Hospitality: a gateway to an encounter with Christ

Lindsay Steele
Participants of an Oct. 10 hospitality workshop at St. Mary Parish in Solon make economical centerpieces.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

SOLON — Jesus took time to notice the usually unnoticeable — the sick, the blind, the marginalized and those who were outside the community because of sin, illness and their work or life circumstance.

Taking time to notice is the foundation of hospitality. That’s what Catholic Christians are called to do, said Jane Angha, the Wisconsin-based founder of Ministry Blueprints. She shared these and other insights with participants of a diocesan hospitality workshop Oct. 10 at St. Mary Parish in Solon.

She acknowledged a “cultural shift” attributed to religion being less important, especially for young people. “You have seen it and felt it as a religious educator, volunteer or ministry leader.” People are slow to join a church today, don’t feel obligated to marry in the church, and Mass attendance is at an all-time low,” she said.

However, human nature has not changed. People look for a place to belong and for companions who genuinely care about them. “The thing that attracted people in the early church was that they loved each other and it showed,” she said. “That’s the kind of challenge and audacity that people are looking for today. We are emulating Jesus. He did that to the end, the ultimate end.”

As part of her research on parish hospitality, Angha has “secret shopped” parishes and made notes on what she observes. Parish members are generally friendly to each other, but sometimes she feels invisible because no one says hello or offers assistance. People “want to be welcomed from the start,” she said.

The first contact points are key, she said. Often times they are ushers, greeters, administrative staff and volunteers. Especially when most people are opting out of church participation, it “takes a lot” for outsiders to come in. “These are really tender moments where we have to be kind. Put yourself in their shoes!”

Someone who feels welcome is much more likely to return.  “Hospitality is the thing that makes all other things possible,” Angha said.

One way parishes can express hospitality is by engaging members and guests in volunteer roles, such as ushering, singing or helping with activities. Participants identified a challenge to this suggestion: people who have been in a certain role for a long time may not want to change.

Angha replied, “We think we’re a well-oiled machine and that we’ve got it down. That’s not really what our ministry should be about. … We want a place to belong, but that needs to be widened.”

Hospitality should serve as a gateway to an encounter with Christ, which extends beyond church walls, she said. “We are creating a space for that to happen. … You can do it at a grocery store, at a soccer game or at work.”

Angha also emphasized the importance of opening one’s house and sharing a meal. This may seem daunting but builds a sense of community and shows people that you care. Small, homemade touches can help make a dinner special while keeping it affordable; during the workshop, she led the group in making centerpieces out of paper bags.

Christine Wissink, director of outreach and education for Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, appreciated the speaker’s comments about expressing hospitality outwardly, not just inwardly.

“It is good to take time to reflect on what it is like to enter church from the outside, and not just to be comfortable in an insider’s perspective. She was particularly interested in the stories the presenter told about being a ‘secret shopper’ in parishes in her diocese. “As an outsider, she witnessed how joyful and welcoming parishioners were to each other at Mass but not necessarily to visitors. We need to always be aware of, and warmly welcome, the strangers in our midst. Jesus noticed those on the fringes and so must we. Get out of your comfort zone and welcome the stranger.”

Mary Ann Messer from St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant appreciated Angha’s message that paying attention to who you are working with and showing interest in their lives can create a welcoming environment.

Pat Sheil, director of religious education and youth minister at St. Joseph Parish in DeWitt, said she enjoyed the workshop, especially the reminder that everyone is responsible for making a newcomer feel welcome. “We (may) be the first contact a visitor might have in our parish. To greet people with a smile and a welcoming presence may just be the kind of reminder we all need that God’s house is a joyful place.”

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