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Spring 2016 · Vol. 45 No. 1 · pp. 74–85 

Ministry Compass

Practice Hospitality

David W. Shenk

The eternally open gates of the city of God as described in Revelation remind me of the hospitality in the home of an African pastoral colleague in Nairobi. He told me that when he was a boy living in a rural area of Kenya, his father would step outside their home at mealtime and look into the distance. He was checking to see if there was any stranger walking the footpath beyond their home.

How should the spirit of hospitality guide Christian/Muslim relations within the challenges of sometimes very different values? We need to find the way.

If his father saw a stranger, he would lift his voice in a mighty call: “Ho! It is dinnertime! Come to my house and eat!” This is the spirit of hospitality we meet in these Revelation verses describing the city from heaven.

The house of Islam also has open doors. All are welcome. Five times a day, from minarets around the world, the invitation goes forth to receive the hospitality of community and worship. The Muslim witness and invitation is clear: God is most great. I bear witness that Muhammad is the prophet of God, so come and receive well-being. Come and pray.

As I have done above, it is helpful to compare the house of Islam and the city of God as described in the book of Revelation. Viewing these different communities as congregations of invitation is helpful. {75} Knowing what people are being invited into is also important. However, for the remainder of the book I will usually use the term umma when referring to the house of Islam and church when referring to the believers in Jesus the Messiah.

COMMUNITIES OF HOSPITALITY

Both the faithful church and the faithful Muslim umma are communities of hospitality. In fact, the Qur’an encourages Muslims to compete with Christians in extending hospitality and good deeds. The Qur’an also observes Christians are people of compassionate hearts. 1 Christians and Muslims are encouraged to feast together. 2 The Qur’an lauds sacrificial generosity:

It is not righteousness that you turn your faces toward East or West; but it is righteousness—to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, those who fear Allah. 3

This is a call to generosity indeed! We have often experienced expressions of extravagant generosity from Muslims, as described in these spiritual and ethical teachings of the Qur’an.

Some years ago when in Somalia, I went to the home of one of the students in our school. We drove, which was an indication of our immense wealth in comparison to the poor village he came from. As we sat in his home, his mother took a couple of pennies from her dress and sent a child to buy a tiny pouch of red sweetener, which she placed in a pot of river water for their honored guest. I knew the water was dangerous for my system. I reminded the Lord that he promised we could handle snakes, and so I drank the most extravagant gift this dear woman could offer.

Shortly after completing college, one of our sons invested over half a year traveling in the Middle East. Those travels cost him almost nothing; local hospitality carried him along. During three weeks in Algeria his costs were fully covered by those who offered him hospitality, including people as diverse as truck drivers and even a Muslim sultan. When he got to the Algerian border the agents were not pleased he had spent so little money; for a moment it seemed they would send him back into the desert to spend some cash! {76}

OUR FATHER WAS HOSPITABLE!

Indeed, we have often experienced Muslim hospitality. But Christians are not exempt from the call to be hospitable. A conversation I had several years ago is pertinent, as an account of Christian hospitality extended to refugees, most of whom were Muslims. I was writing the memoir of Ahmed Ali Haile, a Somali disciple of Jesus the Messiah. I asked his teenage children what should be especially mentioned. They squirmed a bit, and their father said jovially, “You aren’t speaking because you want to report your father is a dictator, but you are too kind to say that.”

“Oh, no!” they exclaimed. “Dad is not a dictator! This is what you must say. Dad was committed to hospitality. If a Somali refugee appeared at our home at two o’clock in the morning, Dad would give them a place to sleep. Guests were always at our table. Dad was hospitable, and all our family got into the spirit of generous hospitality. The hospitality of our home was a very strong witness to the love of the Messiah.”

I pressed the point. “But your father’s hospitality meant sometimes you needed to get out of bed at two in the morning and give your bed to a refugee you did not know, while you slept on the floor.”

“Yes, that is true. But we must realize hospitality is welcoming the stranger even when it is not convenient.”

This family bought one hundred pounds of sugar for tea for guests each month! Most guests would put five spoonfuls of sugar in their tea, so that explains a little of the volume, but not much. Guests were almost always at their table for meals. This was a family with open hearts for all who would stop by. Their legacy is a remarkable statement of loving care for the refugee and oppressed.

My one deep regret about our six years in Nairobi is that we did not ourselves give with sufficient generosity for the enormous Somali refugee situation. We also were quite concerned about government authorities who were not favorable to assisting refugees. However, we should have done more. I grieve about that, and have asked a number of Somalis their forgiveness. My friend whose memoir I helped write has opened my heart to a more generous spirit.

A CUP OF COLD WATER

Jesus promised a blessing to those who give a cup of cold water in his name. 4 We experienced that blessing. Although we did not marshal resources such as food to help in the refugee crisis, our home was always open. Grace kept bananas and bread on our kitchen shelf for any hungry people who knocked on our door. Living in a highly congested area of Nairobi, we had the only phone on the block, so our living room became an occasional phone center. In the five-apartment complex in Eastleigh {77} where we stayed, we reserved one apartment for homeless Somali fellows. Lots of people stopped in, and Grace’s culinary gifts were much appreciated.

The children also contributed to the spirit of hospitality. Our family had a good relationship with the imam in the mosque and with his family. Our girls became best friends of his daughters, and when he became ill, I was invited into his home to pray for his healing. Our sons learned the fast foot moves of street soccer by playing with youth from the mosque and the church. In remarkable ways, our children facilitated our blending into Eastleigh.

After six years in Nairobi, when our time had come to leave Kenya, friends and colleagues gave farewell events and speeches. I had worked in the university, written books, and given leadership to several programs. Those accomplishments were barely mentioned in the farewell statements, however. What we heard was appreciation for hospitality. People observed, “Grace always had a cup of cold water or hot tea ready for any who stopped in.” As I listened, it became clear to me that those gracious expressions of hospitality given by Grace and our children were a most significant dimension of our ministry.

LANGUAGE: THE CHALLENGE OF HOSPITALITY

Language is a profound reality when extending and receiving hospitality. Let me illustrate. For many years Christian friends went with me regularly to the mosque on the Islamic Way in Baltimore. This mosque was planted by an African American who, after his conversion to Islam, went to Saudi Arabia for ten years for immersion in Arabic and Islamic studies. As an imam, he knew that the study of Arabic was important, because Muslims believe the Qur’an was sent down to Muhammad in the Arabic language. Shortly after the imam’s return to Baltimore, I was in the mosque one evening when an old man walked in from the street.

He wandered to the front where we were sitting with the imam and said, “I want to be a Muslim!” The congregation erupted with reverent praises to God. Then the imam said that he must repeat in Arabic the confession of faith: there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of God. After he repeated the confession, the imam stated, “Now you are a Muslim. And there is an obligation. The required prayers are in Arabic, and so is the Qur’an. So you must learn Arabic. Before you leave this evening, register for Arabic classes here in the mosque.”

The drama in the mosque that evening—providing Arabic classes for the elderly convert to Islam—was a window into the global umma. As the umma grows into communities around the world, it takes the Arabic language with it. Islamization and Arabization are complementary realities. {78}

That reality was evident another evening at the same mosque. About a year later I was back in that mosque and met an imam from Saudi Arabia sitting beside the local imam. When we asked questions, the local imam who had established this mosque would say, “I will defer the question to our brother from Arabia, because he knows Arabic better than I do!” Not only was the mosque in Baltimore becoming an Arabic training center, but the authority of the local mosque was shifting toward those who knew Arabic best. It is those most proficient in Arabic who are likely the most capable teachers of Islam.

Contrast these exchanges in the mosque with my recent experience in my childhood church among the Zanaki people in Tanzania. Between choirs singing, an old woman in her nineties, bowed over with arthritis, stood up during the service and held high a Zanaki translation of the Gospel of Matthew. She sang, “This book tells me all about Jesus—this book tells all about salvation! Believe the message of this book!”

She was worshiping and singing in her mother tongue! It felt like Pentecost on the birthday of the church in Jerusalem. At Pentecost when the church was formed, people from “every nation under heaven” heard the gospel proclaimed in their own language: Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; people from Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, and Rome; Cretans and Arabs. 5

The Word of God in the language of people around the world is a gift of cultural and linguistic hospitality that the Muslim umma cannot duplicate. One of the attractions of the Christian faith is the conviction that God makes no language boundaries or requirements. The church invites people from all languages to worship at the table in their mother tongue!

EXTENDING AND RECEIVING HOSPITALITY

This does not mean Muslims are not hospitable. In fact, in the mosque in Baltimore we were sometimes served an ample meal as we intermingled with the congregation. The Qur’an is explicit in its command: Muslims and Christians should extend hospitality to one another. Muslims like to recall two stories from early in the Muslim movement. We have already mentioned the first account, when the Christians of Ethiopia extended hospitality to the persecuted Muslims from Mecca.

Equally significant is a visit of Christians from Yemen to Muhammad. He gave them access to the Muslim mosque in Medina for their prayers and a place to find refreshment from their journey. In that spirit Muslims are encouraged to extend and receive hospitality to Christians. 6 {79}

A COMMON WORD

The hospitality modeled in this visit was commended recently in a surprising letter sent by Muslims to the worldwide Christian church. It is dated October 13, 2007. This is probably the first time a worldwide representation of Muslims addressed a letter to all Christians. The premise was that Muslims and Christians, because they represent half the world’s population, carry a special responsibility for world peace. The letter urged that a starting point can be love of God and love of neighbor. 7 The writers stated those two commandments are embedded as core commitments both in the Torah and in the Injil (gospel). The letter is long—about forty pages. 8

Not surprisingly, the letter, titled “A Common Word,” elicited varied and sometimes passionate responses. Some felt this was a bold Muslim attempt to subvert the gospel; others felt this was one of the most amazing developments in the history of Christian/Muslim relations. At least one person is writing his PhD dissertation about “A Common Word.”

In this short book, I cannot address the implications. However, I was delighted to be invited into several forums where the letter was discussed. In one forum the Muslim representatives from Mecca said they hoped to invite me to come to Mecca and share the Christian understanding of the trinity of God! They said that since my name is David and I believe in one God, they hoped they could get an invitation for me. That has not happened yet, but it illustrates some of the open doors for conversations and bearing witness that these forums provided in the wake of the release of this letter. Many Muslims and Christians had never before experienced the kind of heart-to-heart dialogue these forums provided. (Appendix D of this book [Christian. Muslim. Friend. — Ed.] offers one Mennonite group’s response.)

PROTOCOLS OF MUSLIMS AND CHRISTIANS EATING TOGETHER

Of course, there must be respectful protocols for such experiences. 9 It is mandatory for Christians who are inviting Muslims for a meal to acquire halal (lawful and permitted in Islam) food. Most communities have a halal grocery where meats have been prepared in accordance to Muslim requirements. If there are no entitled halal meats available in your community, then have a vegetarian meal. Assure your Muslim guests that either the meat is halal or they will be served a vegetarian meal. Protocol will insist the plates and utensils you use have not touched pork or other prohibited foods. The Muslim guest will appreciate being assured by her Christian hosts that they have been sensitive to these concerns.

When invited into a Muslim home, some Christians will hesitate to {80} eat meat that has been prepared in accordance with Muslim protocols, which include the invocation of the name of God as the animal is killed. In my judgment, Paul’s counsel to Corinthians is helpful. He advises we should receive all food thanksgiving in the name of Christ, who makes all foods clean. 10 The hospitality of eating together is a wonderful and helpful step in nurturing friendship and trust. I think of hospitality as this: those who dwell in the house of Islam and those who dwell in the city of God visiting back and forth.

WELCOME MUSLIM GUESTS

Muslims are usually delighted to be invited into a Christian home. That was the experience of friends of ours, who tell of the day they invited a Muslim neighbor family to their home for dinner. The family appeared dressed in their finest clothing; they were obviously excited. As it turned out, they had lived in the United States for about thirty years, and this was the first time a Christian family had invited them to their home for dinner. It was a marvelous evening!

Recently my wife and I hosted a Shi’ite family in our home. The family included two teenage daughters. As soon as they arrived they rather urgently informed us it was the time for prayer. They needed to know the exact direction of Mecca, which we did not know. So they set up their computer to get a fix on Mecca, and we provided a room for prayers. That evening we had a remarkable conversation, some of it centered on faith questions. Then the next morning they joined us for our regular morning worship together, including the Bible reading. We sang a song entitled “I Owe the Lord a Morning Song.” They appreciated our time of worship at the beginning of the day, and they invited us to Iran, promising to host us in their home.

COMMUNITY-TO-COMMUNITY HOSPITALITY

Recently several local churches in our community and a large mosque congregation joined hands for a hospitality weekend. This included a feast together. Probably the best part of the event was listening to one another’s faith stories and hearing some of the challenges as followers of God in the United States. A small team has been appointed to explore further ways of extending hospitality. The Christians are clear that they are believers in Jesus and seek to live within the hospitality and invitation God extends to us in the life and mission of the Messiah. The mostly immigrant Muslims cherish the opportunity to broaden their circles of friendship. One step the two communities are taking is developing Arabic classes for the immigrant children, because parents fear their children might lose their Arabic as they become more comfortable {81} with English.

In both Somalia and Nairobi, we made the most of Christmas. Muslims have only a modest celebration of the birth of Muhammad. The Ramadan breaking of the fast and the Feast of Sacrifice at the time of the annual pilgrimage are more celebrative than remembrance of Muhammad’s birth. Nevertheless, the birth of the Messiah is a good time to invite neighbors for a celebration. In Somalia and Nairobi, the small believing community would arrange for killing a goat and having it prepared in the most savory way. We invited many Muslim friends. Wonderful music filled the air, much of it songs about Jesus, whose birth we were celebrating. Then in Somalia we usually had a dramatic rendition of the Christmas story. If we did not have a pageant, we would tell the Christmas story.

Occasionally we receive Christmas cards from Muslims; surely they in turn would appreciate cards from their Christian friends. Although I have not gotten into the practice of sending cards during the Muslim holidays, occasionally during the month of the pilgrimage I write to Muslim friends saying I am praying for the pilgrims. I pray for their safety; sometimes tragedies befall the pilgrims. I also pray for revelations of truth as they take their journey.

As we have mentioned, Somalia was restrictive. We usually informed local authorities of our plan to have an appropriate Christmas celebration. We assured them there would be no alcohol. By keeping the authorities informed, we hoped there would be no disturbances. We never had any objections to the event, and much expression of appreciation.

A United Nations officer and his wife from South India would invite the Somali government officers he worked with to a Christmas Eve party. It consisted of listening to the entire rendition of Handel’s Messiah, followed by delicacies and joyful conversations. Their family always received heartfelt thanks from the Somali representatives. It is amazing how extending hospitality can open doors we might otherwise consider closed.

In summary, the Qur’an encourages Muslims to cultivate a collegial and generous spirit toward guests. In fact, Muslims are to compete in extending hospitality. 11 In many communities Muslims and Christians enjoy sharing with one another in their festivals, Christians inviting Muslims to their feasts and Muslims inviting Christians to theirs.

CAUTIONS ABOUT FRIENDSHIP

While it is true the Qur’an encourages reciprocal hospitality between the umma and the church, there are also warnings about possible dangers emerging out of the goodwill nurtured by hospitality. The concern {82} lurking around the corner is that hospitality and friendship might seduce a Muslim away from Islam into the Christian faith. In that case the Qur’an is forthright; the friendship must end. 12

Furthermore, if perchance hospitality were to fan the embers of romance between a Christian man and a Muslim woman, the friendship must end, unless the man converts to Islam. However, a romantic friendship between a Muslim man and a Christian woman is allowed; the children will belong to the man and he will raise them Muslim. These realities mean it is not wise for a Muslim and a Christian to become romantically involved. This is the position Paul took in his letter to the Corinthians, writing about similar issues in Corinth. 13 His admonition certainly also applies to Christian-Muslim relations.

Christians have the same concerns about the use of hospitality as a tool for evangelism. If a Muslim fellow would befriend one of my grandchildren and then invite her to the mosque, I would have concerns. I do not view the Muslim cautions as adversarial. Rather, they are understandable concerns, if indeed the Muslim holds the Muslim faith as a treasure, as I do my commitment to Christ.

RELATING TO MUSLIM NEIGHBORS

When teaching a course on faithful Christian witness among Muslims in an African country, I assigned the students to meet with a Muslim neighbor. They were to ask one question: What suggestions do you have for building peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians?

The class almost rebelled. They feared the Muslims would attack them. It was clear some steps at relationship building were urgently needed. So I made the assignment voluntary with the promise of additional credit. As I recall, only three out of a class of thirty ultimately decided not to undertake the assignment. Those who did the assignment were thrilled by the responses. The Muslims were keen about these Christians caring enough to ask such a question. All the Muslims had enthusiastic suggestions. Only one suggestion was deemed inadvisable by the class: that was for Christian women to marry Muslim men.

Occasionally I get a phone call about how to develop trusting relations with Muslim colleagues. Recently someone asked, “David, a Muslim neighbor has moved in next door. What is your advice?”

Welcome the family to your neighborhood and become acquainted. Foremost is learning about your new neighbors. Discern whether they have concerns about their neighborhood. Do what you can to help them settle into their new routines. Before long, invite them to your home for a welcome dinner. Assure them the food will be vegetarian, or if meat, halal. Enjoy the evening. {83}

As we have mentioned in these chapters, most Muslims appreciate conversations about God. Most likely, at some time your neighbors will ask about your faith and church. It is likely that at some time they would appreciate receiving a Bible from you, as a friend giving them a special autographed gift. They might appreciate joining you in a walk through the Bible. Many Muslims are intrigued by the Bible narratives and the message of salvation. Nurture the relationship!

My best friend in our neighborhood is a Muslim. I cherish the times we have had over a cup of coffee or eating breakfast together!

POLITICAL IMPLICATIONS OF HOSPITALITY

I have mentioned two events during the time of Muhammad that are charming examples of hospitality. The first was when three hundred Muslims from Mecca migrated to Christian Ethiopia. They fled from Mecca to receive protection from harassment in Mecca. The other event occurred when Christians from Yemen were welcomed into the mosque in Medina, where they could be refreshed and have a Christian worship service. These two events are often mentioned by modern Muslims as examples of ideal Christian-Muslim relations. But there is political significance of such generous hospitality too.

For example, Switzerland has extended hospitality to thousands of Muslims who are refugees from their Muslim homelands. This is generous and right. Then comes a special challenge. The Muslim refugees want to build mosques with minarets. These concerns were addressed in a referendum wherein the Swiss determined that they would not permit minarets in Switzerland; however, mosques are permitted.

How far should Christians extend hospitality to Muslims? In Great Britain, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury has indicated that the church should support the Muslim quest to live under Islamic Shari’a law, at least for domestic matters. That has attracted vigorous debate. For example, does this mean polygamy (which is sanctioned in Islamic Shari’a law) should be countenanced for Muslims in Great Britain?

France draws the line forthrightly by asserting that France is unapologetically secular. Muslim girls and women are prohibited from wearing the hijab in government buildings or schools; however, they may wear it in public. Nevertheless, the niqab, which covers the face, is not permitted in public. For many Muslims, those restrictions seem to be a violation of religious freedom.

In contrast, Canada has an intentional policy of encouraging multiculturalism. Yet, even in Canada there are expectations that Muslims will abide by certain norms the Christianized or secularized society upholds. For example, in Islam, the children belong to the father in the {84} case of divorce; in Canada, the judge determines who has primary care of the children.

How should the spirit of hospitality guide Christian-Muslim relations within the challenges of sometimes very different values? We need to find the way. It is one thing to invite Muslim neighbors over for a Sunday afternoon tea together. In some places it has become quite another matter if Muslims wish to build a minaret!

DISCUSSION ABOUT CORE VALUES

In these discussions, I do not recommend a relativistic approach to values. One reason Muslims search for ways to immigrate to the West is their appreciation for Western Christianized values. Those values should not be squandered; they are a gift we should not abandon.

That issue was the essence of a heated debate several years ago in a conversation riding in a packed car from London to Heathrow Airport. My Muslim hosts were trying to impress upon me the merits of Islamic Shari’a law for the restoration of decadent Britain. I was in vigorous rebuttal.

Then all was silent for a minute until one of my hosts exclaimed, “If we are honest, we all agree with David. We love the West and the freedoms we enjoy. That is why none of us are flying to Pakistan tonight; we are all going to Canada, for we love the Canadian ethos.”

EXAMPLES OF CARING

On one occasion, an immigrant Muslim congregation confided to me that in their community outside Philadelphia, the churches are their most trusted allies. If they need land to build a mosque and zoning challenges arise, the churches will stand by the Muslims to defend their right to build a mosque. It is not always that way. But I was delighted to hear that this mosque experienced the churches as genuine welcoming communities.

Another Muslim congregation told me that when the World Trade Center was attacked, local pastors met with the leaders of the mosque to pledge that if any of the Muslim women needed to go shopping, a Christian woman from the churches would accompany them. That gesture of goodwill and support was enormously appreciated.

Thousands of Muslim students from around the world live in university dormitories in Canada and the United States. Most are never invited into the homes of Christian families. I have mentioned that a couple of weeks ago, a friend took some Iraqi students on an outing on the nearby Susquehanna River. The students were elated. I suppose they will never forget the joy of a Sunday afternoon on the river! Hospitality is a joy! {85}

When I was teaching a course on Islam in Sarajevo, Bosnia, most participants in my class were formerly Muslim. I asked a participant, who was probably in her fifties, “How did you become a Christian?”

Tears trickled down her cheeks as she said, “I am a Christian because a Christian became my best friend.”

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Describe examples of hospitality that you have received. In what ways has receiving hospitality been significant for you?
  2. Describe experiences of extending hospitality.
  3. Imagine what it feels like to be a refugee. Are there ways you or your church could be more proactive in extending hospitality to the refugee?
  4. Reflect on the mandate in the Bible and the Qur’an to practice hospitality.

NOTES

  1. Qur’an: Hadid (Iron): surah 57:27.
  2. Qur’an: Maida (The Table Spread): surah 5:5.
  3. Qur’an: Baqara (The Heifer): surah 2:177.
  4. Bible: Mark 9:41.
  5. Bible: Acts 2:5–12.
  6. Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (Pakistan: Oxford University Press, 1967), 270–77.
  7. Bible: Mark 12:29–32.
  8. The full text of “A Common Word between Us and You” is available at the letter’s official website http://www.acommonword.com. The Mennonite Church USA response to “A Common Word” appears as appendix D. [Also at: http://www.acommonword.com/the-response-of-the-mennonite-church-to-a-common-word/. — Ed.]
  9. Bruce A. McDowell and Anees Zaka, Muslims and Christians at the Table: Promoting Biblical Understanding among North American Muslims (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1999), 171–216. This book has helpful suggestions for extending and receiving hospitality with Muslims.
  10. Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:23–27.
  11. Qur’an: Nisaa (Women): surah 4:86.
  12. Qur’an: Baqara (The Heifer): surah 2:109; Ali Imran (The Family of Imran): surah 3:69.
  13. Bible: 2 Corinthians 6:14–15.
David Shenk, now nearing eighty years of age, has almost twenty years of experience with Muslims in Somalia and Kenya. The author of numerous books, including four on Christian/Muslim relations, Shenk continues to be active on the Christian/Muslim Relations Team—Peacemakers Confessing Christ.
Reprinted with permission from Christian. Muslim. Friend. © 2014 Herald Press. All rights reserved.

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