This is a small story about what happens when we invite others to our table.
In the fall of 2017, in the year of Canada 150 celebrations, the CRC's Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee invited pastors and churches in Canada to consider together what it means that the land we call Canada has been inhabited for far more than 150 years.
They asked, “What do the biblical calls to hospitality and reconciled relationships mean for your church’s relationships with local Indigenous peoples?” and invited pastors to preach about this question.
Rich Braaksma, the Western Canadian Regional Leader for Resonate Global Mission and one of the pastors at The Road Church in Calgary, Alberta, took this challenge. He reached out to The Native Centre at the University of Calgary to find someone from the local Indigenous community who would like to help our church enter these questions. One of the administrators there, Cheryle Chagnon Greyeyes, said yes and then even offered to come to our church to speak to us.
That Sunday morning, Cheryle told us a little bit about herself, who she was, where she was from and the land our church sits on. She sang a welcome to us. The service continued as it usually did with a few songs and then with the hearing of the Word. Pastor Rich got up and spoke about hospitality. (You can listen to the welcome and Rich's "Hospitality and Culture" sermon on our website.) He spoke of his recent travels to Oman and Bangladesh where hospitality is expressed with an invitation to sit and share tea, sweets, food. He spoke of the deeply biblical theme of hospitality and the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. Love God and love your neighbour, Jesus told the people, who were looking to him to give them something to believe in. One of the people listening to Jesus asked for a caveat, perhaps not unlike how you or I would have responded to the story; surely it was too much to love every person like a neighbour. Surely we can’t be expected to…well, LOVE just ANY neighbour. “Who IS my neighbour, Jesus?” someone asked.
And of course, Jesus refused to play along. He instead told a story about someone not like them, not liked by them. In fact, he told a story whose hero was someone who was, at the time, expressly overlooked, distrusted, and looked down upon. Jesus flipped the question. He told a story about just such a person doing the work of the neighbour. Doing the work that, in fact, summed up the law and the prophets. We in the congregation heard this word, knowing we are both Jesus’ questioner and people in that crowd; that we are both those who ignored the hurting man, and the hurting man himself.
Rich and Cheryle then talked about hospitality. Rich asked her questions about her culture and hospitality practices. We learned a bit more about her practices and the meaning behind things we perhaps didn’t previously understand like smudging or the gifting of tobacco (in her traditions, we learned it’s not ever for ingesting!). Cheryle talked about ceremony and why it’s important for her – she called it “kindness signified.” She talked about how good guests listen to their hosts and partake in the world of their hosts. They enter into the practices of the host, for it means you take seriously their place in the world and you take seriously that you are entering that place as a guest – you do not take over the home of your host for your own. And good hosts, in turn, care for the needs, the lives, the world of their guests.
The whole conversation was an exercise in hospitality. Rich and Cheryle are different, absolutely. And there are differences that can’t be conflated into sameness and shouldn’t be. No one is saying that their different beliefs about the nature of the world are interchangeable. But Rich and Cheryle are also neighbours and they were taking seriously what it meant to care for and welcome someone else’s dignity, their whole person, their God-given, Creator-given life. Their conversation opened this up for us.
But what happened on this Sunday was not limited to what it taught us in the congregation—it wasn’t limited to our thoughts and thinking about this issue. I think this good, big, and incredibly loving God who we serve loves to take what we learn and pull it right down into our hearts. I will give two examples of this, and I hope you read them, not as theological points, or as things to convince you of one thing or another, but as examples from a generous God to a few particular people of what might happen when you invite someone else to your table.
The first happening: A couple in our congregation, a few years ago, adopted 3 children of Indigenous heritage. It is very important to their family that their children have meaningful and authentic connections to their cultural roots. Anyone who adopts a child knows that a connection to the people and place of birth is vital to the child’s health and resilience. There is a natural yearning in us to know the family that brought us to this earth.
They knew that their children’s birth mother was of Metis-Cree descent but had not found anyone of this heritage for their children to connect with. Until this Sunday. After the service, this mother brought her children over to meet Cheryle, who if you remember was Metis-Cree. Now, to understand what happened next, you have to know that their youngest daughter is a reserved girl. While she is warm and loving with her family, she will hang back silently with people outside of family, often not making eye contact. When she met Cheryle, however, she looked right at this elder’s friendly face. Cheryle put her forehead to the forehead of this tiny 3 year old. And they looked at each other for what the mother said felt like 5 minutes! Then this little girl allowed herself to be held, kissed on the cheek, seen. Indeed, she nestled her face into the neck of this woman she just met.
The mother wept. The father wept. The other family witnessing this wept. In the words of this mother in an email later, she said that this connection was “an experience beyond earthly explanation, for sure. My words do not do it justice.” Cheryle and this family will stay in touch, and while the children may not have their biological grandmother to help them interpret and make sense of their place and their story in this world, they now have another woman, inviting them into her life and her community so that theirs may be strengthened.
For this mom, to see her youngest daughter seen, cared for, connected to her roots on this earth, that is a gift of godly proportions. A gift given, in what some may call a coincidence and others may call grace. God knows what we need. And he provides, so often, where we are not looking for it. “Do not forget to provide hospitality for strangers for you unknowingly may be entertaining angels,” we read in our Bibles. You may very well be welcoming those who would do God’s work in this world, even in your own heart, when you welcome a guest.