Tension at the Threshold: Hospitality and Immigration (Part 3)

Find part 1 and part 2 of this series.

Hospitality toward immigrants is a culture in the kingdom of our re-birth, and evidence of it abounds in Scripture. Cities of Refuge in Num. 35 offer the church a relevant model of hospitality toward the immigrant and refugee. [1] Yet, biblical aids to relearn Christian hospitality toward immigrants do not stop in the Bronze Age.

First-century house churches opened doors to all who sought Christ. [2] Dionysius lived into this kingdom characteristic when he cared for the diverse Alexandrian population stricken with the plague in the third century. Risk was imminent; yet he chose embrace. The endless welcome of the desert mothers and fathers to traveling pilgrims exemplified the identity of kingdom hospitality. In recent times, Annunciation House in El Paso, TX, has opened its doors of refuge to border crossers in a grace-based, though at times awkward, relationship with local immigration authorities. [3] Annunciation House acknowledges that navigating dual citizenship is tense, but there is a way forward as priests who host houses of refuge in the kingdom of God.

There may be no truer example of hospitality toward immigrants and refugees in our spiritual ancestry than the village of Le Chambon in Southern France during WWII. One woman who illegally hid Jews there said, “Whatever one’s excuses for not taking in a refugee, from the point of view of the refugee, your closed door is an instrument of harm-doing, and your closing it does harm.” [4]

When the church understands that the opposite of hospitality is not apathy but hostility, the way of embrace is clearer.

Yet, tension remains. Our cities, houses, churches, and shelters of refuge are havens because of the bricks of boundaries around them. As strong as the biblical and Christian witness is toward loving the stranger, there is an equally strong witness of boundary. The church member who raises her hand to protest immigration because of potential harm should not be silenced. She is channeling a core characteristic of the divine: one who establishes boundaries so that holiness, and therefore shalom with God, is curated.

Every conversation about hospitality must include boundaries, and every conversation about boundaries must include hospitality. God’s kingdom culture embraces both, and the juxtaposition that honors Christ in the stranger (all strangers) is not as easy to navigate as some on both sides of the debate propose. Our children should not be sacrificed on the altar of hospitality; however, the immigrant child must not be sacrificed on our altar of nationalism.

There are seven characteristics of hospitality revealed in the creation narrative in Eden that help the church navigate the tension as they relearn the culture of hospitality toward immigrants. The characteristics continue through the biblical witness, sometimes with stellar replication, like in the case of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kgs. 4. Other times, they are hit and miss, like with Peter at Cornelius’s house in Acts 10. And occasionally we learn from the abject rejection of the seven traits (Judg. 19).

  1. The Host Meets the Guest in Threshold Spaces. The host does not immediately invite the guest (the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee) into his or her home. The host meets the guest in a threshold space, like under the Oaks of Mamre, at the city gate, or outside the garden. [5] Therefore, it is not biblical precedent to bring a stranger directly into one’s home. A threshold space is paradigmatic, and this often relieves much of the tension the church feels about hospitality toward the immigrant.
  1. The Host Gives Abundant Provision. God gives humanity everything in Eden (minus one tree). Everything that is God’s—the bread, the wine, the divine presence—is ours. Such is the precedent for our hospitality.
  1. The Guest Blesses the Host. God saw that his guests were “very good,” and treasured relationship with them. The divine messengers blessed Abraham and Sarah, the Shunammite woman blessed Elisha, and Ananias blessed Paul. More consistent than any other biblical characteristic of hospitality, guests bless the host, and this can be the church’s joyous anticipation as they embrace the immigrant.
  1. The Guest Has Responsibilities. Adam works in Eden. Hospitality is not to invite freeloading. Work is an integral part of our humanity.
  1. There Are Boundaries. God gathered together the waters and separated continents so that life could be assigned to them. God told humanity not to touch what would harm them or others, and they were expelled from the garden when they did not mind these barriers. Boundaries make life possible and must be strictly enforced in hospitality.
  1. Life is Given to the Guest. Our existence is entirely dependent upon the Trinity who breathed life into us at creation. Likewise, a promise is given to Abraham and Sarah, Elijah raises the widow’s son, and Peter baptizes Cornelius. When the immigrant enters the embrace of the church, the church stops at nothing to breathe life into her.
  1. Guests Are Brought into Community to Do Life with God and Others. Adam was not completely alone. He needed community. It is good for the church to provide the basic needs for the immigrant and stranger, but the ultimate goal is to bring him or her into the community of God, as was Rahab, as is the church at the banquet table.

As kingdom citizens, we are hosts, priests, in the city of refuge. We are not judges. The Trinity endows us with everything needed to be sufficient hosts—every spiritual blessing under heaven! Yet we are endowed with very little to be sufficient judges. The organizational structure of our ramshackle kingdom of refugees is one that allows for one Judge, one King, whose extravagant embrace imagines the culture of the kingdom in which we live. It is when our hearts and eyes are in sync with this divine imagination, through and beyond the tension of competing allegiances, that we begin to see in the immigrant not only the image of Christ, but a mirror of ourselves.

In an age where so many immigrants gracing our threshold spaces are also kingdom citizens, the church is blessed with an opportunity to be united with long-lost brothers and sisters who may remember our latent DNA of kingdom hospitality better than we do. But if they are not citizens of heaven, we are invited to use communal wisdom and embrace as we gather around the table with the Guest, the Host, the Stranger, and the Food—even if we feast under the Oaks of Mamre until the tension subsides.

[1] See previous post on how Cities of Refuge help the church in “kingdom tension” envision how to welcome immigrants.
[2] The church was founded with Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Libyans, and Arabs, who then entered into communal living that was sustained by mutual hospitality. Acts 2.
[3] https://annunciationhouse.org
[4] Hallie, Philip. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. New York, New York: Harper Perennial, 1994, pg. 124.
[5] Gen. 18:1, 19:1, 2:15


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: August 7, 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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