By Rick Bartlett
I was a Fresno Pacific college student when I started dating Karen Martens, the woman who would become my wife. At the time I had no idea of the stature of Elmer and Phyllis Martens in the Mennonite Brethren church and wider Christian world. Elmer was the president of MB Biblical Seminary, had nurtured connections all over the world and was a child of a second-generation MB missionary to India.
When Karen invited me over for a meal with her family, I readily accepted. But I wondered at the invitation since I grew up in a home where the only guests we ever had over for a meal were extended family. I later came to appreciate just how normal hospitality was in the Martens’ house.
I have been profoundly formed and shaped in how I think about hospitality by my in-laws, who both sadly passed away unexpectedly last autumn. Throughout our married life I can’t remember how many times Karen’s family would gather on Sunday afternoons, Saturday nights, holidays or birthdays, and when we’d arrive there would be “others” at the table with us. Sitting there could be seminary professors, students, international students from Fresno State or guests from around the world—Congo, India, Japan, etc.—who had come to Fresno and were immediately invited by Elmer for dinner.
If I’m honest, I was often annoyed by these guests. “This is a family event,” I would fume to my wife, “why did they invite …?”
But over time, my perspective changed. Karen and I lived in England for seven years. We experienced hospitality and community from individuals within our work networks and local church who had us in as guests at Christmas or who made sure to do something special for our birthdays. Amazing people who made us feel welcomed in a foreign place, just like Elmer and Phyllis in Fresno.
My job with Youth for Christ in Britain involved travel. I visited numerous countries including Ireland, Poland, Congo and New Zealand. One thing was consistent: In each of these places I was welcomed, fed, given a place to sleep and treated like family. All because of our shared relationship through Christ.
Hospitality is a sacred act
Hebrews 13: 1-3 is intriguing: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”
Hospitality is a sign of a loving community, and the act of hospitality is not optional for Christians. As one can see above from verse one, the engine that drives hospitality is love. It leads me to ponder: If we’re not loving, then how can we be hospitable? In biblical culture, hospitality was a sacred duty (see Gen. 18:1-8; Judges 13:3-21).
Recently, I experienced what I can only define as this kind of radical hospitality. I’m currently the director of a master’s degree at Tabor College in Ministry Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and one of the components of this degree program is an international trip. Each year we visit someone in our MB family who is serving overseas to see what they do and to listen and learn. Last June we were in Turkey.
It was Ramadan while we were there. Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is a month when Muslims fast from food and water from sunup to sundown. This season added an interesting twist to our trip!
It was our first full day in the country, and we walked around a city in eastern Turkey visiting a variety of interesting sights, including an old mosque. Our guide had been fasting all day. Even though the students and I had lunch with the MB workers there, we were getting hungry as the day wore on. We jumped into the van and made our way to our last stop.
Treated like family
As we walked up to a doorway in the wall, I wasn’t sure where we were headed. Our guide led us into a courtyard where we were greeted warmly, asked to take off our shoes, given a pair of slip-ons to wear and led to a room with low tables set out for a banquet. It was then I learned we were invited to break the fast with our guide, driver and others from the community at a special meal called “iftar.”
This was so surprising. All my life I’d been taught that Muslims wanted to be separate, yet here we were being treated like family around the table as we feasted. Our hosts extended hospitality to us North American Christians.
Evangelical Christians for years have been praying for the 10/40 window. How ironic that as God is answering our prayers and opening this part of the world through migration, it appears many Christians are so concerned about safety and security that we fail to welcome and demonstrate hospitality.
Since the Arab Spring, MB Mission has been reporting in Witness that now is the time to act, now is the time to reach out. God is giving us a chance to be hospitable. Are we putting our heads in the sand? Why do so many Americans who claim to follow Christ appear afraid to offer the soul hospitality of truly knowing people? Are we disciples of Jesus or simply standing at the station with our ticket to heaven, waiting for the train?
Wherever we have lived, Karen and I have invited people over for meals. When we can, we include international students or others traveling through. As Leonard Sweet writes in Tablet to Table, “The story of Christianity didn’t take shape behind pulpits or on altars or in books. No, the story of Christianity takes shape around tables, as people face one another as equals, telling stories, sharing memories, enjoying food with one another.”
I have experienced this in Thailand, Congo, Turkey, Ireland, Bolivia, Colombia and many of the other places where I’ve met with God’s people. In turn, we have tried to do the same. Sometimes uncomfortable? Yes. Worth it? Always.
Rick Bartlett, currently director of theological education at Tabor College Wichita in Kansas, has worked with youth and young adults for over 30 years. He is 1992 graduate of MB Biblical Seminary and a 2006 graduate of George Fox University where he earned a doctor of ministry in Leadership in the Emerging Culture. He is the co-author of Consuming Youth published by Zondervan/YS Academic. Bartlett and his wife, Karen, have been married 31 years and have two children, Grace and Toby. They live in Wichita, Kan.