Faith, Hospitality, and Stewardship

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“I was raised Catholic.” It’s a four-word story that’s surely been uttered by millions of people. I’ve found myself speaking these words, which really says little of how I currently explore and express my spirituality. Nor does it convey the respect that I hold for so many who continue to practice their faith within the Catholic tradition.

Standup Sisters Producer Jennifer Szweda Jordan with Sister Agnes Therese

That sense of respect is part of what brings me to write this post, as well as the desire to draw connections between hospitality, faith, and stewardship. I was asked a few weeks ago to sponsor a hospitality room for the Catholic sisters who were sharing stories of their personal environmental ministries as part of the Standup Sisters: Green Habits event. Hosted by Jennifer Szweda Jordan of Unabridged Press, the event featured five Catholic sisters speaking about their work in stewarding the environment. They spoke of everything from teaching teens to garden to seeing miles of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

The link between faith and environmental stewardship should be clear. People speak of “God’s green Earth” and God’s creation, and yet we don’t do enough to steward this vast and ailing planet. Pope Francis, thankfully, has taken a leadership stance on climate change. In the encyclical letter Laudato Si he writes, “We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.” And in that same letter he states: “I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

This last idea of including everyone brings me back around to hospitality. When I was asked to sponsor a hospitality room for Standup Sisters it made perfect sense to me. I spent the late 90s getting my liberal arts education at Saint Vincent College, where the adjoining monastery, the Saint Vincent Archabbey, practices Benedictine hospitality. As a student, I appreciated the idea of Benedictine hospitality, not knowing at the time that I would build a career that upholds hospitality as a community value.

In my consulting work, I often work with communities in cultivating a “culture of hospitality,” one in which visitors are welcomed in and embraced, not simply tolerated or viewed as a party in a business transaction. Besides talking with communities about hospitality, I also model it when helping clients to host tours and events. And I bring the same approach into my coaching. Hospitality is important to me.

I’ve come to believe that the Benedictines practice a “radical hospitality” and hope that we all can strive to do the same. St. Benedict was clear that a gracious and sincere hospitality should be extended to the poor as well as to travelers. Do we offer the same in our communities and in our own homes?

Brother Aaron Raverty, OSB, writes in Hospitality in the Benedictine Monastic Tradition, “Our Holy Father Benedict in his rule for monasteries shows us how to go beyond mere tolerance of human difference to the active welcoming of hospitality. If we could come to think of all people as our guests, our world would be a very different place.” Relating back to hospitality in the realm of tourism, what comes to mind for me are the churches in Damascus, Virginia (“Trail Town, USA”). These faith communities in the town of 800 extend an invitation to hikers along the Appalachian Trail. They offer warm meals and hot showers and a sense of welcome. I’ve seen the same in Delaware Water Gap, another A.T. trail community, where a church along the route operates a “Hiker Center.”

I’ve read other takes on hospitality that express that it can be deep and genuine or superficial, treated as an “extra.” Todd Kliman, in his article “Coding and Decoding Dinner,” asserts that a sense of welcome isn’t always extended to all. “Southern hospitality is more than what we call ‘etiquette.’ It’s a sensibility. A way of being with the world. A philosophy. A spirit. You don’t just open your doors to a stranger…In the purest sense, you are accepting that stranger as an extension of yourself.”

He goes on to write that this is what is known as “welcome” in the South. Not all travelers (or even all locals) are treated so graciously. “We delude ourselves,” he says, “if we don’t acknowledge that there is a difference between being admitted and being welcomed.”

This is why I suggest that the Benedictines practice “radical hospitality.” Going back to the Rule of St. Benedict, in which the poor and travelers are to be welcomed to the table and provided with shelter, it is sometimes radical to open one’s doors to the weary. Just as it can be radical for Catholic sisters to practice environmental ministry. Or for families in the country of Lebanon to welcome visitors into their homes at no charge. Representatives of the Lebanon Mountain Trail, on the other hand, encourage them to charge in an effort to expand the tourism industry to the benefit of local communities.

To close (and circling back to my own Catholic, liberal arts education), a quote that has been with me for the last 20 years is “Forward, always forward, everywhere forward,” stated by St. Vincent College founder Boniface Wimmer. But another quote that’s closer to my heart is one that I’ve heard several times in a story about Fr. Ronald Gorka, a monk who helped a number of Saint Vincent students in the late 60s, a time when a sense of turmoil and hopelessness pervaded. Years later, he was helped back to his room by one of those same students. I imagine an elderly monk, his arm linked with that of a former student, taking his turn at being cared for. As the story goes, he said, “We all help each other out when we can.” Let us remember this as we move forward in our daily lives.

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