By Steven R. Ford
“Radical hospitality” has become an almost mandatory buzz phrase in American liberal Christian denominational statements of identity and purpose. It has rapidly spread to the judicatory and congregational level. One looks almost in vain for any “mainstream” Christian website that does not include radical hospitality as a draw to the religious organization it represents.
This is particularly true in the Episcopal Church and in First World Anglicanism generally. It is often tied to our Benedictine heritage in medieval England. Our roots are deep in the Benedictine daily offices, and this is reflected in our classic church architecture, which has generally included a monastic-style choir for their public celebration. The tradition of Benedictine monasteries, priories, and convents is that no one is ever turned away. Everyone is welcome for worship and prayer and simply for quiet time, the hungry are fed and those without shelter are housed.
In early May, I celebrated my retirement from active healthcare ministry by taking what, for me, was an extraordinarily rare week-long road trip through several southwestern states, leisurely returning home through northern Mexico. I made a point, in both rural and urban areas through which I passed, to find and stop at every Episcopal church that I could. I found and stopped at many.
Almost invariably, the Episcopal Church Welcomes You sign was prominently displayed. A few were new, and that was heartening. But a number were so old and rusted that the service times were no longer readable. One was attached to a chain-link fence with razor wire crowning the top. Another even had a No Trespassing sign directly beside it.
But what really broke my heart as a priest was that every single “welcoming” Episcopal church at which I stopped was locked as tightly as a jail. A few even had locked prison bar-like gates preventing entry even to the grounds. The Episcopal Church Welcomes You, said the signs, but the locks and gates and rust clearly shouted, You’re not welcome here. Go away. Not surprisingly, most people do stay away.
I’m enough of a sociologist of religion (who has spent time in more than 190 countries engaging in what social anthropologists used to call “participant observation”) to be convinced by Émile Durkheim’s observation that a group’s conception of God is the sum total of that group’s beliefs and practices (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, 1912). Mainstream Americans, whatever we choose to espouse, do not comprise a particularly welcoming culture, as evidenced by the widespread popular support of various attempts at a Muslim ban and the mass deportation of mostly Christian Hispanic undocumented U.S. residents.
On my road trip, I was welcomed into Mexico by a border guard who noticed the wedding band on my right hand instead of my left (it changed hands when I was widowed in December). She asked if I was a priest or a religious brother. “A priest,” I said, not wanting to get into the ins and outs of Anglicanism. “Welcome to Mexico, Father,” she said. “Have a great time.” And off I was. Returning to the United States, however, I had to prove my citizenship, and after that I went through two freeway checkpoints to make certain I did not look Hispanic. “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Sure.
About a month before my retirement from active healthcare ministry, I decided to take my two weeks of unused vacation time. Off I went to previously unvisited countries of Bangladesh and Brunei, with stops in China and in Malaysia along the way. First, there was a plane change in Shanghai (to which China Eastern Airlines delivered me about half an hour after the connecting flight had left). Through Customs and Immigration I had to go, and into the huge immigration line I went.
I was immediately accosted, grabbed by both elbows, by young soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. Uh oh, I thought. I’ve watched Locked Up Abroad, and I thought about a future of sewing Nike sneakers. Well, I limp some due to a years-ago bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome, and the limp grows more pronounced when I’m tired (which I was). These two fine people, of whom I was so suspicious as an American, simply took me to the front of the line. “The atheistic People’s Republic of China welcomes you.” Amazing!
Late the next day I was off to Dhaka, with four or five other passengers. The plane was late in arriving — 2 a.m. instead of 10 p.m. — and everything was closed at the airport. I had reserved a car, but the rental desk was closed. I finally found an envelope with my name and a license-plate number on it, and after an hour of searching the parking lot with a keychain light, I was off. But who knew where? No streetlights, no posted street names, nothing. I found a mosque, door open and lights on, so I stopped and went in. Two devout men inside interrupted their prayers, and when they finally figured out I was totally lost they directed to a nearby police station.
The only officer on duty, who spoke remarkably fine English, explained that the office was Central Booking, and that if I waited a patrol car would “bring in a customer” and he would have him lead me to the hotel in which I had a reservation. We joked, we laughed, he made me coffee and a sandwich. Sure enough, after about an hour a patrol car pulled up, and the duty officer chatted with the patrolman. Within minutes I was being led (lights flashing so he did not lose me) through alleys and swamps and mud holes to precisely where I wanted to be. “The Islamic People’s Republic of Bangladesh Welcomes You.” “The Sunni Mosque Welcomes You” —even at 2 a.m. Indeed!
On, then, to the Sultanate of Negara Brunei Darussalam on the north coast of Borneo. Nothing but smiling welcomes from officials on my arrival in this country which seems more like a Gulf State than a tiny country in Southeast Asia. No trouble with a visa on arrival, renting a car, or finding a cheap place to stay. Unfortunately, getting from Western Brunei to its eastern enclave involves driving through Malaysian Sarawak. As I returned from Sarawak, however, the border guard neglected to stamp my passport.
When I was ready to leave the country, police pretended to make a big deal out of this. “Are you a Christian?” they asked. “You’re in Brunei illegally,” they said repeatedly. “We’re a sovereign nation, and we have a perfect right to determine which nationalities and religions are welcome and which are not.”
Sensing I was being played a bit by a couple of political jokesters, I solemnly asked, “So what are you going to do? Deport me?” Both winked and laughed out loud, one answering, “Of course!” My passport was duly affixed with diplomatic entry and exit stamps and after pats on the back and more laughter I was on my way.
What I learned was simple. First, many people against whom we Americans discriminate seen to know instinctively (or else through personal experience) is that no political regime lasts for very long. Second, most governments do not represent the will of their countries, at least for the long haul. Finally, a Mexican border guard, soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, two Sunni late-night faithful, two Sunni police officers, and a couple of Muslim Brunei emigration officers have a whole lot to teach us about welcome.
My years as a priest leave me open to the possibility that the Episcopal Church (and liberal Christianity generally) might become a catalyst for changein our society’s collective conscience and actually make it welcoming.
The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. Mark’s/San Marcos in Mesa, Arizona.