The Neighbor Approach

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”–Henri J.M. Nouwen

The Common Table of Community Organizing

My parents taught me to always open the doors of our house to friends, and through out my work with different cultures and communities I have found the common table or hospitality as a way to reach out to others. I believe true hospitality is an art to be developed, is an action to be practiced, and a lifestyle. When I open the door of my house to welcome others, I am not only opening a physical space for them to meet, but as quoted, “is the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend”.

We can say, “—welcome stranger, good bye my friend”.

As the host, I have the moral and social responsibility to make sure my guest feels like home. I am the one who will have the meal and drinks ready, and a way to create good conversations so we can know each other. The success of my effort will be if a second gathering it is planned, or a coffee time later on the week, and then a deeper relationship will be built.

What will happen if I expect the guest to become the host of my dinner?  What will happen if I put together a dinner in my house assuming the guest will bring all the food, drinks and even desert, and make sure she has all the questions to ask so she can get to know me? It may sound funny to even think that a reverse hospitality it is possible, or even practiced.

The real meaning of hospitality is to be able to take away myself from the center of attention and put myself in a servant hood mood welcoming the stranger into a place where he can feel embraced and appreciated. There are other times when somebody that I have not invited to the dinner shows up, and I have to force ourselves to welcome her, but it is up to me to make sure she leaves my house with the desire to get back so we can keep building our new relationship.

Today for the first time since I came to work in Alabama, I felt as the unwelcome guest coming to a strange house where the whispering of disappointment was flown just in front of me. I felt a strong inquisitorial expectation placed on me to make sure I was the one understanding about the work we do in this house “together”. Since I came, I felt it, but never I have experienced it right in front of my eyes. I feel like there is not really a sense of togetherness, but hey! We are human beings, and as imperfect as we are, building togetherness so we can feel that we belong is a long time achievement. But I do not know what is harder, to feel lonely when you are indeed without people around you or to feel totally out of place in a house gathering? Believe me even though I served as a pastor for almost 14 years, and now I am a community organizer, my shyness always comes out when I am surrounded by a group of strangers. But is even harder when you feel a total stranger among those who are supposed to be closer to you.

But by no means I feel upset, or disappointed, I just for one moment felt totally awkward wondering why exactly I was invited to join with them in this common table.

May be I have wrongly assumed that as the newcomer I need to wait for my host to welcome me and introduce me to their work, but may be, what I need to do is to embrace the new neighbor mentality, not waiting for the others to come to me, but for me to go and cross the streets to introduce myself bringing some home made cookies; having the willingness, as Henri put it so well, to cross the road for one another.

“We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. (…) There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the road once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might indeed become neighbours.” –Henry J.M. Nouwen


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