THE VIRTUE OF HOSPITALITY IN THE BIBLICAL TRADITION
One way of combatting xenophobia is to treat other people the same way as we would like them to treat us. But this is a theoretical statement. It expresses a wish. It may however find meaning within the efforts of groups or communities faced with the predicament of labelling people and then turning against them. Our aspiration should be to create welcoming communities. Such communities should be trustworthy and dependable and not fickle, whimsical or prone to being swept in all directions by howling mobs of people. Welcoming communities should consciously seek to provide places of healing, safe places and places of refuge. But we should also be careful that history should not repeat itself. Parish churches in Ruanda, in 1994 became places of death. We should avoid this at all costs. Those who generously host people in need are generally better persons. They put others first. They possess the quality of the Good Samaritan, the compassionate Samaritan who welcomed and hosted a beaten up stranger (Lk.10.29). To become better persons with a human heart, is the vocation of every human being. This is not just a fleeting sentiment, it is the stuff of which genuine human beings are made.
LEARNING FROM TRADITION
The reckless, senseless and at times even cruel violence meted out against immigrants and refugees nudge us strongly, and even compel us to revisit the traditions and wisdom of our ancestors in the faith concerning human relationships, hospitality and the love of neighbour.
In the book of Genesis, we read a compelling narrative about Abraham’s attitude towards the three visiting strangers. Abraham and Sarah were open, welcoming, warm and hospitable. They embodied the spirit of ubuntu. They understood that “isisu somhambi asingakanani, singangesinyoni” (with little food, a traveller can go far). The strangers were welcomed with water to wash their feet, and bread to re-fresh and to energise themselves. It gradually dawned on Abraham that these strangers could be the emissaries of God. Abraham’s sheer humanity, his heart of gold and his attractive virtues of kindness, generosity and hospitality were strengthened by his unshakable faith in God. In the words of Abimelech to Abraham: “God is with you in all you are doing” (Gen.21.22). All human beings potentially possess this gift of grace that need to be rekindled from time to time so that it shapes and directs our attitude towards other human beings (Gen.18. 1-15).
In the intriguing story of Joseph, son of Jacob, the Canaanite, Pharaoh the King of Egypt, encourages Joseph, a foreign national working as an administrator in Egypt, to invite his brothers and their father to Egypt. The land of Canaan experienced a severe famine. Pharaoh gave the Canaanite immigrants in Egypt, “the best the land of Egypt offers” (Gen.45.18). Pharaoh’s kindness, generosity and hospitality was clearly in recognition of Joseph’s administrative efficiency, loyalty and generosity of heart. For Pharaoh had asked his ministers, “Can we find any other man like this, possessing the spirit of God?” (Gen.41.37). Recognition of the spirit of God in others is a critical element of the “things that make for peace” (Lk.19.42). In today’s world, migrants are found in every single country. They bring along with them their precious talents, their goodwill, generosity and the spirit of God. They are selfless in their contribution to the advancement of their host countries. The Pharaoh of Egypt recognised this exceptional gift in Joseph, the Egyptian immigrant from Canaan. An honest and shameless recognition of the sterling contribution of members of the immigrant community by members of the host country would radically alter hardened attitudes, dissipate unfounded fears and pave the way towards the spirit of mutual acceptance way beyond a climate of mutual tolerance.
THE KINDNESS OF BOAZ
The story of Naomi and Ruth tell us about the tenacity of families and the deep longing to be together. Families are uprooted from their land of birth largely not of their own doing or choice. Families are often compelled to cross borders, at times several borders, due to circumstances beyond their control. Families cling together. For many migrants and refugees, the story of Ruth is essentially their own story. The words of Ruth captures adequately their own sentiments:
“Wherever you go, I will go
Wherever you live, I will live
Your people shall be my people
And you God, my God
Wherever you die, I will die”. (Ruth.1.16).
At times, host countries make it difficult for families to join members of their families, thus causing untold harm on families that are already burdened with the challenges of migration.
Ruth’s story also highlights the kindness, the generosity and the welcoming spirit of Boaz, the owner of the field where Ruth had gone “to glean and gather the ears of corn after the reapers” (Ruth 2.7). Boaz went out of his way to instruct the workers not to molest her. He told her that she could drink the water drawn from the well by his servants. Ruth was moved by Boaz’ kindness to her “even though I am a foreigner” (2.11). Unbeknown to Ruth, her reputation had gone ahead of her. She is the woman “who has been on her feet from morning till now” (2.7). She has been kind and supportive of her mother-in-law since her husband died. The story of Ruth puts in relief the virtues of kindness, generosity and hospitality of Boaz. This is in stark contrast to the attitudes of some South African farmers who exploit migrants and refugees and even South Africans who work on their farms. Their workers live in sub-human conditions. They are paid slave-wages and can be dismissed from work at the drop of a hat. The dignity of workers as human beings counts for nothing.
The welcoming and generous attitude of Boaz shines the spotlight on employers who are driven by greed. Greed is the single vice that push heartless employers to hoard the profits of labour. Ruthless companies amass wealth which should be used for the up-liftment of all people. It is this greed that keeps the African Continent in chains. It is this greed that compels the poor to leave their countries in search of more welcoming countries. In this regard, South Africa has been found to be hopelessly wanting.
I would like to insert here the story of David and Meribaal for it highlights in a striking manner, the virtues of kindness, humility and gratitude. King Saul and his son Jonathan, died in the battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (1 Sam.31. 1-6). David was most distraught at the death of the two people he admired greatly. So saddened he was that he ordered the messenger, “the son of a resident alien” to be killed (2 Sam.1.15). This may sound odd and even contradictory when raised within the context of highlighting David’s virtue of kindness. David went on to seek out any surviving relative of Saul and Jonathan in order to show them God’s kindness. David found Meribaal, the son of Jonathan. He showed him kindness by restoring all the land of Saul to him and invited him to eat always at his table. This kindness and generosity shown to Meribaal by David was in honour of the memory of Saul who’s “sword never returned idle” and in honour of Jonathan whom David called brother:
“Very dear to me you were, your love to me more wonderful than the love of a woman” (2 Sam.1.26).
We glean from David’s generosity and kindness to Meribaal that a good turn deserves another, that the impact of the memory of a favour, a kindness once received in the past may inspire one to seek to replicate acts of human kindness. The cruel and hostile attitude of South Africans towards the members of migrant communities is ample evidence that South Africans have largely forgotten that they were “once slaves in Egypt”, that they were once the “scum of the earth” under the brutal apartheid system. They have conveniently forgotten the miracle of liberation and the restoration of their own human dignity. They incessantly complain about the severe lack of employment and the faltering economy. The book of Job has a poignant reminder: “If we take happiness from God’s hand, must we not take sorrow too?” (Job 12-10).
THE SCOURGE OF DROUGHT
Famine was one of the major scourges of the Israelites as they traversed the desert with the Promised Land in mind. Famine led many to apostasy. They elevated the forces of nature and idols to a divine status in search of an alternative provident god. It was famine that drove the brothers of Joseph to leave Canaan and go to Egypt to purchase grain (Gen.41.56). It was famine that drove Naomi and her family to leave Bethlehem in order to settle in the country of Moab (Ruth 1.1).
In our day and age, the scourge of drought and famine on the African continent has left in its trail widespread poverty. Poverty in turn has driven many to leave their countries of origin in search of better opportunities. But on the African continent, famine is not the only scourge. There are serious challenges of undiluted greed on the part of many who rule the people and those who manage the savings of the poor. Self-aggrandizement has become a stubborn vice in the ailing fabric of society. Maladministration, the lack of accountability, the dearth of ethical leadership and the pervasive corruption have all conspired against the welfare of the people and have virtually reduced the economy of South Africa to a junk status.
THE WIDOW OF SIDON
It was again the severe absence of rain that led the prophet Elijah to Sidon where he experienced the hospitality of a widow who had only “a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (1 Kings 17.12). The widow prepared a meal and all three of them ate to their satisfaction. For God had prophesied through Elijah that:
“jar of meal shall not be spent
jug of oil shall not be emptied
before the day when Yahweh
Sends rain on the face of the earth”
In the Jewish tradition and culture, the virtue of hospitality was highly cherished. In the Gospel Luke, Christ reproached his host, a Pharisee who had invited him for a meal. According to custom, the host was expected to offer him water to cleanse his feet, to give him a kiss of greeting and oil for anointing his head. But Simon, the host, failed in observing the revered acts of hospitality (Lk.7.44-47. Jn.12.3). Rituals of hospitality are deeply embedded in people’s cultures because they are a significant statement in themselves. They underline the spirit of mutual acceptance, of a friendly disposition and good neighbourliness. Acts of hospitality are acts of reassurance. They manifest human warmth. They promote peaceful human relationships. Rituals of welcoming people, and ordinary greetings of peace are an antidote to the evil of conflict among people.
The biblical tradition has these compelling stories about hospitality, kindness and compassion. The ordinary characters of the stories are shown to have practised hospitality to a heroic degree. This welcoming attitude is an integral part of the human constitution. The virtues of kindness and hospitality, the fruits of the Spirit, are to be nurtured and developed so that they may become the defensive rampart against narrow nationalistic attitudes. The vice of xenophobic prejudice ought to be replaced by the virtue of hospitality. Unlike the fruitless effort of Sisyphus (Greek Mythology) efforts to build welcoming communities are a worthwhile undertaking.
INTEGRATION OF COMMUNITIES
The integration of migrants and refugees into local communities is the ideal. Integration has its challenges. It means getting a steady job and a reliable address. A welcoming community, parish, school or club, facilitates integration. In rural communities where the members of migrants and refugees are limited, integration takes place without any major obstacles. It is quite common that migrants who now own small businesses have actually hired local people in their businesses. The arrival of some migrants and refugees in some communities means that there is a wider pool of talents to draw from. They enhance the cultural diversity of local communities. Those who have been in South Africa for many years are already fluent in some local languages. This is a great advantage for it makes them feel at home. Language helps break barriers. Language creates community. A conscious celebration and promotion of the virtues of hospitality and community go a long way towards healing the memories and scars inflicted upon those who ultimately decided to leave their own countries. Some have left under traumatic circumstances. To migrate from one’s country is at times a singular act of courage and an extraordinary act of self-liberation. An appreciation of the circumstances that promoted migration in the first instance might render an act of hospitality much more valuable. St. Paul’s advice is handy: “While we have the chance, we must do good to all” (Gal.5 1-10).
In some of the urban areas the challenges of integration are far more glaring. Migrant communities tend to congregate together. Even if they belong to the same parish with the local people. Their loyalty appears to be torn between their own group and the local people. For example, the St. Anne’s Women’s Sodality of Zimbabwe maintain their uniform and have meetings of their own even though some of them have been in these local parishes for more than a decade. They seek to maintain their identity as Zimbabweans. Ideally, a balance must be found between maintaining one’s identity, one’s interests and one’s sense of belonging to the host community. It is important for the migrant communities to continue to celebrate their National feast days, their cultural events and liturgies in their own languages. For a people who have been uprooted from their land of birth either by a persistent drought, or by the absence of opportunities or political oppression, these celebrations are therapeutic. But it takes two to tango. Both the migrants and the local people have to willingly find each other. Prejudice is overcome when both parties become involved in the same projects.
At the beginning of September 2019, there was yet another outbreak of violence against the migrant community. In Johannesburg, foreign owned shops were hopelessly looted and the owners attacked. In Kwa-Zulu Natal and in the Western Cape, foreign truck drivers were attacked and their trucks set alight. The widespread senseless violence jolted the civil authorities out of their comfort zone. This was a far more serious disruption of violence. Some Nigerians in Nigeria threatened to disrupt South African businesses in Nigeria as a form of retaliation. The Zambians cancelled a friendly football match with a South African team. The South African government sent emissaries to Nigeria to offer an olive branch and an explanation of the circumstances that led to the eruption of violence. In the government’s explanation, the emphasis fell on criminality, and not on xenophobia. Even though criminal activity loomed large, it would be naïve to underplay or underestimate the deep-seated tensions between the migrant community and the local people who falsely accuse migrants of taking their jobs. The truth of the matter is that the South African economy has virtually ground to a halt. A far more convincing intervention by the state is desirable in order to quell the violence and deal decisively with those who commit crimes with impunity.
Attacks on migrant communities and their businesses are likely to continue into the future because such attacks are now inextricably linked to service delivery protests. To disentangle the two will be a massive challenge. Service delivery protests and the anti-foreign sentiment do not belong together. The deep dissatisfaction of South Africans with the corruption and inefficiency of their own municipalities and their national government should not be blamed on migrants. It is grossly unethical to drag the migrants into the quarrels of South Africans. Migrants ought not to be the scapegoats for the serious failures of South Africans. South Africans ought not to harden their hearts and take out their pain on innocent migrants. Migrants have their own burden to carry. South Africans ought to carry their own burden (Gal. 5.5).
It would be desirable that each Pastoral Parish Council identify, elect or co-opt a member on the PPC whose functions will be the following:
1. To coordinate migrants and refugees affairs within the parish community.
2. With the assistance of the PPC, to facilitate, create and promote a welcoming and hospitable parish community.
3. To create a discussion forum on issues of concern to both migrants and the local communities.
4. To liaise with the religious and NGO groups that are involved in migrant issues at parish level.
5. To plan and to adopt best practices concerning the assistance given to migrants and refugees.
For example, Holy Trinity church in Braamfontein cooperates with faculty members of the medical and dentistry schools to assist migrants.
6. To cooperate with St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Women’s League and the Knights of Da Gama – to collect second hand clothing and shoes for the needy.
7. To facilitate the provision of English lessons, if needed.
8. To pay special attention to the needs of the children of migrants.
To facilitate the integration of migrants into the local community.
9. To find ways and means of dissuading the local community from taking out their dissatisfactions on the migrant community.
10. Rituals of Reconciliation.
11. To appoint a sub-committee with the help of the PPC.
It would be advisable for diocesan or metropolitan coordinators to develop channels and platforms of coordination so that parishes are not overwhelmed by the amount of work in responding to the needs of the migrant community.
The sharing of reports helps to spread information on current challenges and on best practices.
+Buti Tlhagale o.m.i.
SACBC – Liaison Bishop for Migrants and refugees Office
Lumko Institute – Benoni – South Africa