A Meal, a Theology, a Vision of Hospitality
Once a semester, I lead a chapel service at Drew Theological School, where I teach. Thursday, Feb. 28, was my Spring semester slot. Weeks prior, worship team members and I followed the usual pattern of filling the shared Google document with ideas. Then, two days before the service, the world intervened: Delegates at the United Methodist General Conference voted to pass the Traditional Plan which continues a ban on ordination of LGBTQ clergy and officiating or hosting same-sex marriages.
Drew Theological School is a United Methodist Church seminary. We are committed to full inclusion of LGBTQ members in the life and leadership of the denomination. Bishop Karen Oliveto, the only openly gay episcopal leader in the UMC and a Drew alumna, said days later in an NPR interview, “This decision has caused a shockwave of trauma across the church and around the world. There are hurting people in our pulpits and in our pews. And we have a lot of pastoral care to offer. We have to care for our young people who are shocked that a church that raised them, that helped them understand God’s love for them – they see in this vote a tremendous rejection.”1 Indeed, our seminary community was in need of a response to this trauma: Once again, people in the name of Jesus had allowed difference to be a problem rather than a sign of God’s beloved creation.
The chapel plan for that Thursday radically changed. Faculty who were leaders in General Conference protest movements shared their anger, solidarity, and future visions. The songs shifted to anthems written by Mark Miller, a beloved member of the denomination and our faculty who is also a lecturer at YDS and ISM.
The chapel plan changed – except for one part. I stayed with the original idea to lead a shalom meal in place of communion. Since I am not ordained and technically cannot lead communion in chapel, I had chosen a shalom meal out of necessity and memory.
Practicing God’s Welcome
At YDS, my mentor and advisor Letty Russell taught me and many others the practice of shalom meals. Each of her semester-long theology courses would end with a shalom meal at her home on the West River in Guilford, CT. I even participated in a shalom meal in Cuba on a travel seminar with her. In Matanzas, our class joined students from the Evangelical Theological School. She also conducted the meal with female students from the International Women’s Doctorate of Ministry cohort that she and her partner, Shannon Clarkson, taught in Cuba through San Francisco Theological Seminary. Over her lifetime, Letty participated in innumerable shalom meals all over the world. Rather than hosting a wake after Letty’s death in 2007, Shannon and friends hosted the “mother of all shalom meals” to honor her.
In defiance of all varieties of exclusion from religious participation and leadership, the shalom meal embodies a practice of hospitality reminiscent of early house churches. The egalitarian practice of a shared table was central to Letty’s own theology. Her classrooms were always organized in the round, reflecting an ecclesiology that she termed “church in the round,” which was the title of her 1993 book. Her commitment to excavating biblical clues for the work of justice led her to hospitality as central to her theology and her life practice.
A World in Crisis
Letty understood hospitality as “the practice of God’s welcome, embodied in our actions as we reach across differences to participate with God in bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”2 In the Bible, she wrote, marks of hospitality include unexpected divine presence, advocacy for the marginalized, and mutual welcome. Letty was fond of reminding those in Christian contexts that the New Testament word for hospitality, philoxenia, translates most literally as love of stranger.3
Welcoming our friends or people like us is easy. Reaching across lines of difference to welcoming strangers requires risk and courage. Jesus’ life in the Gospels sets an example for the Christian practice of hospitality that calls into question dividing lines around religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and even family.
Sing, Toast, Pray
Letty, like all professors (and humans), was not perfect. As students will testify, including myself, Letty’s vision of community required lots of labor for which you were often volun-told. She frequently said, “You have to give people a job if you want them to show up.” Whether it was a conference, church program, or class activity, Letty organized and delegated. At times, her vision did not leave enough room for all perspectives. Yet when a student gathered the courage to name this, Letty usually treated it as a learning opportunity for herself and those involved.
Shalom meals included a flexible order of worship with songs, prayer, readings, and sharing of bread and wine. There was always a potluck. Bread and wine were the beginning of a shared meal, not the totality of the meal. When the end of a semester came, and I sat on the carpet in her living room to sing, toast, and pray, I finally understood the need for hospitality as ritual to rejuvenate justice seekers. As the introduction to her book Just Hospitality states,“Letty’s practice of hospitality through Shalom Meals is one example of her open welcome to and sharing with students she saw as partners in the work of justice.”4
In my final year at YDS, I served as the Women’s Center co-coordinator. Those were in the turbulent, uncertain days of Save the Quad, when the Women’s Center went from an apartment space, to an emptied-out broom closet, to a corner of Letty’s office. At our end-of-year chapel, I presided with my colleagues at a shalom meal in Marquand Chapel. That is the closest I came to communion leadership as a Roman Catholic female theological student.
An Open Table
The Traditional Plan vote in the UMC reinforced barriers to God’s table for LGBTQ clergy and church members. In the face of that unjust exclusion, I began the shalom meal at worship on Feb. 28 at Drew. I invited those for whom the UMC decision denied a place in the full life and ministry of the denomination to join me in leading the shalom meal and open wide the table that Drew will sustain. Together, we led a shalom meal in defiance of heterosexist exclusion.
I am an ethics professor with specialties in sexual and professional ethics. I could write many pages that provide a Christian ethics argument for full inclusion of LGBTQ-identified Christians. Ritual practices are not my comfort zone. But over the years and many shalom meals later, I have come to realize that we need rituals to nourish us on the long road toward justice.
For me, the shalom meal as a practice of hospitality was and still is an act of resistance at the very center of theological exclusion – the communion table. When I look at what has happened across the United States – the division, violence, trauma – since the 2016 election, I believe we need to recover practices of hospitality that embody God’s welcome in a world of riotous difference.
Kate Ott ’00 M.A.R. is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Drew University Theological School. She is the author of Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence (Westminster John Knox, 2013) and Christian Ethics for a Digital Society (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). See her blog at kateott.org.
1 National Public Radio interview, March 1, 2019. See npr.org.
2 Letty M. Russell, Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in aWorld of Difference (Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 2.
3 Russell, p. 20.
4 Russell, p. xv.