Tension at the Threshold: Hospitality and Immigration (Part 1)

Few words reverberate more in our churches than immigrant.

The woman who sits directly in front of the pulpit each Sunday conjures the smile of her German mother who came to America after WWII. The young couple from Las Vegas who sits in the back with their baby recoil at memories of the Cubans who moved into their apartment complex and robbed it blind. They whisper to the veteran on their left who begins to sweat thinking about Iraqis he prays never grace our shores. The Eritrean who helps with the community garden ministry remembers how elated he was to sleep in a real bed his first night in America when he was eight years old. And the retired schoolteacher’s heart melts in compassion as she touches the newspaper clipping she hides in her purse of small Syrian children being carried off in a dinghy in New England.

No one has a neutral reaction to immigrant these days.

In truth, some in our pews have political, theological, and experiential bricks stacked so high around the borders of their souls that they are unable to hear the cries of the immigrant; and, like the Levite in Judges 19, they stoically step over her, though she lay desperate across our threshold spaces, and tell her, “Get up.” Resilience is the American way. [1] Yet, others are so embracing toward any and all “wretched refuse” who knock on the “tempest tossed shores” of our cities and sanctuaries that biblical precedents for boundaries are ignored, so host and guest alike end up tossed to toil east of Eden.

Charged rhetoric stems from intimately personal roots that grow into branches whittled into sharp sticks of trite judgments. “Love your neighbor!” and “Protect the flock!” are the nicks and jabs of this ecclesial joust begun as soon as the preacher utters the word immigration.

The American church may be in decline, yet it has the potential to sway popular culture toward kingdom values. She has in her DNA the wisdom and witness to navigate the current ecclesial tension to not only find an extra chair for the immigrant in her closet, but to affect the national conversation in a way that honors the forgotten culture of her homeland.

Hospitality toward the stranger and alien was a significant aspect of the ancient near east honor-shame culture we read about in the Old Testament. The contrasting stories of Gen 18 and 19 demonstrate how thoroughly Israelites extended hospitality toward strangers. But, time moved on. The Western church developed, and with it a pivot to a guilt-innocence worldview. In tandem to this, hospitality, once a virtue of first-century home churches, moved to intentional centers, like hospitals. Then, in noble effort to reach more suffering, these centers became government-funded until the church was no longer needed in the effort. Hospitality as Christian virtue underwent a slow, silent death.

Christine Pohl and Miroslav Volf are two modern theologians who attempted to resurrect hospitality as a foundational Christian ethic in the 1990s. They unearthed it as not merely an ancient near-eastern culture but a culture of God’s kingdom. [2] They pulled a thread that connected to God’s model in Eden, was extolled by the prophets, and commanded by Paul. The thread climaxed with Jesus, who declares refugee status and vows to embrace those who respond. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matt 25:35). A tablecloth emerged once all of the threads were pulled, and hospitality was reintroduced to the church as a part of her long-lost culture. Even so, much of the modern Anglo-American church is not persuaded this has much to do with immigrants.

Perhaps Christian hospitality remained in the tomb so long it began to stink. Maybe our nationalism is too deeply rooted to accommodate kingdom welcome. Or, we’ve romanticized the notion of the immigrant to such a degree that we no longer know how to practically welcome the actual immigrant in our midst. Materialism, isolation in big-box houses, and dependence upon secular systems could all be to blame. Regardless, it cannot be denied that the church is being invited by the persistent (yes, sometimes scary and threatening) knocks on its doors to relearn the virtue of kingdom hospitality.

Two more articles will follow this one that address the complexities of re-instituting a hospitality kingdom culture toward immigrants in our time (see part 2 and part 3). My hope is that Christian hospitality may once again become our common heart posture, and Christ, the Stranger, evermore be our Host, our Guest, and our Food.

[1] Judg 19:28. The Levite’s concubine left him, either in anger or in an act of infidelity. The text is ambiguous; either way, she is returning home with him to the hill country when, in the Bible’s most egregious example of hospitality, she is gang raped and left for dead in a threshold space.
[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality As a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999.


Tiffany Dahlman is part of a leadership team and ministers at Courtyard Church of Christ in Fayetteville, NC. She did her undergraduate work at York College and holds an M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary with an emphasis in spiritual formation and Old Testament studies. She is currently in the D.Min. program at ACU pondering ways wisdom Christology can transform the life of the local church. She loves to listen to the Blue Ridge Mountains under blankets in the fall, feel the Atlantic wash over her ankles in the summer, abide in winter with her husband, and laugh with her four children all year long.

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Author:  Publish Date: July 24, 2018

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

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