© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen
Speak a good word or remain silent. Treat your neighbor with kindness. Show hospitality to your guest. Prophet Muhammad, Sahih Muslim Hadith 80
The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer. Mahatma Gandhi
True hospitality consists of giving the best of yourself to others. Eleanor Roosevelt
A smile is the universal welcome. Max Eastman
Together Time: A Sufi Folktale, “The Poor Man’s Hut”, about a woodcutter who invites strangers in who knock at his door seeking shelter during a rainstorm. The story can be found at
This past Wednesday, possibly the result of an overnight thunderstorm, the internet was down at the Fellowship. So I stayed home where I could send and receive emails and access online resources. Because Paul was out of town, I was home alone.
While deeply engrossed in some activity, I suddenly heard an insistent knocking at the side door, forcing me into an existential crisis—do I answer that knocking, or not? (Perhaps you recognize this dilemma?)
No one ever comes unannounced to my door except Jehovah’s Witnesses and pine straw salesmen. But they always come to the front door. Surely a friend would let me know in advance if they were going to stop by.
So who could be at my side door? Would I be in danger if I opened the door to a stranger? Would it be wiser to keep quiet and hope the person knocking goes away?
Despite my fears, I went to the door. It has a large window, so I could see who was on the other side before I opened it. But they could see me, too. I couldn’t pretend no one was home once we’d seen each other. Perhaps because a woman stood on the other side, rightly or not, I felt safe enough to open the door.
The stranger was a US Postal Service carrier who needed me to sign a receipt for a piece of mail. I did that while chatting politely about the heat, and then she went on her way. Momentary crisis over.
Yet in some sense, you and I likely fear every encounter with a stranger, someone unknown or different from whom we perceive we are. Proof that physical fear is justified can be found on the nightly news that reports too frequent gun violence in schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, workplaces, and homes. Often the perpetrators are not strangers to those they harm, but El Paso, Dayton, Philadelphia, and Charleston show how strangers with a perverted sense of moral righteousness do cause great harm. We’re making changes here at UUFA regarding safety and security in response to this new reality.
And while I’m on that topic, please note the various exits from this room. (Show)
It’s not my intent to instill fear among you this morning, though a healthy sense of caution is not without merit.
Instead, I want to shift the focus from the stranger who may cause harm, to the stranger who want to be one of us—a newcomer—the one who knocks at the Fellowship’s door on Sunday morning. As welcome as these strangers are, they bring risk, too—the risk of change.
A newcomer may teach us something we prefer not to learn. May suggest ideas we’re not ready to hear. May cause us to move from comfort to discomfort. If we fear such influence, then making room for newcomers becomes more challenging.
But newcomers may also energize us with new ideas. May open our eyes to things we were blind to before. May give us new insight, purpose, and joy. May even create new friendships among us. If we embrace such change, then making room for newcomers becomes less challenging.
Whatever our individual feelings about what newcomers may bring, as a Fellowship we promise to welcome them. “Come, come whoever you are,” as the Sufi poet Rumi says and we sang. Herb shared earlier a litany of the many people we wish to welcome.
But it’s not enough to say we welcome everyone. To fulfill that promise, we must act by being good hosts.
To be a good host to our newcomer guests, we must show kindness and courtesy. That’s the definition of being hospitable. In Arabic and North African Islamic cultures, being hospitable is a great religious and ethical virtue. Perhaps because it was a matter of life and death in dry, inhospitable desert lands that when strangers came to your door or tent flap, you let them in. Bedouins are especially well-known for their traditional welcome. Without being asked, they offer you a seat cushion and a thirst-quenching beverage. Islamic texts tell us Muhammad emphasized such hospitality as pleasing to God. Reportedly he said, “There is no good in the one who is not hospitable.”
All three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, emphasize the centrality of hospitality to being faithful servants of God. All three traditions tell the story of Abraham, who, upon seeing strangers approaching, rushes out to greet them, not waiting for them to reach his door. A good host, he immediately offers them food and drink, even sacrificing a calf from his herd to feed the strangers. (Genesis 18:1-15)
A pure generous heart prompts Abraham’s actions. He is unware of the strangers’ true divine nature. When ready to depart, these angels in disguise inform Abraham and Sarah, long past her childbearing years, that she will be delivered of a longed-for baby within a year’s time. Sarah and Abraham laugh at that absurd notion, but the prophecy comes true. Abraham’s generous welcome, given without expectation of anything in return, transforms the couple’s lives through the blessing of a child, one they name Isaac, meaning laughter.
Might we receive an equally unexpected, transformational blessing from life, the universe, or the god of our understanding, in return for welcoming a newcomer? Like the pregnancy of a biblical woman in her 80s, might the impossible be possible, such as realizing the beloved community? If we treated everyone at our doorstep as if they were a god or an angel, might our welcome transform us, too? Maybe not so dramatically, (elderly women, you can put away the baby clothes), but I believe transformation will occur.
Consider the Sufi story I told earlier. That couple also was transformed by generously making room for others. They sacrificed sleep, but gained companionship during the sharing of their stories. Strangers became friends, if only for a night. In truth, guests always have something to offer—their experiences, questions, discoveries, and most importantly, themselves.
Getting to know newcomers requires a generosity of heart. We make room for others not just by expanding our building or providing nametags. As Rev. Duncan Teague reminded us recently, we must expand our hearts to make room for others. We must be prepared to let newcomers in.
Which makes welcoming a significant personal or spiritual practice because it requires a willingness to be in relationship. Christine D. Pohl in her book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, writes:
Strangers, in the strict sense, are those who are disconnected from basic relationships that give persons a secure place in the world. The most vulnerable strangers are detached from family, community, church, work, and polity (p.13). … The twin moves of universalizing the neighbor and personalizing the stranger are at the core of hospitality. Claims of loving all humankind, of welcoming ‘the other’, have to be accompanied by the hard work of actually welcoming a human being into a real place (p.75).
How do we actually make someone feel welcome in this place, and into our very being? I suggest a few things:
- Be a good host. Think more of another person’s comfort than your own, just as you would for a guest in your home.
- Learn from difference. Become aware of your own culture and its presumptions about what is normative, so that new ways, new cultures are simply different, not wrong.
- Listen to their stories. Be curious about other people, what matters to them, what they’re seeking, how you might be a guide.
- Lastly, share your joy! Show others what meaning you find here. Offer them a seat next to you. Engage them in conversation so you get to know each other.
Keep in mind, our guests may fear us a little bit. It takes courage to cross a threshold for the first time and enter into a community of strangers. Yes, from their perspective, we are the strangers.
Remember, if you don’t count yourself a newcomer, you didn’t become part of this community by being ignored or excluded when you were first a guest. Every member was once a stranger among strangers. But someone opened their heart to you.
You and I can do the same in return. The love that lies at the core of our UU Seven Principles calls us to turn strangers, newcomer guests, into friends. I know our love is big enough to welcome all who wish to be part of this liberal religious tradition.
May it always be so.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
- What reluctance or challenge do you face in being welcoming in your home, school, work, or at UUFA?
- What makes a good host? A good guest? Are there limits to good hospitality and welcome?
- What barriers to welcoming the guest or stranger might exist at UUFA? What might eliminate them?