With one year of seminary under my belt, I moved to a mountaintop town in the Berkshires to serve as their summer minister. It was a tiny, close-knit community, and many families had deep roots in the place. One of the old-timers was a woman named Lucile, Cile for short. Cile was sharp as a whip, and she could still navigate the trails that crisscrossed the mountain like a youngster. The one thing that held her back was her deteriorating hearing. Now almost completely deaf, Cile had stopped attending church, finding the experience just too frustrating. Her nephew Emby assured me, though, that she would enjoy a visit from the minister. So, following the first service of the summer, I headed down the country road to Cile’s house to introduce myself.
Emby had said I would need to be persistent in my knocking. I knocked, and waited, then knocked some more. I pounded on the house, puffs of ancient dust emerging from beneath the clapboard. Finally Cile emerged. Smiling broadly, she held the door open wide, and greeted me as if I were a long-lost friend.
“Hello there! How are you? Isn’t it a lovely day?” I agreed. “Would you like to come in, or should we sit on the porch? Can I get you some iced tea?” Then, as Cile and I settled into the worn Adirondack chairs, she turned to me and said, “So, tell me: who are you?”
Cile hadn’t been welcoming the visiting minister; she was just greeting some stranger who had showed up on her doorstep. Now, where I come from, that screen door would have been kept securely in place while the person inside figured out who this was on their porch. If you live in the city, an interrogation might have been conducted through the two-inch gap allowed by the security chain. Who goes there – friend or foe?
To be sure, Cile’s openness reflected the sense of security felt in that idyllic place. But it was more than that. In the system of Cile’s hospitality, it didn’t really matter who I was. Her generosity of spirit allowed her to see everyone as a guest. In that benevolent place, I was worthy of welcome – whoever I was.
The news feed in recent years and recent weeks has shown us many images of how we extend – or withhold – welcome. People yelling “Go Home!” at busloads of unaccompanied minors from Central America. Others greeting Syrian refugees with applause, and sweets for the children. A camerawoman tripping a father carrying his son. Fishermen rescuing migrants whose overfilled boat had broken up at sea. Each act reflects some sort of internal computation, some judgment made about the worthiness of these visitors. Some employ the reasoning of status and documentation. Others employ Cile’s calculus, in which all are reckoned worthy.
Being a good host to your guests is a lovely and admirable thing. But offering hospitality to the stranger – that’s God’s welcome. And Cile’s. May it be ours as well.
Luanne Panarotti serves as the Stated Supply pastor at the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, NY.