“We must go on being profoundly and deeply hospitable…we mustn’t turn against people because of their faith…” Justin Welby, Arch Bishop of Canterbury, following a third terrorist attack in the Uk in the space of 3 months (June 5 2017)
It seems that Hospitality is a recurring theme for reflection in this era of wall erecting and fence fixing; when there is hostility, real and perceived prevailing in our societies. And so we return to consider what this concept/principle/value has to say to us again.
We know that hospitality involves open-ness of heart and spirit as well of home. We understand it to be a cultural and religious imperative in both the Bible and the Qur’an and we have seen it as a redemptive analogy. What is its role in our sharing of faith stories together?
I believe that that the practice of the Hospitality of God includes making room for each other in dialogue by giving floorspace to ‘the other’ story, or text. In addition, that it has a part to play in not only in our engagement in dialogue but in the resources we use to enable that engagement.
“We’ve been looking at stories of the prophets in both our Books together and it looks like God in the Qur’an is always punishing us, whereas God, in the Bible is Love?” This was the startling comment offered into the silence at the end of the morning by a friend who had been part of the Prophets Stories group, meeting together once a week over the Spring term. She was articulating something that through open exploration and discussion she had begun to glimpse, to hear a whisper of and to grope towards discovery. Was there, she wondered, another view of God which she hadn’t seen before?
Making room for each other and for God
Where church community centres host cooking clubs, parenting groups and English classes attended by Muslims from the diaspora now living in the neighbourhood, there is often talk of or expression of desire for faith conversations. We can say: “you come here and we’ll teach you Bible” but are there other ways of having a conversation of hearts which involves a listening as well as a telling? Does our hospitality extend to hearing stories from a text we hear much about but whose content, some of it loved by women, we are unfamiliar with?
This may mean a double vulnerability for some as many of us have been schooled in presenting a pre-prepared faith package with the answers sewn up. We may know and be used to sharing the Four Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road to salvation (and there are other formats which apply) but recognizing the reciprocity which is part of true hospitality requires/demands integrity to the ethos of open hearted enquiry and discovery where we can’t always be sure what the comments and questions will be or what will come up. Neither can we be sure of how the wind of the Spirit will blow.
What is necessary is that stance of being truly and wholly present both in the moment and to each other so that one is able to engage in the enquiry. And there is the art of holding space for silence…
And so we make space to think, to hear and to respond.
We make space for God to speak
We make space for others to hear
We give time for people to respond
and for God to work
In this way we find that we, ourselves are transformed by the experience as we seek to honour each other in sharing in community and in discipleship.
The biblical inspiration for such space-making dialogue would come from Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus, the woman at the well and the companions on the road to Emmaus. In each of these incidents Jesus teased out both response and understanding from his co-conversationalists. He left space for people to feel uncertainty and ambiguity which gave birth to realization of new ways of thinking and new ways of being.
Dealing with and negotiating through Difference
In much of faith dialogue of this type the diversity is cultural and religious. We are looking at the same story, we have the same passion for faith but there is a different Book, a different tradition, we speak a range of different languages and we have different ways of understanding the story in front of us.
So what does the Hospitality of God, this “generous love” look like when we are designing, preparing and delivering resources for use in Muslim/Christian dialogue? One characteristic of this would be that we take time to negotiate for inclusion and accessibility.
The women God has put me with are ‘ordinary’ women, not schooled in theology or interfaith talk at all. By ordinary here I mean the Mum at the school gate who is practising and devout in either Islam or Christianity, who takes her Scriptures seriously, and who, despite having very little or no theological training has a deep faith which informs every aspect of her life. Many are “1st generation” arrivals from the Muslim diaspora and either have not had the opportunity of schooling as youngsters and/or struggle with mastery of the English language even after achieving at college. In order to make meaningful dialogue accessible to this group of people I believe we need to focus our talking, not around grand themes, concepts or even texts but around stories. The power of stories for individuals and communities alike has long been recognized:
to teach – folk tales/parables/proverbs/amthal
to inspire – biography,
to build community and values – Aesop’s tales, Mullah Nasrudin, The Good Samaritan
as receptacles of wisdom
Most would recognize the gift to each other that a group of women meeting to share faith stories represents. This privilege of engaging in conversation about things that matter is best expressed in valuing.
Valuing by being willing to listen as well as to tell
Valuing the importance of negotiating for full participation – which may mean
Valuing the importance of making the activity as accessible as possible in language, visuals and method
Valuing together “the wisdom in the room” so that even the unlettered can speak
Valuing to the extent of allowing stories not in one’s own tradition to be told
Valuing the different perspectives that people bring
True Hospitality in the context of such faith conversations requires humility and a vulnerability held in tension with a commitment to bearing witness to salvation. And in some cases the vulnerability comes not from being open to “the other” but from anxiety expressed from “one’s own” around the validity of such engagement. Well-meaning Christians will convey their concern that this is the slippery slope to syncretism, whilst others will wonder why one doesn’t just “leave well alone”. Muslim women are anxious about whether their tradition allows such engagement and some will hint of community pressure not to attend. One begins to see that this is risky business, indeed.
Strength comes from the joy of seeing women supported; from the meaningful exchange from one woman to the other of what has been learnt from one’s Book mingled with the authenticity of personal experience; and in the moments when God meets us in the ‘third space.’ As we are faithful to our dual calling to welcome the stranger and to humbly bear witness to salvation we all hear the invitation to the Great Feast.
 Title of paper 2008 An Anglican Theology of Interfaith Relations: http://www.presenceandengagement.org.uk/generous-love
 Christine Pohl. Cathy Ross and other authors write of this.
 This term relating to the “third space” comes from the worlds of sociocultural studies and psychology and refers to an area of ‘new/neutral’ ground where people from opposite sides meet through dialogue. This is not just a physical meeting but an invisible, yet tangible sense of connection/understanding. It can be used/I have used it here to describe the way God mediates His presence to us, and by the Holy Spirit reveals Himself to us at a particular point in time despite our differences.
Ann Williams: Ann has settled in the UK but has a long experience of cross-cultural living and interaction in a range of contexts. Knowledge gained from these experiences have been brought to bear on her current work and interest in enabling faith conversations between Muslim and Christian women at grass-roots level. She is passionate about seeking to ensure inclusion and accessibility to the things that matter so that transformative spaces are open to all; and sees links here to the way we do discipling.
© When Women Speak … July 2017