“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Hebrews 13:1-2, NRSV
On this day 2 years ago, 26 people, most of them children, died after a gunman forced his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Because young children were the primary victims, reactions to this senseless act of violence were numerous. From initial shock, horror, and an almost instant outpouring of compassion and prayers, the reactions soon changed to very legitimate outrage about what made this shooting rampage possible. From a demand for stricter gun laws to laments over how the mentally ill are often neglected in this country, there were many poignant and powerful observations about what is ailing this society. The sad thing is: since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, there have been more than 100 school shootings in this country. The violence continues. My prayers continue to go out to all the victims, their families, and the community of Newtown, and to all the victims of violence in this country and throughout the world.
I would like to reflect on one aspect in the wake of the shootings at Sandy Hook – the aspect of ‘safe’ hospitality. Nobody expects a killing spree like the one 2 years ago to happen at an elementary school. Many people, in my opinion, were shocked, because a school (and especially an elementary school) is supposed to be a safe place, a sanctuary, where our children are nurtured and cared for, a place that is entered only by those who either learn there or those who have the welfare of the students in mind. Now educators have been aware for quite some time, that the notion of a school as a sanctuary is quite a nostalgic idea; that not everyone, who enters school grounds, has innocent motives. Extensive background checks are required for those applying for jobs at a school. In many communities in this country, going to school has been quite a dangerous endeavor for some time (just look at many schools throughout the Bay Area, which look like prisons, with security guards and metal detectors at their doors). Rightfully, schools have policies in place which try to keep out those who might do harm.
Now many may have seen the sign shown in the picture above. Underneath the school’s name, it says, ‘Visitors Welcome’. I don’t know if this sign has been removed after what happened. Have all those with good intentions been shut out, because one deranged individual broke the law of hospitality in such a horrible way?
As a church, we boldly proclaim: Everybody welcome! Our doors are open to all! Hospitality, and the welcome of the stranger, as documented in our Holy Scriptures again and again, has been one of the core values of Christianity. Our modern word ‘hospital’ comes from those originally Christian houses of hospitality, where, since the early days of Christianity, the poor, the traveling, the sick and the dying would be cared for, often no questions asked. As Christians, we welcome and don’t question the motives of those entering our doors.
At the same time, it is our duty to protect those who are vulnerable. We have to conduct background checks on those who work with our children and youth; we have to be wary about those who enter our church grounds and look somehow ‘suspicious’; we have to hold those accountable who disregard boundaries, and those who abuse hospitality. But in all that, the general ‘Everybody Welcome’ is still valid and essential to the ministry we do in God’s name. There is no guarantee that this hospitality will not be abused at some point. Our church sanctuaries are not magically protected safe havens. Evil has a way of breaking into any place, as the shootings at Sandy Hook, the shootings at schools all over the country ever since, the shootings at houses of worship, and all those other everyday venues, show.
The challenge for us, who we may to question our quite radical hospitality in times like these, is to not succumb to evil and to its close sibling: fear. The challenge for us is to let mutual love continue, to show compassion and kindness for those who hurt, even and especially if they are strangers, and to purposely build community in a day and age when we experience so much individualism and isolation.
No, we are not safe. Jesus never said that following him would be a smooth ride, and that nothing bad would ever happen to us. Jesus himself was born into quite unsafe circumstances, and barely escaped the massacre of the children of Bethlehem.
But we have been given the strongest weapons (I am purposely using this word) there are: faith, hope and love. May we never forget to use them in a world that is East of Eden, in a world which just is not safe – in a world which still is waiting for the one who comes to save all.
This post is also available in: German