By Steven Norris
“You are welcome!” I cannot begin to convey how many times I heard that phrase during our recent time in Uganda. My initial response (in my head, of course) was, “I didn’t say, ‘Thank you. What are talking about?’” In our common usage, we don’t use “You are welcome” as a declarative reality, but as a pat response to southern niceties.
As we spent time among the people of Amani Sasa, a ministry to refugees in the city of Kampala, we found that their understanding of the Gospel message was inextricably tied to the practice of welcome and hospitality. “You are welcome” was more than just a nicety. It was an expression of openness and good will. It was an embodiment of the love of Christ present in this group of people from all over East Africa.
Years ago, I preached a sermon on the practice of hospitality entitled, “Creating a Space to Peel the Onion.” I walked out on the platform in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The shirt had a label on it: Pastor. I talked about the practice of hospitality, often embodied in the images of “Better Homes and Gardens”— of dinner parties with matching decor, carefully coordinated menus, and fancy embellishments in glasses of sweet tea.
As I spoke, I took off the t-shirt to reveal a second one underneath: Husband. One by one, the t-shirts came off throughout the sermon, revealing more and more personal descriptions: Self-Conscious, Worried, Lonely, Ashamed. The last one simply read: Steven.
The point was that most of us live our lives with layer upon layer of insulation from the world. We do this for good reason — if we were to go around and share our darkest secrets, deepest worries, and paralyzing fears, we would open ourselves up to the sting of disappointment or someone taking advantage of us.
However, the same insulation that protects us from pain insulates us from connection and community. Too often, our lives are filled with superficial niceties and pseudo-community where people share the same time, space, and a few experiences, but never really know one another. This is true in workplaces, neighborhoods, and especially our churches, where we unintentionally promote the idea that you need to have everything together in order to belong.
Practicing hospitality means creating safe spaces where we can begin to peel off those layers of insulation one at a time. It means creating an environment where one can risk vulnerability without the fear of rejection or ridicule. It means saying — with our words and with our actions — “You are welcome.”
Hospitality is the antidote to the alienation that entered the world through sin — alienation with God, with one another, and with all creation (see Genesis 3). In fact, practicing hospitality and embodying a spirit of genuine welcome in Christ is the answer to so much of the division that we see in our world. It is the counter-cultural practice that cuts across differences and opens the door for genuine connection, community, and healing.