Friday, November 4, 2011

Hospitality African Style: Can we receive it? Can we offer it?

By Diane Reynolds

ESR professor Stephanie Crumley-Effinger spoke at the Thursday Peace Forum lunch held at ESR about the warm and caring hospitality the faculty and staff of ESR received during their summer trip to Kenya and Rwanda.

The enthusiasm of the welcome was overwhelming and much appreciated, she said, and included dancing, singing, speeches of greeting, and feasting.

For Stephanie and other Quakers in the United States, our characteristic location vis-à-vis our African brothers and sister is often that of giver. For her and others, it was strange to be in the dependent position.

The disparity in material wealth—and hence power-- was always present in interactions with East Africans, she said, if not always acknowledged. Added to that was a cultural difference: Kenyans and Rwandans attach no stigma to asking for money. For middle-class Americans, this is a cultural taboo and such requests can be unsettling. However, for East Africans, receiving a gift—or giving one—is a form of bonding.

For Stephanie, accepting hospitality freely and gratefully became an act of mutuality that started to dismantle the hierarchy of giver and receiver. If we can learn to both give and receive, and not to do one to the exclusion of the other, we have learned hospitality. Such hospitality is at the core of building relationships and making us all more human.

As I ponder giving and receiving, I think about how uneven hospitality can be in the United States, a function, I believe, of our wealth. Hospitality often seems optional: We tend to assume that people can afford their own food and lodging, and that such food and lodging is readily available. Sometimes, for bigger parties or events, hosts will send lists of hotel or inns where guests can stay. The assumption is that people will understand that the hosts can’t accommodate 25, 50 or 75 people and that the guests can easily afford to pay for a hotel. People may not attend, however, because they are embarrassed at not being able to afford lodging and this becomes part of the invisibility want can cause. On the other hand, we often feel more comfortable as hotel guests than houseguests, because the obligation of staying in a hotel ends with paying the bill.

As the downturn in the economy continues, people are turning more to each other for hospitality. I know I am personally more conscious of needing to be frugal these days and am grateful to be offered hospitality.

Hospitality enacts the Christian—and more broadly, spiritual—witness of a free and joyful offering of abundant life. It requires risk-taking in which we put ourselves into the vulnerable position of reliance on the other—and risk-taking too on the part of the host. Yet when offered, as it often is, with great generosity, it can help build what Walter Brueggermann calls the shalom community, a place in which we want to share because others have shared with us. It is a start toward building the Kingdom of God on earth.

While Stephanie was speaking of the wealth disparities between Americans and East Africans, I thought too about the disparities in our own country. These, of course, are in the news as people protest the 1% having so much of the pie we have all worked to bake. Do the top 1% feel awkward around the rest of us? Could we offer them radical hospitality, inviting them into our homes and lives and treating them with warmth and joy?

I am grateful to brothers and sisters in Kenya and Rwanda, who know want, and thus know the value of abundant hospitality, and can model for us how to offer this gift.

Diane Reynolds is a student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. She maintains a personal blog, Emerging Quaker.

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