10/19/2012 08:02 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

Breaking Down Barriers Through Christian Hospitality

A cab driver from Ghana took a fare to Montgomery County, Md., and then decided to attend a service at a Baptist church. After he walked in, the congregation phoned the police, describing him as a trespasser. He said, "No, I am a Baptist, from Ghana." They insisted he was trespassing.

In the same way, when a Cameroonian immigrant visited a Disciples of Christ church in Lubbock, Texas, congregational leaders refused to serve him communion, even though the pastor had just intoned the words, "This is Jesus Christ's table, people shall come from everywhere to it."

These are examples of Christian inhospitality, instead of Christian hospitality. When I was on sabbatical in 2009, I attended worship at an Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., renowned for the welcome that they extend to the homeless of their community. But not a single person spoke to me in the coffee hour that followed the service.

"My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples," says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (56:7). This is the line from Scripture that is posted behind the pulpit of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, a line that we attempt to live out, however imperfectly. Isaiah offers a message of inclusion that our country needs, now more than ever.

The United States is growing increasingly diverse, with the Census Bureau predicting that minorities will be in the majority by the year 2050. The number of Hispanics will grow to 30 percent of the population, blacks will increase to 15 percent and Asians will climb to 9 percent. We have elected our first African-American president, and most of us now view the growth of America's minority populations as advantageous to the economy and society.

That's what we say. But the reality is that we tend to cluster with people who are like ourselves -- especially those who share our political affiliation. Our country has become increasingly polarized, and today large numbers of Americans fail to have significant contact with people belonging to the other party.

This trend toward a fractured and polarized community is the exact opposite of the challenge God lays before us in the book of Isaiah. The Lord does not want us to be a community in which Republicans worship with Republicans, Democrats pray with Democrats, liberals study the Bible with liberals, and conservatives go on mission trips with other conservatives. Instead, God wants us to form congregations that are truly countercultural in our shattered society -- what Isaiah calls houses "of prayer for all peoples" (56:7).

So where does this unusual vision come from? Before the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were considered to be God's chosen ones, and the purity code of Deuteronomy excluded two particular categories of people: eunuchs and foreigners. Deuteronomy says that no one who has been castrated "shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD." And "no Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD" (23:1, 3). In short, the community that existed in Israel was made up of like-minded Israelites -- it was a comfortable congregation of people who shared the same ideas of what was pure and what was not.

But then God came along with a new vision of community, one in which all people who honor the Lord in their actions are to be included. Speaking through Isaiah, God said, "To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant ... I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off" (56:4-5). The tragedy of the eunuch was that he was cut off, literally -- no chance of having children to carry on his name. But suddenly God said that if the eunuch was faithful, God would give him an everlasting name.

What a radical shift this was. Suddenly, the community of faith was not limited to people of the same nationality or political party. Being admitted to the assembly of the Lord did not require being a man or woman in a traditional family. Through the prophet Isaiah, God called for barriers to fall in the religious community, which began a movement of inclusiveness that only accelerated when Jesus began his gracious and loving ministry.

Throughout the Gospels of the New Testament, we see Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, welcoming children, talking with women, and healing those who were considered unclean and estranged from the community of faith. Jesus practiced a ministry of hospitality that truly welcomed strangers into the community of faith.

We can do the same every time we greet a person from a different background at the church door, make sure she is comfortable in a worship service, invite her to share a meal, and then include her in a small group where relationships can develop and barriers can crumble.

This is Christian hospitality, a form of welcome is far more nourishing than cookies and coffee after Sunday worship. I believe that hospitality is the key to becoming a congregation that embraces all people with God's love and grace. The need is greater now than ever, since all of us are living in a highly polarized society, in an era negatively affected by religious extremists of all faiths. In a violent and polarized world, I am convinced that God wants -- and the world needs -- churches that are truly welcoming.