My time doing street ministry with folks experiencing homelessness has not changed the world. It hasn’t changed the oppressive social structures that keep people from adequate healthcare or nutrition. It hasn’t even done much to change the situations of the people with whom I work, people that I now consider my friends. What it has done is fundamentally shaken and reshaped how I think about my ministry and my vision of that often buzzed-about yet rarely ever clearly defined ‘missional church’ taking shape in our world.
When I arrived at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, I was anything but a New Yorker. Having grown up in rural East Tennessee, Manhattan felt new, harsh, and anything but hospitable. It wasn’t until I began my time as ministry intern at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House that I began to really understand the unique rhythms and experiences of this city. In my daily pastoral care walks in the alleyways and parks of our neighborhood, I became familiar with its hidden corners and its quiet pockets. It was in these spaces that I met George, Joe, Rose – came to know the names, stories, jokes, and fears of the people who live in the streets and shelters that surround the church.
How are we to be missional when what God is doing in the world sometimes feels remote?
Serving thousands of people experiencing homelessness each year, Jan Hus Presbyterian Church seeks to embody a ‘just hospitality’ to all who enter its doors — a small taste of God’s abundant grace and the vision of peace and justice that Christ imagines in a concrete jungle that often seems anything but gracious or peaceful. This theological notion comes from the work of Presbyterian feminist theologian Letty M. Russell, who, some fifty years before (and some thirty blocks north of Jan Hus), began to formulate her theology of hospitality while working with the East Harlem Protestant Parish. In her final book, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference, she writes that hospitality is “the practice of God’s welcome, embodied in our actions as we reach across difference to participate with God in bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.” Just hospitality calls us to actively orient our life as a church toward unexpected divine presence, advocacy for the marginalized, mutual welcome across real difference, and the forming of deep community.
Similarly, Professor of Theology David Dunbar has offered four aspects of what a ‘missional’ focus for the life of our congregations should look like: (1) following Jesus into the world; (2) outward-facing rather than inward-facing; (3) confident rather than fearful; and (4) incarnational. I am convinced that a justice-centered hospitality is the means by which congregations can meet exactly these ideals.
So, what might it mean for a congregation today to think missionally with Letty Russell in our current religious landscape of ‘nones’ and the ‘spiritual but not religious’? How might a congregation practice just hospitality, “participating with God in what God is doing in the world,” in the midst of seemingly ever-mounting crises of racial and homophobic violence, increasing wealth disparity, and environmental degradation, to name just a few? How are we to be missional when what God is doing in the world sometimes feels remote?
Just hospitality is usually anything but comfortable. In fact, it often forces us to face the fact that our churches have been too comfortable for too long.
I think that living into a just hospitality opens up the church in all facets of its life – in worship and outreach, in governance and administration – toward “a wholistic spirituality of connection to God, to our own bodies and ourselves, and to our neighbors in need” (Russell, Just Hospitality, 15). We can orient our life as the Church – in our worship, in our outreach, and in our day-to-day routine – intrinsically around its impact on those most vulnerable in our communities. We can begin each of our conversations by asking who is missing and whose voices are not being heard. We can actively work to empower each person that walks through our doors to be the whole person that God intends them to be. In living our Church-life this way, we develop a faith that is powerfully responsive, dynamic, and prayerfully attuned to the needs of our world in light of the biblical call for justice.
Just hospitality does not have just one ‘right’ expression. It shapes and molds itself across the theological spectrum, but just hospitality is present whenever churches choose to privilege extending grace and welcome to all people over preserving the familiarity of the status quo. At Jan Hus, it looked like upending Sabbath to Tuesday nights so that we could worship with the homeless community in our neighborhood, switching up the language in which we worship, and moving beyond our walls into nearby streets and neighborhoods, seeking nothing more than to be a listening presence.
In the wake of the terrible recent events of Charleston, just hospitality has looked like supporting and volunteering with community initiatives and programs led by majority black congregations or opening up space to Black Lives Matter organizers. It might look like serving water at or marching in our local Pride Parades. It might be something simpler, like giving equal privilege to the opinions of the oldest and youngest members in our pews, noticing whose perspectives are missing in our weekly Bible studies, or joyfully incorporating those pushed to the margins into the leadership of our congregations.
However just hospitality takes shape in the lives of individual congregations, it weaves a much richer fabric of relationships, deepens community, and calls us to heal the idolatry of our insularity.
Just hospitality calls us to actively orient our life as a church toward unexpected divine presence, advocacy for the marginalized, mutual welcome across real difference, and the forming of deep community.
Just hospitality is usually anything but comfortable. In fact, it often forces us to face the fact that our churches have been too comfortable for too long. It directs our focus away from our anxiety about membership decline and lack of money in the bank and calls us to follow Jesus out into the world, to make the kind of choices that might not be practical but are nonetheless right. It calls us to risk prioritizing friendship over the bottom line, an honest spirit of welcome instead of our favorite seat in the sanctuary. As Russell so powerfully states, just hospitality is “a gift that transcends real differences through participation in the mission and ministry of the church on behalf of healing the brokenness of the world, beginning with ourselves.”
In taking up Letty Russell’s call to be the “church inside out” (Russell, Just Hospitality, 21), we must first take up Karl Barth’s call to “be church.” It means answering with our whole selves, personally and institutionally, to the Book of Order’s charge that “the Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord” (F-1.0301). This is good news that must be authentically lived and proclaimed. It is good news that calls us to be attentive to the forgotten edges of our life as the Church, to recognize that sometimes our comfortable routine does anything but glorify God.
Russell reminds us that “this practice of hospitality is the ministry of all the members of a congregation and not just church women’s groups, welcoming committees, or clergy” (Russell, Just Hospitality, 19). I believe that when we understand a missional focus of just hospitality as central to our identities as Christians, God’s grace has a way of slipping in – surprising us, energizing our calls, and transforming the Church in ways that we could have never expected.
AUTHOR BIO: Jordan Tarwater is a Master of Divinity student at Union Theological Seminary and candidate for ordination in the Presbytery of East Tennessee. He lives in New York City with his partner Mary and loves the Appalachian Mountains, good coffee, NBA basketball, and talking theology. He blogs at jordantarwater.com.