The Power and Purpose of Hospitality

 Photo by  Jay Wennington  on  Unsplash

Think of the last time you took the time to dine—not just eat, but dine. I can recall one particular instance when, on my birthday, my parents decided to take me out for the dinner of a lifetime, the kind of dinner that continues to taste delicious even after you’ve left the table. They gave me free reign to choose whatever restaurant I wanted. Without hesitation, I decided on Hawks, and a reservation was made. The restaurant is named after a couple who trained in New York and San Francisco and then moved to start a farm-to-table restaurant in the Sacramento region—and Hawks knew how to do it right.

“Other-Focused” Hospitality

When I walked through the large glass door, the hostess gave me a warm greeting. “Hello, Mr. Baber! We’re so glad you could join us tonight to celebrate your birthday. Let me take your coat. We’re all ready for you.” I was pleasantly taken aback by how the restaurant staff knew my name and that it was my birthday, and their attentiveness made me feel welcome, comfortable, and appreciated.

Yes, Hawks was providing a service for payment, but the staff went above and beyond what would normally be expected in order to make a first-time guest feel truly valued. I was experiencing true hospitality—the kind of hospitality that is “others-focused,” the kind that welcomes the stranger.

Hospitably in Word, Deed, and Heart

“Right this way, Mr. Baber,” they said, ushering my family into a well-appointed dining room. The chairs invited me to do more than just sit; they invited me to stay. These weren’t your typical Taco Bell-style plastic seats that are actually designed to get you up and out of there as fast as humanly possible. Within seconds, a glass of champagne was delivered to my place setting, along with a humble greeting from our server for the evening. “We are so thrilled that you could join us! Is there anything else I can get you started with?” she asked.

The same amazing hospitality was present throughout the evening—thoughtful, deliberate, sincere, and humble service that was meant to extend a genuine welcome to the stranger, not to impress or bring glory to the chef. At the end of the night, I walked out stunned, not with the amazing food and pleasing décor, but with how much care Hawks put into preparing for welcoming and serving my family.

The Power and Purpose of Hospitality

Christine Pohl, author of Making Room, Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, writes that this kind of welcoming of the stranger is what separates Christian hospitality from mere entertaining. Most of us haven’t experienced this kind of hospitality, because our culture elevates the dramatic flourishes of epicurean entertainment over welcoming the brokenhearted or neglected.

Pohl offers the following as a new way of considering the Christian practice of hospitality.

Although we often think of hospitality as a tame and pleasant practice, Christian hospitality has always had a subversive, countercultural dimension. “Hospitality is resistance,” as one person from the Catholic Worker observed. Especially when the larger society disregards or dishonors certain persons, small acts of respect and welcome are potent far beyond themselves. They point to a different system of valuing and an alternate model of relationships. (Pohl, 61)

Pohl’s point here is clear. Historically, Christian hospitality has been a practice rooted not in promoting the most prized of society, but in honoring the dishonored and welcoming them into a society that finds value in the “least of these.”

Christ, Our Perfect Example

To be sure, the kind of hospitality I received at Hawks was due in part to that fact that my parents were footing a hefty bill. Yet, the staff at Hawks were doing far more than just pandering for a large tip. They joyfully treated my family with dignity and honor. Hawk’s caring service reminded me of the importance of both valuing people and making them feel valued—and not for what they can bring to the table. This is, after all, what Christ has done for us. He left his Father in heaven so that he could serve and save an underserving, rebellious humanity (Phil. 2:4-8). He bore the pain of the whip and cross so that our backs would be without scars (Col. 2:13-14). He has ensured that we are showered with the favor of God the Father, and that we have a wealth of spiritual blessings that we experience now and forever (Eph. 1:3-10). Christ has welcomed us into his kingdom on the basis of his grace and his work alone, that we might find fellowship with him and his people around the table. 

 
 
For most of the history of the church, hospitality was understood to encompass physical, social, and spiritual dimensions of human existence and relationships. It meant response to the physical needs of strangers for food, shelter, and protection, but also a recognition of their worth and common humanity.
— Christine D. Pohl, Making Room, p. 6