by Tom Wilson.
When I take a group of Christians to visit a Gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, the topic of hospitality invariably comes up. Gurdwaras always offer langar, a “community kitchen,” which makes a vegetarian meal available free of charge to anyone who comes in. There are certain expectations; that you’ll remove your shoes, cover your hair, and won’t be under the influence of any intoxicants. But beyond that, questions aren’t asked, so whether you’re in desperate need of a hot meal or coming for your lunchbreak to save buying a sandwich, that’s perfectly fine. It is all part of the tradition of sewa, of service that is part of any Sikh’s expression of faith.
In my experience, some Christians find free langar slightly uncomfortable, perhaps because they’d much rather be the host than the guest. There is a trend in Christian circles to talk about the importance of hospitality, and don’t get me wrong, I think we need to be hospitable. But rather than just being hosts, don’t we also need to learn to be guests?
The Gospels show us that Jesus himself was as often a guest as a host. Whether that was because he invited himself, as with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) or he was invited, as with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36), Jesus was very happy to cross boundaries and go to where the other was comfortable. Sometimes, of course, his presence at what was expected to be a safe space was itself disturbing; the Samaritan woman in John 4 arguably goes to collect water in the heat of the day to avoid talking to anyone.
I am by no means as skilled, as prophetic, or as courageous as Jesus at saying and doing the right thing to bring a glimpse of God’s kingdom wherever I find myself a guest. But I have learnt a lot through taking the risk of being a guest. In my own line of work as Director of the St Philip’s Centre, a Christian foundation interfaith training and resourcing organisation, that invariably means spending time with people from different faith communities. Here are five things I have learnt from being a guest in these circumstances:
First, you don’t necessarily have to wait to be invited; in the pre-pandemic world, I would sometimes ring someone up and say, “I haven’t been to anything at your mandir / gurdwara / mosque / church / synagogue for ages. What’s coming up that I can come to?” Invariably people are delighted you’re interested and want to welcome you.
Second, don’t presume you’re important. As Jesus reminds us (Luke 14:7-11), don’t take the place of honour, take a humble place and be content there. I once inadvertently spent an hour sitting on the floor with a group of local Muslims about to break their fast. I’d completely failed to notice that the VIP iftar, which I’d been invited to, was taking place in the community hall next door.
Third, be prepared to share your faith appropriately. In interfaith encounters in particular, some Christians are reluctant to say anything that is distinctively Christian. But people of faith are expecting to hear what is personal to your faith. So long as you share with gentleness and respect, from your own personal perspective (1 Peter 3:15-16), this is unlikely to be offensive in any way.
Fourth, have boundaries, but be flexible. I am a vegetarian, which is normally no issue at all in interfaith visits, and indeed can sometimes be an advantage. But if I’ve forgotten to tell someone, and they’ve cooked meat for me, do I have the right to refuse what they have made for me with love? I personally would eat the food but would not take part in the worship organised by another faith community. Know what your boundaries are, and where there is flexibility.
Fifth, don’t take yourself too seriously. As a guest its perfectly possible that you’ll get something wrong somewhere, most probably because you misunderstood what was happening. Take mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. Whether that’s a reminder you need to tell people what your dietary requirements are, or discovering that Orthodox Jewish women generally don’t want to shake hands with a man, getting something wrong tends to be a valuable lesson that helps me understand someone else better.
When I look at the ministry of Jesus, I see him taking the risks that come with being a guest, and through doing so, gaining opportunities to share the good news with people who would not otherwise have had a chance to hear it. If we stay in our safe spaces waiting for others to come to us, we will miss out on opportunities to bring the love of God in Jesus to those who would not otherwise have had the chance to encounter it. Will you join me in being as much a guest as a host?