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We're Glad You're Here
Campers have gone home. Staff has been debriefed for the last time. Backpacking equipment has been stored, and all the T-shirts have been counted. The Dutch ovens are greased against the winter's rust. Another summer is over — fall, winter, and spring stretch between here and the next season of campers.
For some camps whose single focus is those summer campers, this "off-season" is a time for evaluation, planning, training, and being "on the road" to promote the camp. For others, whose purpose includes hosting retreat and corporate groups in the off-season, fall brings a time to switch direction and to address the challenge of meeting the needs of diverse groups.
For those who do provide space for groups, your contributions to these guests are often relegated to hospitality. However, hospitality is no simple thing. It challenges us to ask the question about how we can offer hospitality that is helpful and meaningful to the purposes that bring these guests to camp. Such a question calls for both an understanding of the nature of hospitality and the practices that translate into an expression of welcome.
Meaning of Hospitality
Much of our contemporary perceptions of hospitality come to us from the ancient cultures that surrounded the Mediterranean — the Greeks, Romans, and desert peoples who lived on the eastern and southern edges of the sea and in the valley of the Tiber and Euphrates. For them, hospitality was not an option but a moral imperative.
They understood hospitality as the practice of welcoming the stranger, giving a space to that person, and providing for the needs of the stranger. It recognized the universal human need for shelter and the responsibility to share all available resources with the stranger. A friend recently traveling in Ghana experienced this kind of hospitality. She told me that regardless of what — or how much — there was for dinner, the Africans always made room for one or more at their table and that she never felt like a stranger in their midst.
As nation states, the Greeks and Romans thought that the practice of hospitality was one of the things that separated them from less civilized peoples. They believed that strangers were helpless and therefore under the care of the gods. As such, they deserved welcome and shelter. For these ancient nations, hospitality was not only a moral issue but a divine mandate.
The eighteenth chapter of Genesis gives us a glimpse of the practice of hospitality among ancient peoples. When three strangers arrived at the front flap of their tent, Sarah and Abraham fed them and offered them shade from the noon sun under the trees of oaks of Mamre. We read that Abraham ran to meet them and brought water to wash their feet. He called Sarah to bake fresh bread and killed a young calf. Abraham stood near them while the strangers ate, ready to respond to their needs. When it was time for them to leave, Abraham went with them to show them the way.
However, among these ancient cultures, hospitality reached beyond just providing for the needs of the stranger to take into consideration the gifts brought by the guest. The New Testament reminds us to practice hospitality because by doing this we may entertain angels (Hebrews 13:2). Thomas Ogletree suggests that the gifts of strangers take many surprising forms. "Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imaginations (Bass 1997)."
Those who practiced hospitality were also aware that every host may one day find himself or herself in the role of stranger. Interestingly, the Greek word for stranger, xenos, also means "host" and "guest." It suggests one of the reasons behind the imperative of hospitality — from time to time, all of us will be in need of welcome.
The experience of once being strangers influenced the religious laws of Israel. They remembered that they had once been strangers in Egypt, in the wilderness, and even in the promised land. They knew from their own experiences the meaning of being a stranger. Therefore, Mosaic law mandated the inclusion of strangers and specifically forbids the exploitation of "aliens, the poor, widows, and orphans (Exodus 22:21; 23:9 and Deuteronomy 14-15)."
Early Christians were aliens within the Roman Empire. Forbidden by law from the practice of their faith, their lives were often in danger, and they were forced to gather together in secret. Believers opened their homes for worship and sanctuary. Originally, the sign of the fish drawn in the dirt identified the believers among the strangers.
Later, in the first centuries of the church's history, a practice of pilgrimage grew up as Christians left their homes to travel to holy sites or out into the desert for contemplation. Pilgrimages, hostels, and monasteries were developed to offer hospitality and spiritual refuge for the travelers. For those who hosted the pilgrims, the practice of hospitality took precedence over even their personal devotional life.
Camps are today's pilgrimages and monasteries; retreat groups are today's pilgrims. And like the strangers of so long ago, they also need to offer the welcome of hospitality. The task of today's camps remains the greeting and welcoming of the stranger. We offer them a place to rest and renewal away from the demands and rushing of our modern lives. Whether we offer hospitality because of divine imperative or moral requirements, there is much we can learn from ancient traditions to enhance the hospitality we offer to today's strangers who come to our camps.
In her book, And You Welcome Me, editor Amy G. Oden has used early church documents to identify characteristics of the hospitality provided at pilgrimages and monasteries. Regardless of the type of camp we run or the way in which hospitality fits into our purpose, this framework can inform and guide the ways in which we practice hospitality today.
Oden found that four unique steps defined the practices of hospitality: welcome, restoration of the guest, dwelling together, and sending forth (Oden 2001). As we seek to evaluate and implement contemporary hospitality, these steps suggest a framework for our own practices.
In ancient times, welcome began when the guest first arrived. It included a warm greeting and words of welcome that initiate hospitality between host and guest. To use a summer camp term, it "set the tone." The act of welcome was understood to be the moment at which the host received the guest, and it was permeated with offers to serve the needs of the guest.
As modern hosts, our welcome begins when the phone rings in the office. It takes place as camp staff members answer questions, explain the fee schedule, and share information about the camp. Welcome is offered through the accessibility of information in printed materials such as rental agreements and brochures and through the efficiency and friendliness of the office staff. Every contact a rental group makes with the camp prior to their arrival is a matter of welcome.
The form of welcome changes as soon as the first guest appears at camp. It is extended by camp hosts when they go out to the cars and buses to say, "We're glad you are here. What can I do to help you?" A few years ago, I was coaching a young woman through her first experience of hosting a weekend group at my camp. It was raining. The young host sat in the office; the group leader sat in her car. As I reminded her about our conversation about welcome, she took her umbrella and went out to the car where she began to help a relieved group leader move her supplies into the lodge.
Welcome is also reflected in the signs we post that help guests find their way to the lodge or to cabins. By providing a group leader with a map marked with the buildings the group will use prior to the group's arrival, we can show our desire to assist them in finding their way to the lodgings. There can be nothing more devastating to a sense of welcome than arriving after dark at a strange place and having no idea where to go.
Restoration of the Guest
In ancient cultures, meeting the immediate needs of the guest included washing his or her feet and sharing food. Remember Abraham? In monasteries, this meant the offer of clothes or a blanket, and a chance to rest.
This is probably the hardest step for us as modern people to think about or remember. Think about your own experiences of welcoming guests. Group leaders rush in and want to set up registration and program supplies before the others arrive; group members arrive out of breath. It is difficult to make the transition from the chaos of contemporary life to the stillness (hopefully) of the camp setting. Your hospitality can help them in this transition.
As hosts, we can engage in intentional practices directed toward restoring guests. The availability of a cold drink or hot cocoa, a warm fire, the smell of baking cookies or fresh bread, or a small snack will help the first guests slow down to "camp time." Some camps have a room or area set aside for hospitality where all groups check in. Such a space equipped with comfortable chairs and light refreshments can be used for that important step of restoration.
In monasteries, guests were invited to become a full member of the community and to enter into the rhythm of worship, work, rest, and meals of the community. The resources and protection of the monastery were generously shared to encourage guests to move away from the exploitation of the outside world and to reorient their lives.
Whenever we have guests in our homes, they are invited to sit at our dining tables and to participate in the lives of our families. In this way, we make a way to "dwell together." This step of dwelling together gives us as camp leaders an occasion to think of the ways we can offer this to our camp guests. In what ways can we offer retreat or corporate guests the same hospitality we do someone visiting in our own homes?
Sharing of information and careful attention to details enhances the act of dwelling together. The best source for needed information and important details is your own experience. Think for a moment about times you have been the guest. What do you want to know? What needs do you expect your host to anticipate? Having information about how to find recreation equipment, how to set and clear tables, and who to tell if a toilet overflows can make guests feel at home. Knowing mealtimes, where the nature trail begins, and where to find extra blankets also contribute to their comfort.
In the days before fast food and 7-Elevens, pilgrims departing from monasteries and hostels were given food and supplies for the next part of their journey. They were sent with the blessings of their host and given directions to the next place of welcome. In our story from Genesis, Abraham set out with his three guests and showed them the way.
These practices from earlier times remind us that saying goodbye to guests is also an aspect of our hospitality and needs to be done with clear intention. Although none of us will probably want to lead guests back to the main road, we can give them good maps and instruction. Although none of us probably want to send our guests home with their next meal, we can give them a few of the camp's special cookies or rolls to take for their journey.
As camp host, I was always tempted to start locking doors and turning down heat before the last of the guests had departed. My actions said, "Please hurry up and leave so I can go put my feet up." Perhaps you do that, too. Our preoccupation with closing up stands in direct opposition to the practice of hospitality that requires we stand at the curb and say, "I am so glad you came."
Our hospitality today unites us with the long line of those who through the centuries have received the stranger. In this era of xenophobia (fear of the stranger), we are a refuge place where the words of welcome can restore and renew the tired traveler. "I am glad you are here!"
Some questions for you to consider:
Bass, D. C. (1997). Practicing Our Faith, Jossey- Bass Publishers. Oden, A. G. (2001). And You Welcomed Me, Abingdon Press.
Nancy Ferguson, M.Div., M.A., Ed.S., lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is a church camp consultant and freelance writer. Included among her hats are day camp director at Camp Hanover — an ACA-Accredited® camp — management consultant for the RAC council of ACA, and author of four books including The Retreat Leader's Manual with Kevin Witt and Retreats for Renewal.
Originally published in the 2008 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.