by Wendi Capehart

In the lovely gardening memoir Mrs. Whaley and Her Charleston Garden, Mrs. Whaley writes about how she felt when she and her husband moved to Charleston after they had spent a short time in D.C. She says she had trouble adjusting to the social scene in Charleston. Everybody was related to everybody else, and she had grown up with only one sister and was far from home, an outsider. She wanted to write home, "Dear Mrs. Fishburne, I'm not up to this. I 'm sorry to report to you that I'm not going to make it. I'm about to drown in this tangle of relationships. There are too many people here in too close quarters."

That made me laugh. It sounded so familiar. In many churches, whether they are tiny or large, there are certainly tangles of relationships and friendships going back from before the ark. It can be confusing (and sometimes amusing) for newcomers. It can also be exclusionary.

We have visited multiple congregations in our military related travels, and some are certainly more inclusive of outsiders than others. People who have grown up in the same congregation, who have cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws all in the same congregation, who are going to church with people they went to camp with since they were ten years old, often don't realize what a daunting and impenetrable wall they present to newcomers. Without meaning to, they create a united front that makes newcomers without those relationships feel shy, shut out, 'spare,' as my South African relations say. And sometimes, of course, it's not a matter of blood relations, but of close bonds of friendships, bonds so tight that circles are drawn that shut others out instead of drawing them in.

It's true that Jesus had his inner circle within the apostles, and sometimes I have actually heard Christians defend cliques by referring to that inner circle of our Lord's. But I'd be willing to be bet (were I a gambling woman) that the Lord did not neglect newcomers, visitors, the visiting strangers, in order to sit and visit exclusively with Peter, James, and John without speaking at all to the awkward stranger shifting his feet in the corner while nobody spoke to him. I doubt very much he left newcomers among his disciples to simply sink or swim. Another difference, of course, is that he was the Teacher, they were his disciples, and he knew he had three years to prepare them for his death. Until we have similar circumstances, we ought not to use the inner dynamics of the Lord and His apostles as an excuse to maintain our comfort zone.

It's true that we all have people we feel more congenial with, connect with more, and there's nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is when that little group becomes cliquish, insular, and neglects to reach out to others. When the 'inner circle' becomes self-centered, so that before any of you look around your gathering for strangers to whom you have a responsibility to make feel at home, you are looking first for each other to have a cozy chat- that's a problem. When the only 'hospitality' practiced is within your inner circle, that's a similar problem. It's not, I think, that people do this on purpose. It's that they don't purpose NOT to do it. The stranger is still just as much left in the cold on the outside, regardless of whether the exclusion is deliberate or accidental.

When the 'inner circle' members encourage one another in reaching out, that's an amazing blessing. I have been blessed in a few congregations to be part of an 'inner circle' where we got together every Sunday after church, putting together a pitch-in meal, each of us bringing one main dish and one side-dish, and then we looked around every Sunday for visitors to invite to participate with us, and we asked different families or singles from church to join us each week. This way the burden of meal prep did not fall heavily on any one of us, we had the joy of congenial company and the greater joy of reaching out to others and practicing hospitality as instructed in the scriptures (hint- hospitality? It's NOT optional).
We were usually military families, displaced by a diaspora of our own, and not part of the home-grown inner circle.

"It is no coincidence that the people who are most aware that they are strangers and sojourners on the earth are the people who are most able to open their doors to the stranger..." wrote Madeleine L'Engle in The Rock that is Higher.

Sometimes we don't practice hospitality or the Christian art of courteously including 'outsiders' because we are shy (This is my excuse, but it's self centered rather than other centered) or because we don't have a clean enough house (I also have used this excuse) or nice enough food.

This isn't hospitality we are thinking of, it is entertaining, and there is a difference. In Wisdom Distilled From the Daily, Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan Chittister, she tells the story of Abba Arsenius, who was born in Rome about 360 AD:

Once someone handed round a few dried figs in Scetis. Because they were not worth anything, no one took any to Abba Arsenius in order not to offend him. Learning of it, the old man did not come to the synaxis saying, 'You have cast me out by not giving me a share of the blessing which God had given the brethren and which I was not worthy to receive.' Everyone heard of this and was edified at the old man's humility. Then the priest went to take him the small dried figs and brought him to the synaxis with joy.

"The question," says Joan, "is not whether what we have to give is sufficient for the situation or not. The question is simply whether or not we have anything to give. That's what hospitality is all about. Not abundance and not totality. Just sharing. Real sharing."

In the United States today, she laments, hospitality has become too organized and too antiseptic. It is entertaining, not hospitality.

Do not worry about whether or not the fare or home is good enough. Worry more about whether or not you are leaving somebody out. Worry more about whether or not you are answering God's call to ALL Christians to practice hospitality.

As for what you serve, Melchizedek served Abraham a meal as simple as bread and wine (Genesis 14). Jesus served plain loaves of bread and fishes.

One of these days I am going to have a ladies tea where we have only tea, cinnamon toast and good conversation.