Today we commemorate St. Benedict of Nursia, regarded as the father of western monasticism. In the rule for his community, Benedict wrote: “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for He is going to say, ‘I came as a guest, and you received Me’ (Matt. 25:35). And to all let due honor be shown, especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.”
I have just returned from two weeks in Israel and Palestine where my wife and I experienced the grace and gift of hospitality from everyone we met. “Welcome to Palestine (or Israel)! Thank you for visiting us.” We heard it from a young Jewish woman standing at the light rail stop in Jerusalem, from merchants in the warrens of the Old City in Jerusalem and in the suq of old Nablus, from instructors and students at An Najah — Palestine’s national university, from three tough looking young Palestinian men sharing a cigarette on a street corner in Bethlehem literally in the shadow of the Israeli “security barricade,” from a Jewish scholar who styles himself a “leftist Zionist,” from the young priest and the 150 children attending summer bible camp at the Anglican church in Zababdeh, and from a conservative Muslim at the Noble Sanctuary atop the Temple Mount.
Stopping for just a minute or two on the sidewalk in Jerusalem, or Nazareth, or Jericho, we could count on someone approaching us: “Are you lost? Do you need directions? Do you need help?” When assured that we did not, the response was always the same: “Thank you for visiting us! Enjoy your stay.” This land — these nations — where tensions run high, where Israeli and Palestinian teenagers are kidnapped and murdered, where one people lob rockets at the other and the other drops bombs on the one, this land of violence, oppression, victimhood, and war is paradoxically a place of surprising and graceful hospitality.
We saw it most clearly in the town of Burqin where we visited the small Greek Orthodox Church of St. George which stands on the place where it is believed Jesus healed ten lepers. In this town of 7,000 Muslims, a small community of 65 Christians maintains the witness of the Gospel. Their love and dedication is readily apparent in the care they lavish on their place of worship. It is documented to be the fourth oldest continuously used Christian worship place in the world; for almost 1700 years followers of Jesus have gathered to pray, give thanks, and celebrate the Holy Mysteries on this spot.
After our visit to the church, we were treated to lunch in the home of a member family. They had rearranged their dining and living spaces to accommodate tables and seating for our group of eighteen. With the help of other women and some young boys in the congregation, our hostess Neda set tables heaped cucumber-and-tomato salad, yoghurt, pita bread, humus, and huge platters of rice with chicken and lamb shwarma; there was enough food to feed four or five times our number! “This woman has a black-belt in hospitality!” one of our group exclaimed.
In our conversation with Neda and her husband Usama about life in an overwhelmingly Muslim community, they told us how their Muslim neighbors would visit them to celebrate Christmas with them and how they would visit their neighbors to join them in celebrating Eid el-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan. Someone asked, “Would you ever consider leaving Burqin?” Neda’s reply was immediate: “Oh, no! If we left, who would be the church?”
Who would be the church? Who would maintain the Christian witness? Who would extend the ministry of Christian hospitality? Throughout our visit in Israel and Palestine, we were told again and again, by Muslim and Jew alike, that there is a need for Christians to remain in this land where our numbers have dwindled from about 20% of the populace in the 1980s to less than 2% today. The Christian witness of hospitality is, I believe, the crying need in these nations, because (as someone has said) reconciliation is the fruit of hospitality.
Hospitality is about relationship; reconciliation is about relationship. There can be no reconciliation without honest conversation; there can be no conversation without a safe and hospitable place for it to take place. The Christian community, the church, can be that place. But, as Neda said, “If we left, who would be the church?”
Pray for the church in Palestine and Israel. Pray for the church’s ministry of hospitality and reconciliation. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, an EfM mentor, and a writer of Daily Office meditations offered on his blog, That Which We Have Heard & Known.