Borderland Hospitality

This is taken from the 30th Anniversary celebration of AMIS (Atlanta Ministry with International Students) this evening. It was fifteen years ago that I walked into Fahed Abu-Akel’s office at First Presbyterian Church. I was simply in the neighborhood and stopping by to say hello. On a whim, he asked me, “How would you like to go on a trip to the Holy Land?” Being a recent college graduate with no particular job responsibilities tying me down, and always up for an adventure, I said, “Sure.” It was a PC(USA) young adult trip to Ramallah. For three weeks we shared our lives with Palestinian youth at the Friends’ School there, clearing brush and playing basketball. It was the tail-end of the first Intifada or uprising, and we experienced the realities of life under Occupation first hand in ways that forever changed each one of us.

It was in 2000 that Elizabeth and I returned to Palestine, this time sent by the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as mission workers to a little majority Christian village in the northern West Bank called Zababdeh. We were sent to work with the Christian community as teachers and helpers, primarily with the large Roman Catholic Church and school. We arrived there in August, but before we had even purchased our plane tickets, Fahed had gone there during a trip back home to meet with Father Louis, the priest, to prepare our way.

If you have traveled to the Holy Land, you may have a picture in your mind of our little village. But even if you have been, and especially if you haven’t, I invite you to journey with me to this place that taught me the true spiritual meaning of hospitality that is at the heart of what AMIS represents.

Let us begin our visit in the Galilee, where Elizabeth and I spent precious time with Fahed’s extended family: his sister and brother-in-law, his nieces and nephews in Kufr Yasif, who welcomed us into their homes as though we ourselves were part of the Abu-Akel clan. They fed us to overflowing and gave us extensive tours of the whole region, taking us up to the border with Lebanon and the seaside cliffs of Acre. It was in Palestine and Israel that we saw and experienced first-hand what those ancient visitors to Abraham under the oaks of Mamre must have known: strangers for whom it was nothing unusual to slaughter the fatted calf and throw a feast at a moment’s notice. Hospitality is second-nature to the peoples of the Middle East. It is imprinted on Fahed’s DNA, and shapes everything that AMIS represents.

A short-distance to the Southeast of Fahed’s home town lies our village of Zababdeh. Our apartment building was on the edge of the village, overlooking pastures waiting for the winter rains. In order to get anywhere in town from there, we had to walk the dusty, crammed streets past Jadallah’s house. Jadallah was every bit the Palestinian villager, with his white head scarf protecting his head from the sun. His hands showed the work of digging soil and tending olive trees to raise his 12 children. At 5:00 in the morning, he would begin his day sitting on the front stoop, inviting anyone and everyone to sit a while and have a cup of coffee with him. Every time we walked by. “Tfaddalu! Sit down! Have some coffee! Where’s the fire? Slow down!” And it wasn’t just us – it was anyone. Pedestrians, cars slowing down for the speed bump…Even if I had stopped by a few hours earlier on the way into town, he would still invite me to sit on my way home. “Where are you going? There’s a fresh pot on!”

I learned more Arabic from Jadallah that first year than from anyone else. He was a member of the Greek Orthodox Church in town, and was exceedingly patient with my slow pace of learning. He would simply tell me stories from the Bible. I would catch every tenth word – Jesus, Peter, the Samaritan woman, the lepers – and slowly I began to fill in the gaps.

But there was one thing that troubled Jadallah: Elizabeth and I didn’t have any children. That Western concept of “waiting” wasn’t even on the radar screen in a small Palestinian village. And as the father of twelve himself, he figured there must be something wrong. “What’s the matter with you? Where’s the baby? Yella, jeeb baby! Get to it!” As we talked about it, he suddenly got very quiet, though his lips continued to move in prayer. He crossed himself as he finished. Then came these words of advice: “I’m writing a prayer for you on this piece of paper. You keep it under Elizabeth’s pillow, and in nine months, you’ll be parents.”

There was something intriguing in that moment, that simplicity of trust in the power of prayer and of God’s work in the world. And yet, I also wanted to say to him that there was a need for wisdom in the kind of prayers we might choose. The verse of Scripture that came to me was from Matthew’s gospel, where Christ encourages the disciples to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” In other words, trust in the power of God, but don’t tempt the Spirit.

The problem was that I didn’t have the Arabic vocabulary to share that thought with him. What I had learned through experience was to get as close as possible and then let the other person fill in the linguistic gaps. So I took my best shot: “As Jesus says in the Bible, ‘You must be as clever as a really big worm and as simple as a pigeon.’”

Jadallah looked at me with a mixture of pity and confusion. I’m sure he wondered what translation of the Bible these Presbyterians used. And after a few moments, he said, “Take the paper.”

We lived in Zababdeh for three and a half years, and our ministry expanded to minister alongside the Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic communities. The school where we taught was a place of great diversity, with Christian and Muslim students and Christian and Muslim teachers side by side. Our lives were forever changed; our understanding of the world forever broadened.

And yet, those moments sitting on the front stoop with Jadallah became almost a home base, a place for me to return periodically and reflect on the journey I had taken. He was the Greek chorus in the drama that unfolded for us every day.

One evening we stopped by. It was cold, and rather than sitting on the step, we went inside. There was also a family whom we didn’t know that was visiting: a man, two women, and a small child. They were from a nearby village, and we could tell by the way the women wore their headscarves that they were Muslims. The father had worked with Jadallah and had become friends. There was something odd about their visit: they were over in a corner, away from the rest of us. But we had been there long enough to know that not fully understanding the customs and culture was just going to be part of our reality, so we didn’t think much of it.

As we talked through the evening and shared sweets and conversation, Jadallah got up and walked over to the family and stood with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched. His lips moved silently in prayer as they had done for me on the front step a months before. And then, he not only made the sign of the cross on himself, he also gave the sign of the cross as a blessing for this family. This happened several times, after which the family said their thank yous and farewells and left.

The child was sick, we learned. The doctors were running test after test, and the family was distressed. And though they were Muslim and Jadallah was a Christian, they knew that he was a deeply devout man. They had brought the child to him so that he would pray for them and strengthen them and that their child would be healed.

That image is seared in my memory: an elderly Palestinian Christian farmer in white headscarf standing to make the sign of the cross over a Muslim family. It spoke to me volumes about the nature of Palestinian society, the crossroads of interfaith conversation, the interplay of friendship and culture, and yes, even about the nature of that which we celebrate tonight, hospitality.

So let’s gather back after our brief trip halfway around the world. And let us pull out a map. On this map is our geography of hospitality. Let’s read the guidebook as it describes the character of several of the regions represented here. And then, as we listen to the images, let’s see what sounds most like where we might find a ministry like AMIS. Let’s also see where it is that feels most like home to us. And let us also make an itinerary of the other regions we’d like to visit some day.

There is one region in this geography full of ambassadors. The inhabitants are struck by the possibility that the world’s problems can be attributed, in some measure, to the fact that people assume things about one another. This could be AMIS’ home, through the unique opportunities that bring people halfway around the world to sit at one table. These ambassadors aren’t always pleased by how their region is seen abroad, whether that’s through exported politics or entertainment. Simply put, they want the chance to represent themselves.

The one common thread of conversations throughout the Middle East was one simple plea: “Tell your friends in America what you have seen, that we are not the terrorists they see on TV, that we have dreams and hopes like them, that we love our children, that we are proud of our heritage.” In October, Elizabeth and I had the chance to travel to Iran. It was a joint trip between Peachtree Presbyterian and Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And every single conversation we had with ordinary Iranians ended with the notion that the people of our two nations can work things out; it’s our leaders who stand in the way.

So in this region, hospitality is a step toward tearing down the boundaries that separate in the hopes that a better future and a common humanity might win out.

Then there’s this other region in our geography where the inhabitants are evangelists. AMIS is a Christian ministry, after all, founded and supported and funded by churches and individuals throughout Atlanta. Church members are the ones who host. In this evangelistic region, their main desire is to share this faith which gives meaning and purpose to their lives. There is the hospitable sense of welcome, but behind it is the hope that that they might be able to proselytize, to communicate that peace they know through living out this faith.

It is a common saying in the U.S. that there are two things that you don’t talk about: politics or religion. We took this assumption with us to the Middle East, but soon learned that you don’t talk about much other than politics or religion. Many of my close friends were Muslim, and they took every opportunity to both ask me questions about Christianity and its doctrines and to share with me the beauty and elegance and encouragement they received from the Qur’an and from Islam.

So in this region, hospitality is a way to share good news and to communicate its beauty to those who enter in hopes that the community of faith might grow and people might find meaning.

And then there’s this third region in our geography whose inhabitants are students. They recognize that they have so much more learn than they have to teach. AMIS could very much base itself here, an outreach to students bringing their wisdom here where they end up being both student and teacher. So the citizens of this region welcome travelers in order to learn, whether it’s their philosophy or religion or worldview or culture. They’ve also been at it long enough to know that that first their own preconceptions need to be addressed and overcome. Religious differences, in this region, are considered to be simply part of the fabric of God’s creation. All of them have something to teach about the nature of God and of the world. Religions are broken pieces of one great big whole, pieces of a shattered mirror which give some reflection on God’s character, but only dimly so.

The conversations I’ve had halfway around the world about my society and religion, about race and violence and sexuality and entertainment and politics and religion have not only given me a chance to share my experiences and perspectives, but also to be shaped by those with whom I come in contact. Their, and my, assumptions have been challenged. Their, and my, horizons have widened.

So in this region, hospitality is a way to find that common ground of humanity on which all stand, regardless of perceptions, so that folks might together learn from each other and thus grow in understanding of the world and of things of ultimate import.

Can we see these regions in our mind? Can we see AMIS and its hospitality somewhere in the midst of it all? And where is home for you? Where do you want to travel next?   Before we leave this map, though, there’s one little spot that we have overlooked. It’s a bit like Andorra or Lichtenstein or Monaco, sandwiched in between these other regions. And sitting where it does, it bears some of the character of the places it borders, affecting its sights and sounds, its worldview and approach. It’s not a very big place, more of a weigh-station. Its inhabitants have no region to call their own, and have chosen to stake their claim right here.

Hospitality takes a different shape here. It has character in common with the region of ambassadors. The practice of welcome is about giving others a chance to see who they are, so that they might break down barriers and get to know one another first and foremost as beings created in the image of God, children of Adam, all of us. But, they say, that’s not the main reason we’re here. It’s a side effect, and an important one. But that's neither its goal nor its origin.

It also has character in common with the region of evangelists, perhaps most clearly so. In their hospitality, they share the love and grace of Christ with whomever they come in contact. But they are also very clear that this welcome is unconditional. It is unapologetic, but it is never manipulative. They don’t do hospitality simply for the sake of luring others into the community of faith. Instead, it is simply part of their DNA.

It’s a tough place for us residents of this nation to be, as unaware as we tend to be of the power we wield. Here, hospitality comes out of its poverty and thus, paradoxically, its generosity. They remind us how at odds our power is with the message of humility and service and, yes, even weakness that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel. To evangelize here means first shedding any sense of triumph one might get at playing the numbers game.

And this place also has character in common with the region of the students. Here they meet and learn from the travelers that past through. They meet them where they are and know that they others can shape them as much, if not more, than they can shape others. But they do so celebrating their diversity, not seeking homogeneity. They are who they are, unapologetically so. They are gifted by God, sharing those gifts with those with whom they come in contact, that their lives might be blessed as a result.

I invite you to walk the streets of this little border land. As we do, we will hear a voice calling to us: “Tfaddalu! Sit down!” It sits at the edge of the crowded streets. The invitation meets people wherever they might be in their journeys, patiently listening and sharing. It offers the cup of fellowship unconditionally. It prays unabashedly in its own way for the travelers and their strength. And it simply trusts that the world will be forever changed.

Will you join me on this front stoop? Do we have time to sit for a while?

May God bless AMIS for the next thirty years, and may we continue to welcome others with the open arms with which God has welcomed us.