Online hospitality of biblical proportion

Global Sisters Report has enjoyed a partnership with A Nun’s Life Ministry since our site went live in April 2014. Srs. Maxine Kollasch and Julie Vieira share audio clips every week from their popular podcasts. This is the second of a new column, which they will take turns writing. Drawing on their experiences of online presence and using a lens of Scripture, they each will explore how social media offers new ways of witnessing Gospel values.

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We don’t always know who we’re going to encounter on the Internet or in any other place where people gather. We can bump into not only the joy-filled, funny, thoughtful, and creative types, but also the surly, heart-broken, fragile, and unfriendly too! On any given day, we ourselves might be any or many of these.

What can we do to bring our best selves to our online encounters with others? How can we extend hospitality online?

Hospitality at a basic level means treating visitors and guests in a friendly manner. We might think of hospitality as having friends over for dinner or entertaining guests. But if we lived in biblical times, the call to hospitality was not just “tea parties . . . and a general atmosphere of coziness,” in the words of Henri Nouwen (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 66). It was understood to be a moral and spiritual obligation to welcome and care for the stranger.

In the book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine Pohl writes, “For the people of ancient Israel, understanding themselves as strangers and sojourners, with responsibility to care for vulnerable strangers in their midst, was part of what it meant to be the people of God” (5). Just as God was gracious, welcoming and caring to the Israelites, the Israelites were expected to do the same for others. 

Pohl notes that Jesus added a distinctive mark to the biblical concept of hospitality. He graciously welcomed the whole range of humanity, from saints to sinners. He did this even though “such welcome startled and annoyed those who generally viewed themselves as the preferred guests at gathering” (17). Jesus knew what it meant to be vulnerable and unwelcome. In his life, he experienced “the vulnerability of the homeless infant, the child refugee, the adult with no place to lay his head, the despised convict.”

How does hospitality to the “vulnerable stranger” work online? After all, we can’t email a glass of water to the thirsty or provide to the weary a place of rest in our Minecraft shelter. How might we be gracious, welcoming and caring, especially to those who might not be our biggest fans, followers or friends?

Here are a few hospitality #protips that I’ve learned from the online community over the past nine years of ministering at A Nun’s Life.

  1. Talk the talk of social media. Social media is a culture, with its own distinct languages, technologies, norms and protocols. Knowing the culture is vital for knowing how to be hospitable. For example, if you see a tweet written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, you probably wonder if the writer is shouting at everybody. As new social media emerge, we continue to learn cultural nuances. We might not always get things right. We may have the occasional #hashtagmishap. But being sensitive to culture is a huge step in the right direction.   
     
  2. Go out to people where they are. In the online environment, we need not simply wait for others to come to us. We can go where they are and bring along a spirit of hospitality! One of the great illustrations of this is in Genesis 18. Sarah and Abraham are sitting at their tent in the oak grove of Mamre, minding their own business. Suddenly, Abraham sees three travelers nearby. Instead of waiting to see if they’re friends or relatives, he runs over and invites them to rest. While Abraham gets them comfortable, Sarah prepares food, and together they tend to the weary travelers. In the realm of social media, we too can go out from our own wall, profile page and Pinterest board and interact with people on theirs.  Join a group, add someone to your newsfeed, add to a forum thread. There are many ways to meet people where they are online.
     
  3. Be discerning. Vulnerability is expressed in many ways online, from the frowny face, to a meaningful picture quote, to a sarcastic meme. Sometimes vulnerability is angry, rude, frustrating and annoying — and sometimes even hurtful and divisive. How can we be welcoming and hospitable when we encounter vulnerability that is abrasive? What obligation do we have toward a cyber miscreant? These are difficult questions. But in the end, being hospitable online doesn’t mean enabling or tolerating bad behavior by continuing to interact. Hospitality is more about an initial stance of openness so as to avoid judging or dismissing a person too quickly.
     
  4. Be present. The opportunities for hospitality are part of our everyday encounters, whether we’re offline or online. We are called to be awake to the people who are right in front of us. When we’re texting or snapchatting or replying to a tweet, it’s important to consciously “see” the person before us — whether or not they are with us in real-time. This practice reminds us that we aren’t just interacting with words or avatars, but with people. Tuning in to people allows us to be more alert to what is being said, what is needed and to the moments when a smiley face or kind word could make a big difference in someone’s day.

In our interactions, whether online or offline, we can bring a hospitable heart, expecting that in all of our encounters, whether delightful or challenging, we will find something of God.

“Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

[Maxine Kollasch is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, and co-founder of A Nun’s Life Ministry, which was founded on the Internet in 2006 and is present at aNunsLife.org and in many social media.]

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