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Learning (and Relearning) How To Be Hospitable

When Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C., engaged in prayer and imagination to transform itself into a younger congregation, they decided to engage in a major restructuring of their property. Knowing that youth groups from across the country visit the U.S. Capital and need lodging, the church included plans for ways to host visitors. But until they had completed the project, “we didn’t see a need that was right before us,” wrote the Rev. Donna Claycomb Sokol in a reflection on the website of Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School. She said that it was after the showers were installed that “we realized that they could serve an even more urgent need, helping people who live on the church porticos and the city squares and parks literally right outside our building.” Their resulting “shower ministry” offered hot showers, coffee, continental breakfast and underwear and toiletries three days a week.

Over a few years, some of their shower ministry guest began joining the congregation for worship. As a result, the “homogenous, aging, middle-class congregation” transitioned from wearing dresses and suits to “a ‘come-as-you-are’ place, where jeans and shorts are not only welcome but encouraged.” The average congregant’s age dropped from 80 to 35, and the congregation became excited about “being a blessing” rather than “worrying about being blessed.” Instead of maintaining their iron fence to keep the homeless off of their porches, they opened the gates and posted simple rules for those who wanted to use the space. They expanded their fellowship hour food offerings, too, sometimes providing a full breakfast, “but more often with enough snacks — and take-home trays and cups — to remove hunger’s edge.” One night a week they began hosting a full dinner and movie, with food provided by local hotels. “Fueled by hot showers, food and hospitality, our welcome deepened and was returned in kind. Today, our staff includes a former guest of the shower ministry, and about five to 10 percent of our worshippers are people who are homeless.”

Nevertheless, the lesson of hospitality has to be learned and relearned, as assumptions are continually discovered, challenged and transformed. Recently, some eight years after the beginning of the church’s transformation, Rev. Sokol was sitting at a local restaurant with members of the congregation after Sunday church, when it suddenly struck her that the worship-closing invitation for anyone to join her and other congregants at the restaurant had to necessarily exclude many people in the congregation. “Only a half-hour earlier, we had all gathered at another table, one that I had described as the only place in our city where all are fed and no one is turned away. How quickly I’d forgotten,” she confessed. “The complete opposite of what we had embodied at the Lord’s Table, the scene at the restaurant reminded me that the work of building real community is a constant task. Apparently, as with so much of life, sometimes we have to learn the same things again and again.” She continued, “Yes, I had blown it. But fortunately, even for a pastor, redemption is possible.”

Food, she wrote, has always been important to the church. It features significantly in Scripture, where it is shown to be a central way we experience God. For “both young professionals and those who live on the streets, coffee and eggs, a muffin and tea provide nourishment for the body. Shared with others, they also help us remember another body, one that was broken for us. They remind us of a Savior who longs to come into our lives, satisfying our deepest hunger and calling us to labor until all bodies are fed and housed.” Food “helps our church become a fuller expression of Christ’s body, where all are welcome and no one is turned away,” she said. Therefore “our invitation to eat will no longer be to restaurants that are too expensive for all of our members.” For more on the role of hospitality in church growth and vitality, see our feature article, “Hospitality is Key to Church Growth.” For perspective on practicing hospitality, including overcoming fear and hesitation in welcoming and sheltering strangers, see our resource, “Practicing Hospitality.” For more resources and perspective on community ministry, see our article, “Best Resources for Community Engagement.”

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