not simply a way to bringing in new people to fill the pews. We are not corporate agencies that want more people to patronize their business to leverage a higher profit; we are a community of believers who want to welcome people who are rejected in many places in the world. We do this because that is the way Jesus lives his life.