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A Theology of Hospitality

Hospitality was a subject Andrew Ollmann ’13 never really thought too much about. At least not in the way Bridget Burke Ravizza (Religious Studies) was proposing. Sure, he knew all about things like being a welcoming dinner host, but he hadn’t really considered hospitality through an ethical, theological lens. And that’s exactly what he and three other seniors in Burke Ravizza’s religious studies capstone course would be studying.

Katlyn Cashman ’13 was thrilled. Just a few months earlier, she’d been studying abroad in Uganda, a country where hospitality is integral to the culture. Cashman had to learn to graciously accept the hospitality of her host parents, which included sleeping in the parents’ bed and eating “fancier” food than their 13 children were given. “Their hospitality was incredibly humbling,” she says, and indeed was such a powerful experience that she wanted to learn more about the concept.

Burke Ravizza’s students spent the first part of the semester doing a lot of reading and discussion, focusing particularly on how hospitality can be applied to various populations – populations such as immigrants, those with disabilities and the homeless. Central to the discussion was the book “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition” (1999) by Christine D. Pohl. One of the points Pohl makes in her book, Ollmann said, was that people living on the margins have a better sense of how to be hospitable to one another than the rest of us, because unfortunately, so often they’re treated inhospitably. “That notion, to me, was very intriguing,” he says.

Once the students had solid grounding in the ethical and theological aspects of hospitality – a core Norbertine value, incidentally – their real work began. The group was assigned a research project on the efforts St. John the Evangelist Parish was making to practice hospitality in Green Bay. Since 2007, the Catholic parish has undertaken the operation of an emergency homeless shelter on its grounds downtown. It opens six months of the year, from Nov. 1 through April 30, so no one has to spend a night out in the potentially life-threatening cold. Unlike at Green Bay’s other two homeless shelters, at St. John’s everyone is welcome, even if they’re inebriated or on drugs, as long as they’re not a threat to others or themselves. Currently, the shelter is seeking to expand the number of people it serves, a move that is controversial and has fostered opposition from some citizens and elected officials. 

Under Burke Ravizza’s guidance, the students toured the homeless shelter and met with several key players. They included Deacon Tim Reilly, who was instrumental in establishing the shelter as a corporation of the Diocese of Green Bay and Green Bay mayor Jim Schmitt ’80. They also met with Dan Robinson M.T.S. ’06 (Mission & Student Affairs) and his wife Laura, both shelter board members. From these various conversations, the students learned it’s not always easy to practice hospitality.

Reilly says he “took a lot of flak” from various city officials for stepping in and opening St. John’s when the previous shelter was in trouble. “The Church could have done nothing, but it was clear we needed to do something,” he said, noting St. John’s has always been focused on taking in the homeless who are ineligible to stay at other shelters, or who have no place to go because other shelters are full. (In fact, over winter break, the college was able to open the doors of Pennings Activity Center to house an overflow from St. John’s itself.) The students were surprised to learn there was resistance to the shelter and its expansion from some in the community, Reilly says, since they saw that St. John’s, in a responsible, professional manner, was trying to do something positive for their fellow human beings.

But the students also learned that what may seem to be the proper Christian path doesn’t always present itself as practical or possible. Schmitt says citizens generally want good jobs, to live in a peaceful, pretty neighborhood and to enjoy top-quality city services, all while paying relatively low taxes. Throw in the problem of homelessness, currently a major issue across America, and pair it with alcohol addiction ­– common among the homeless – and things get quite complicated. “It was important the students saw how hard the city is working on all of these issues,” says Schmitt. “We’re the only community with homeless shelters in the entire county. We’re making a bigger effort than any other community. But there are multiple levels of need out there, coupled with a tremendous amount of underlying issues. It’s a continuous process.”

Cushman, who has a double minor in peace and justice and sociology, admitted she was pretty biased going into the project, immediately feeling an affinity with the homeless and their need for a shelter: “By looking at what the Church and scripture teach us about hospitality,” she wrote in her final paper, “it is clear what our response should be to the homeless as Christians. Jesus’ acts … get to the heart of recognizing the “other” and being hospitable to them. Repeatedly Jesus dined with dishonorable people. He broke down the social boundaries that were in place to ignore and marginalize these vulnerable people. …By recognizing these individuals and seeing them as humans instead of just someone struggling with homelessness, disabilities, and substance abuse issues, we are humbly reminded that as humans we are finite and fragile.”

But after all of Cushman’s research, study and interviews, she understood how complicated the solution is. The city is grappling with numerous other important issues in addition to homelessness, and has limited resources. “I don’t think this is an issue of choosing sides so much as thinking creatively about the problem,” she says. “My eyes were opened to the shortage of low-income housing in Green Bay, and issues of city versus county responsibility. We need to look at this differently so we can see what the city is responsible for and capable of doing, while keeping as many people’s needs in mind as possible.” 

Burke Ravizza knew her students wouldn’t find clear-cut answers to practicing hospitality. “We do have a certain responsibility, but we also have to think about limits and balances,” she says.

The most critical point for the students to learn – and one Burke Ravizza thinks they did come to understand – is that hospitality is a call for every Christian, and everyone can use it as a lens to make daily choices. “We need to always look at who’s included and who’s excluded, and to figure out how we can be more inclusive,” she said. “We need to recognize the dignity and humanity of each person so they know they’re loved. That was crucial to the ministry of Jesus.” 

July 2, 2013