Hospitality on the Way

Commentary

Hospitality paves the Way on the Camino de Santiago. It has been that way from the start, by necessity. When pilgrims started making their way to Santiago de Compostela more than 800 years ago, many were poor. Some were compelled to go. At times when a legal dispute could not be solved and as angers between two parties soared, the magistrate would sentence them to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela together. So many pilgrims had no means to make this journey, so the practice of hospitality was essential.

That spirit still pervades the Camino today. On our first day out of Ponferrada, the Way took the four of us through local farm lands. A woman tending a long row of tomato vines greeted us. We tried to talk in the our broken Spanish. She then cut four large ripe tomatoes from the vine, gave them to us, and said, “Buen Camino.” We sliced and ate one at special times for the next three days. The second day ended with a hard climb up a mountain. The village before was Vega de Valcarce. Outside the church, a group of young girls with matching T-shirts were squeezing fresh oranges to make juice as a gift for pilgrims passing by.

The third day was a hard climb in fog over a mountain pathway entering the region of Galicia. Near the top, I went into a café, exhausted, and ordered a cafe con leche, some orange juice, and a piece of local pastry cake. Two men from Spain on the Camino, who knew as little English as I knew Spanish, joined me shortly after. The pair turned our fragmented conservation to Donald Trump. This happens frequently. I made my views known, and they moved on. Ten minutes later I was ready to leave and asked the waitress for my check. No, she said. The other men had paid for me.

These were just simple acts. But their memories stay with us. And it reminds of how central the practice of hospitality is to biblical faith. The Old Testament Scriptures have dozens of direct commands to care for the stranger and express hospitality to the foreigner and one in need. The most dramatic example comes from Genesis 18, when Abraham and Sarah show generous hospitality to visiting strangers, sharing food and drink, and the tables are turned as these visitors become angels, representing the presence of the Trinity, and announce to the stunned couple that they will bear a son. So hospitality, biblically, is not only the way we express God’s love; it’s also the way we encounter God.

There’s a legend that grew when the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was taking root. A pilgrim entered a village seeking a place of shelter. One home after another turned him away, until finally that last home accepted him. That night a fire struck, destroying all the homes that the pilgrim has visited, except the one which took him in.

It would be well for the United States and the administration of Donald Trump to take heed of that lesson today. This administration’s practice of drastically reducing the number of refugees accepted and trying to demonize immigrants desperately seeking liberation from their oppressive circumstances, is not just bad policy. It is a venal, national sin. Every Christian bears a responsibility of faithfulness as a disciple of Jesus to speak and act publicly against these violations of biblically rooted practices and fundamental moral expectations for any society.

Walking the Camino with my companions I’ve tried so far, as a spiritual practice, to stop thinking about American politics and Donald Trump. But then I’ve been given tomatoes, and orange juice, and coffee by total strangers, wishing me well on my pilgrimage. I’ve been a vulnerable one on a journey in a strange place. And even small acts of hospitality have been a rich blessing. So much more for those refugees and immigrants with hopes and lives hanging on the edge.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” —Hebrews 13:2 ESV

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