08/20/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Curing Isolation and Loneliness Through Hospitality

Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich wonders if social isolation explains the actions of the Tsarnaev brothers, who set off bombs during the Boston Marathon last spring, killing three and wounding over 170.

He notes that the older brother, Tamerlan, was quoted as saying, "I don't have a single American friend. I don't understand them." One theory is that he felt so isolated that he reconnected with his Chechnyan roots and then lashed out at Americans with violence.

While isolation is no excuse for terrorism, it is a growing problem in America. Sometimes it results in suicide instead of homicide. In early 2010, two celebrity suicides made the national news. First, an actor named Andrew Koenig hanged himself after suffering from severe depression. Then Marie Osmond's son jumped from his eighth-floor apartment after saying that his depression had left him feeling friendless.

Suicides now outnumber homicides in the United States and they are most common among the young and the old. Suicide is difficult to prevent because mental illness is a factor, and counseling and medication do not provide quick or guaranteed fixes. In addition, Americans have become more isolated and lonely in recent years. Columnist Michael Gerson reports that when a 1985 survey asked, "How many confidants do you have?" the most frequent response was three. When the question was asked again in the year 2004, the answer was zero.

Zero confidants. From three to zero in less than 20 years. Friendlessness leads to loneliness, which leads to depression, which can lead to suicide. Clearly, having friends can be life-saving, which makes the work of Christian hospitality more important than ever. Making the church a more welcoming place is not about serving better coffee in the social hall or coming up with an improved system for identifying visitors. Instead, hospitality is about connecting people to the community of faith in a deep and meaningful way.

When people become part of a church they begin to develop relationships. Their number of confidants begins to increase. Their loneliness is replaced by friendship and they do not feel quite so isolated. They make connections with people in ways they have not experienced before. Christian hospitality is not just a good idea -- it is a matter of life and death.

Making a place for hospitality has been a challenge for thousands of years. In 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah is sent by God to the city of Zarephath in a time of drought. God says, "I have commanded a widow there to feed you" (vv. 8-9). As Elijah arrives, a destitute widow is gathering sticks so that she can make a fire, prepare a few cakes, eat them with her son, and then die. The future looks bleak for her, and this story makes it sound like she is depressed. But Elijah remembers the promise of God and asks the widow to feed him, concluding with the words, "The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth" (vv. 13-24).

Scripture tells us that the widow goes and does what Elijah says. She does not have much to share -- just a handful of meal and a little oil -- but she offers it freely. Yes, times are tough for her, just as they are today for many Americans. But despite her depression and destitution, she makes a place for hospitality. And what is the result? She, Elijah, and her household eat for many days. The jar of meal is not emptied, neither does the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that was spoken by Elijah (vv. 15-16). With God, a little goes a long way.

This is the promise that is made to all who strive to become welcoming congregations and extend God's love and grace to others. Like the widow of Zarephath, we have an opportunity to open our doors to strangers and to share what we have. Like the prophet Elijah, we have a chance to trust in God's abundance, and to believe that the Lord will meet our needs, even in difficult times. The isolation that both Elijah and the widow are feeling is alleviated by their willingness to trust God and eat together.

Christian hospitality is all about connecting people to God and to a community of faith, in a deep and meaningful way. It is a way of life that trusts that our resources will not be depleted, and that there will always be enough for all. It is an approach to life that brings people together in small groups and fights the deadly threats of depression, loneliness, and friendlessness. It is a dimension of congregational life that can be truly life-saving. In all these ways, we show the world that we want to make a place for hospitality, trusting that God will do amazing things with the gifts of respect, acceptance, and friendship that we can offer.

"It makes me sad when I see churches close their doors to protect their assets," says Tom Ehrich, "when they could be opening themselves to the isolated, and easing the loneliness." When churches practice Christian hospitality, they are providing a cure for isolation and loneliness, and perhaps even reducing the rates of suicide and homicide in their communities.