June 28, 2020
I haven’t traveled abroad as much as I would like. I’ve mostly visited western and southern Europe, and the Middle East. And here in the United States, I’ve been lucky enough to visit almost every state.
Out of all those places I’ve been, would you like to guess where I’ve found the local people to be the most friendly, welcoming, and hospitable? Give up?
Hands down, it’s the Middle East.
I think Americans have a kind of skewed understanding of that region, because most of what we hear about it has to do with conflict. But when you get down to how the average person on the street behaves towards strangers, I’ve never met friendlier folks.
On one trip to Egypt, I decided to wander around Cairo by myself. In the old part of the city, the streets can get narrow and winding, and even though I had a map, I got very lost. There I was, standing in this very narrow residential street — it was really more like an alley — and the buildings were probably hundreds of years old if not a lot older. And I didn’t know which way was north or south or anything — this was long before you could locate yourself on a mobile phone app. I had no phone.
So, I knocked on a random door. The man who appeared looked me over, and he spoke some English and I explained I was lost and needed to get back to this museum where the other people in my group were probably wondering where I’d disappeared to.
This man insisted that I come into his house and he would show me on my map where to go, but first I needed to have a cup of tea with him. So I went into his small apartment, we sat down, and he made tea. He asked me about myself. He showed me photos of his family. He asked if I was a football fan — and of course, by that, he meant soccer. And he told me he loved Elvis Presley and showed me his impressive collection of Elvis records, and wanted to know if I loved Elvis and when I told him I’d been to Graceland, well, that then took up the next 30 minutes.
I don’t even know how long I was there; I lost track of time. But his son — who was eight years old — came home from school and they spoke in Arabic and then he told me his son would take me back to the museum. I started to protest that that wasn’t necessary, but he insisted and apologized for not taking me back himself, but he needed to get back to sleep. He said he worked nights and slept during the day.
When I left he took my hand in both of his, looked me in the eye for a long time with this very meaningful look, and said, “Elvis. Thank you for stopping by.” And his son then led me by the hand — he wouldn’t let go of me — through all those narrow winding streets, all the way back to the museum.
It was astounding. I’d woken this guy up. I was a complete stranger. A foreigner. We only barely spoke the same language. He asked me in for tea. We talked sports and shared a mutual admiration for Elvis. And he made sure — by sending his little son to lead me — that I would make my way back safe and sound.
Later I told one of my Egyptian guides about it, and how lucky I was to have happened to knock on that man’s door. He smiled and shook his head and said, “If you had knocked on any door on that street, the same thing would have happened. Hospitality is who we are.”
I often think about that afternoon all those years ago, when I’m walking down a path — figuratively speaking — and there’s a fork in the road. Standing at that place is a stranger. To choose one way is to engage with that person, look them in the eye, maybe even get to know them a little bit.
If I choose to walk down the other way, that’s to more or less ignore that person. To not see them, really, to avert my eyes, to mind my own business and just keep going.
All of us face that choice, many times every day. And there are always extenuating circumstances. We’re busy, or we’re not rushed at all. We simply don’t feel like engaging. Or, there’s something about the person that — in an instant — we judge that they are worth our time and attention, or they’re someone we might be better off avoiding.
So, we behave as if we know who a stranger is; their character, their social status, their attitudes and beliefs, even, what matters to them and what does not — all in an instant, and without ever really knowing anything about them.
These days even if we don’t have as many in-person encounters due to social distancing and maybe not going out as much. But we still have encounters and make choices. What we choose to watch on TV. What we click online and what we don’t. The news stories we read. Or avoid reading.
Today I think we’re increasingly aware that many of us have been practicing a certain kind of not talking to strangers. And it’s based on the color of their skin. Most of us — I think it’s safe to say — as many Black friends and acquaintances as we may have — have no earthly idea what being a Black person in 21st-Century America is like.
I know how true that is for me. I’ve long fashioned myself as one of the enlightened people, who “doesn’t see color.” Who never makes assumptions about anyone based on their race.
After all, I’ve read lots of books about the long and ugly history of racism. About how, our economic system — in large part — was built on the basis of white people profiting and having the ability to realize their hopes and dreams, at the expense of enslaved and subjugated Black people.
I’ve read W. E. B. DuBois, and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I was thrilled at the very idea that a Black man could be elected President.
But the sad truth is, too many times when I came to a fork in the road where a Black person stood, I did not stop or engage or look them in the eye or listen to their story. I took the other path.
Maybe I justified my choice by telling myself we would not have enough in common. Maybe I was too busy. Maybe I felt I already knew enough about them. Maybe I believed that if I needed to learn from that stranger, it was their job to explain things to me.
Maybe, because I was operating under a different set of life experiences, I was blind to many things. Maybe I pretended to believe that my whiteness really didn’t give me any inherent advantages — that I’ve worked hard to earn what I have and no one gave me any breaks. Maybe I told myself that lie enough times that I actually believed it.
And maybe I felt it wouldn’t really matter for me to pause long enough to be welcoming to that stranger at the fork in the road.
I hope and pray that I know better now, what hospitality really means.
If the Bible has one consistent theme in practically every one of its 66 books, it’s hospitality. It always comes into play — it’s always somewhere in the story or in the words spoken — no matter what page you land on.
It practically slaps us in the face in a place where Jesus tells his disciples, in no uncertain terms, that welcoming the stranger is the same thing as welcoming him. That’s clear enough. What else can we say about that teaching — other than how much we routinely ignore it?
Social scientists have played tricks on people to study how and why they show hospitality and welcoming to some people, and not to others. You’ve probably heard about the church where a disheveled homeless man wandered into the service when the pastor was on vacation, and sat on the front pew. After a while an elder of the church, who was very uncomfortable with the presence of the homeless man, and at the urging of some other members, went over to him and asked him to leave. Turns out the homeless man was the pastor in disguise. He wanted to see how his congregation would treat a stranger in their midst. I think the pastor got fired for that prank.
What that old story points out is that we often have biases we don’t even recognize. Did the elder think of himself as a bad guy? Not at all. He had nothing against homeless people per se. He was just doing what he thought was appropriate under the circumstances. The homeless man simply did not belong.
He wasn’t dressed appropriately. He was being a distraction. He did not fit in. He made people feel uncomfortable. He was different. And he would probably ask people for a handout. The elder — and the other members — believed they already knew who the homeless person was. If they had met him at a fork in the road, they would have ignored him and avoided him, but he had invaded their space, uninvited. So something had to be done.
The reason hospitality is practically on every page of the Bible, is because God and the people who told stories that became the words in the Bible; stories and words spanning different times and places — knew that the common denominator in telling the story of God’s relationship with humanity, was that you don’t really have humanity — at least in the way it’s meant to be — without hospitality.
You don’t have understanding of each other without hospitality. You don’t have peace without it. You don’t have hope without it. You don’t live in a world where people are regarded as worthy and valuable in their own right without it. You don’t have justice without it.
And the over-arching story of God’s spirit of loving-kindness, living through you and me, stops cold without it. Passing by the stranger — ignoring them, avoiding them, omitting them from our consideration, not stopping long enough to listen and to understand and be a friend; is the same thing — the exact same thing — as closing the door in the face of God, according to Jesus.
But hospitality in our hearts, and in our voices, and in our hands and feet: that’s where love happens. It’s where peace, hope, joy and justice happens.
And it happens in recognizing biases and privileges we didn’t even grasp that we had. And acknowledging when and where we’ve ignored it, or thought it didn’t really matter, and then doing whatever it takes to make hospitality real.
I hope and pray I understand that what I think I know now about hospitality and about what it means to be that person at the fork in the road, still amounts to not nearly enough.
And that the rest of my lifetime will be about learning and understanding, so that I can be more like that man whose door I happened to knock on, one day when I was lost.
The man who opened it and invited me in, so that I was lost no more.