Many Christians in the South live for hospitality. With warm greetings and pleasing charm, we hold open the church doors for new faces every Sunday, and we keep them open as those new faces leave and never come back. Why don’t they return the following week? Maybe, it’s because our idea of hospitality isn’t hospitality at all.
Pastor Alan Cross of Montgomery, Alabama, was the guest speaker for Brentwood’s Staff Lunch and Learn in March of this year. He noted, “Christians may be engaging in southern hospitality, but it’s not biblical hospitality until you truly welcome a stranger—radically going after people who don’t look like you and receiving them into your life and community.”
Alan is the Executive Director for Community Development Initiatives (CDI) and is the Global Urban Strategist with the Montgomery Baptist Association. His passion is to engage churches and mobilize people in the areas of racial reconciliation and promote unity amongst all people groups.
When asked about the racial tension in America and the church, Alan was direct. He spoke on areas where the church had failed to be a witness of Christ, providing examples such as bus bombings during the Civil Rights Movement and the establishment of violent groups (i.e. the Ku Klux Klan). Though some of the details were hard to hear, Alan emphasized the importance of embracing the brutal past in order to heal and move forward.
After government laws were passed in the 1960s to end discrimination, many people believed it would only be a matter of time until racial unity was achieved. However, Alan strongly disagreed with this mentality as he noted, “The Bible doesn’t say time heals all wounds—it says the cross of Christ does. We know we’re sinful creatures. We know we need God’s help and that we must constantly, for the rest of our lives, overcome sin. So, why do we think that this sin [racism] will go away on its own?” Alan gave a glimmer of hope as he began to discuss the different aspects of overcoming racism and shared a personal story.
Two weeks prior, he attended a candlelight vigil at a mosque in Montgomery, Alabama. The service was held to mourn the 50 lives that were lost during the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand (March 15, 2019). The people were deeply hurting, so Alan sat in the mosque and prayed for them, asking Jesus to reveal Himself. He mentioned, “I don’t believe in Islam, but at the same time, I grieved and mourned with them and showed God’s love to them the best I could. I was the only white person there and probably the only Christian. I’m aware that the Christian church may not completely eliminate all of the racial ruts in the road that history has made, but I believe we can go stand in the ruts and heal with the power of presence.”
The power of presence is a common hospitable practice in the Middle East. Many serve strangers and openly face differences. We also see this through Jesus’ life when He went beyond the city walls to meet new people and engage with them. While tension between Jews and Samaritans was fierce, Christ closed the racial gap by building a bridge over a cistern of hate as He went out of His way to meet a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4). As she served Him a drink, He exemplified true hospitality with His presence. Christ’s intentionality permeated the recesses of her heart, and her life was forever changed by the One who was a neighbor to all.
From Christ’s example, we can see the American church needs more than a quick smile and an open door; it needs patient love flowing from an open heart. So, how can the church be a neighbor to all? Alan plainly put it, “Apply the lessons of Christ. Unfortunately in the U.S., we’ve combined whiteness with Christianity and view most foreigners as non-believers.” Yet, Alan informatively mentioned that 70% of all immigrants are Christians, and he believes that if we join together in reconciliation that God will do something amazing—changing the course of history. He noted, “The dividing wall has been taken down in the cross, and if we live by it, we will see unity. However in doing good, we must beware of noblesse oblige.”
“Noblesse oblige” is a French concept meaning “nobility obliges” or “noble people do noble things.” It gets to the root of the heart’s motives and reveals that some people believe it to be their prestigious obligation to take care of the less fortunate—benefiting social image and personal egos. For example, one may go on a mission trip, not to be present in the lives of the lost or for the purpose of extending the love of God, but to merely post selfies while holding babies—expecting the whole world to give every praise for upholding a civil duty. Alan said, “We must be careful not to exploit and dehumanize people by thinking of them as poor and miserable and that our noble acts will save them. If we stop viewing them as less than us and see them as one of God’s children, then things will start to change.”
In recent years, measures have been taken in Nashville, Tennessee, to replace hierarchal mindsets with humble reconciliation. With avid groups and non-profits, more people than ever are being treated as locals in camaraderie, thus extending the size of the Nashville family. Brentwood Baptist Church has also made efforts to engage the influx of migrants through the Middle Tennessee Initiative, a plan that addresses the needs of poverty, education, and healthcare by the means of service along with the establishment of people group congregations in the Middle Tennessee region (BrentwoodBaptist.com/mti).
Statistics reveal that an average of 100 people per day are moving to Nashville. As new faces are moving into our communities, are we going out of our way to meet with them, or are we waiting for them to come to us? Are we being hospitable by lending a helping hand, or are we bragging about our noble obligations? Are we invested in the ministries of the local church that are focused on closing the racial gaps, or are we standing at the door thinking that our Sunday smile is enough? Can we honestly say, with no hesitation, that our actions live up to the calling of a disciple of Jesus Christ? Let us pray that God will raise up leaders and influencers to be the peacemakers for social divides as Christians from all backgrounds, races, and denominations join together to love through genuine hospitality.