Hospitality: Exploring what it means to offer hospitality as followers of Christ
Shocking photographs published in the news media awoke the Western world to the refugee crisis on September 2015. With a heightened awareness of the issue, the Anabaptist communion worldwide considers what it means to welcome the stranger as those from different religious backgrounds enter our neighbourhoods.
The April 2016 issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier seeks to discern the variety of reasons why Anabaptist communities from around the world come together to form MWC. In the articles that follow, writers reflect on the question: How does Christ’s love for us motivate and guide our response to strangers in our local context?
In the late 1970s, during the period in India's history known as the Emergency (when democratic freedoms were effectively suspended), Deymaand, an 18-year-old youth, decided to be baptized in a local Mennonite Church. Since Deymaand’s family belonged to another faith, they opposed his decision to accept Christian faith. When Deymaand refused to turn back, his family disowned him. So Deymaand decided to leave his village. This resulted in a mob-like situation in the village. Due to political unrest in India in those days, Deymaand was immediately arrested to avoid any undue incident and was brought to Rajnandgaon to be imprisoned. A month later when the situation in the village was under control, Deymaand was released from prison but was asked not to enter the village again.
Disowned by his own family, Deymaand had nowhere to go and knew no one who would shelter him. But the pastor of the Mennonite Church of Rajnandgaon (MCR) welcomed Deymaand into the church and into his own family as one of their own sons. Deymaand decided to pursue theological education and completed his theological studies from Union Biblical Seminary, Yeotmal. From there, he went on to serve the Lord through preaching and teaching the Bible across India. In the midst of threat to his life and equal threat to the church, MCR helped sustain Deymaand and his faith in the Lord Jesus.
In 1990s, under the leadership of pastor Theo Philus Singh, MCR started an outreach program in the State of Maharashtra, planting some new churches in villages. There was much opposition and persecution from the extremists. Members of the newly formed church would often visit homes of the members of MCR to find support and spiritual growth. The people of MCR risked social reputation and the threats of the fanatics when welcoming the new believers in their homes. Members of MCR visited the newly formed churches and ministered to needs even in the face of opposition.
A young man from MCR married a young woman, named Sarika. As time went by, Sarika discovered that her husband was an alcoholic. She was being physically abused at home. When Sarika couldn’t take it anymore, she approached the women’s group of MCR. The church council tried its best to bring reconciliation between the couple but all efforts were in vain. So, the women’s group helped Sarika and her nine-year-old daughter flee from her abusive husband. They received Sarika and her daughter in their homes and sheltered them. The women’s group offered them spiritual, moral and financial support.
Today, after 15 years, the daughter is well-educated, serving as a nurse in a reputed hospital. Sarika recognizes that MCR received her when she was a stranger and helped her when she needed to find a way out. She is grateful to the women’s group for all that was done to protect and sustain their lives.
Hospitality and evangelism
These stories are just a few among several others where the Mennonites reached out to their communities and welcomed strangers among themselves. Such opportunities have transformed not only the life of the church but have helped the church to transform lives of many others. Our understanding of hospitality is to not just offer food and water to strangers and send them their way but also being willing to journey with them even in the basics of life.
We have come to understand that hospitality is an integral part of evangelism. Without creating space in our own lives for others, we cannot lead others to make space for Christ in their lives. Hospitality has never been easy because it brings disruption in our lives.
Hospitality, in context of evangelism, puts at risk our own identity as a church. Receiving people from other faith increases our struggle to evade integration of rites, rituals and traditions from other faiths. This has taught us the importance of being strongly rooted in the Lord, being united as a church and discerning between right and wrong.
The Conference of the Mennonite Church in India (MCI) has been involved in activities of hospitality since the beginning. Each unit church has stories to tell. My home church is thankful to God for the many privileges of receiving strangers in our midst and ministering to them in a variety of ways. Being a part of this church has proved formative and helped shape my understanding of hospitality.
Elisabeth Kunjam, originally a member of the Mennonite Church in India, became a member of the Governing Council of the Mennonite Brethren Churches in India in 2005 after marrying Frank Sanjay. She serves as a member of MWC’s Deacons Commission. She is also coordinator of Theologically Trained Anabaptist Women of Asia (TTAWA), an association that started with the help of MWC’s Deacons Commission in 2012.
This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier April 2016