The threshold of hospitality

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WE were taking a walk in the late afternoon, I remember, talking, even though silence was the order of that retreat. My friend said he saw the gift of hospitality in me. I scoffed in disparagement: the ``gift'' of hospitality, indeed! Who ever heard hospitality called a ``gift''? If it were, it was at the bottom of my list.

I grew up thinking that whoever didn't get chosen was left over to greet at the door, others having been chosen for more significant tasks, such as chairing or bridesmaiding or singing. It took no particular talent to greet, to welcome, to stand at the door, I was sure.

That's what I used to think of hospitality: standing at the door. Now I describe hospitality as making space for another.

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In retrospect, I wonder if we all don't fall into the danger, as we assess our own talents and gifts, of calling them unimportant since they come easily and thus seem insignificant to us.

That moment on retreat, so clear in my memory, was a turning point, the hearing of a message I needed.

I began to value the gift of hospitality, even though I would surely have wanted something a little more spectacular!

At the time I was volunteering at The Potter's House, a Christian coffeehouse and ministry of hospitality in the Adams-Morgan section of downtown Washington, D.C. I ran the old cash register and bused tables, dusted bookshelves, and tried very hard to say something nice to each person I waited on. Sometimes they responded and sometimes I just embarrassed myself.

The essence of hospitality, I've decided, is that in offering true hospitality to another I become vulnerable. I often experience such vulnerability as I work at a soup kitchen in Lincoln, Neb., where I live now.

I have spent many an hour, under circumstances far different from that of a soup kitchen, standing at a door, greeting, reaching out to help another across a threshold, letting them know they are wanted and awaited inside, that they will be safe there. That avocation was not always handled pleasantly by me; sometimes I loved what I did and knew I did it well. At other times I just went through the motions, sulking about something or other.

At the soup kitchen I have found myself too busy with chores, too busy in the kitchen, too occupied with making soup, to sit down with the suppers. At first I felt nudges of what I was avoiding in how uncomfortable I became at the random, crazy discussions of current events the suppers reveled in. I joined in as someone who knew a lot, with excellent, informed opinions on nearly everything. It dawned on me after a while that I could listen quietly, listen and not judge, occasionally entering into the talking without having to offer the final word on anything.

The next time I learned a little more about hospitality came as I felt uneasy when the people eating at the soup kitchen knew my name and told the whole room. I wanted to be anonymous, not let them know who I am. I am getting better, even, one night, taking delight in a debate between a gentle Hispanic man who proudly called me Mrs., and a woman who tenderly called me Ruth, as her friend.

As I reflect on the gift of hospitality in my life, I remember other times it came to me, times I honored its appearance and times I didn't. I used to call myself the ashtray-emptier in ``hospitality suites'' at conventions of organizations my husband was active in, all those hotels now dim in memory. I have been greeted for a number of years now by members of an organization I attend several times a week, people who manage to ignore their own problems and insecur-ities long enough to say hello and give me a handshake or a hug.

The Potter's House offers ``our hospitality, service, and a listening ear'' to those who come there. At The Gathering Place here in Lincoln, modeled on The Potter's House and open for lunch and meetings during the day and as a soup kitchen for the hungry at night, we try to remember the words of Dutch priest Henri Nouwen: ``... to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.''

We think of our gifts, when we think of them at all, as things magical and wonderful that make our life easier and happier, us more important.

Yet I am reminded that the gift of who we are is not always so easily claimed nor offered to others.

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