"Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again , come , come."
These words by the Sufi mystic Rumi speak powerfully to me.
I believe that they teach us what a religious community should be about. Such communities ought to be about welcoming people – whoever they are and wherever they have been.
This welcome is an invitation to join fellow travellers on a journey together. A journey of hope and not despair, that keeps on inviting the wanderer to "keep coming back". The invitation of course is universal, it is open to all.
The importance of welcoming the stranger is at the root of all the great faith traditions. The ancient Greeks cultivated the concept of “Xenia” or “guest friendship” They believed that the guest may well be a God in disguise and thus treated them accordingly. In Genesis Abraham is visited by three guests, who he treats like royalty. These guests are later revealed to be angels; in fact it is implied strongly that one may well be God himself. They tell the childless and aged Abraham and Sarah that they will have a son.
Being a gracious host is a primary requirement of Islam. The Qur’an 4. 36-37 reads:
“Be kind to parents.and near kins man, and to orphans, and to the needy, and to the neighbour who is of kin, and to the neighbour who is a stranger, and to the companion at your side, and to the traveller...Surely God loves not the proud and boastful such as are niggardly, and bid other men to be niggardly, and themselves conceal the bounty that God has given them.”
This welcoming of the stranger is deeply engrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The classic example of this is the parable of the “Good Samaritan” The story tells of a Jewish man who lay on the side of the road beaten, robbed and left to die. He is passed by a Jewish priest and temple official, who both ignore him. Then a Samaritan passes by, a despised enemy of the Israelites. He looks after the man and pays for his shelter at the inn. He welcomes the stranger.
Mother Teresa, an often vilified and dare I say mocked figure, took this teaching to heart and believed that in every suffering and needy person was something of God, she saw Jesus in human suffering. She and others like her saw it as their life task to offer hospitality to the stranger
The monastic tradition has cultivated the practise of caring for the stranger and the poor and needy. Hospitals began in such places. The word hospital comes from “hospitable”. The best example of this has to be the monastery of St. Benedict. Benedict created what has become known as “The Rule of Benedict”, which was a book of rules by which a monastery ought to live. Many monasteries today live by this rule, including some Buddhist ones. The foundation of the rule is listening, deep attentive listening. It begins, “listen carefully, my child, to the instructions...and attend to them with ear of your heart “.
To welcome someone into our lives we need to listen deeply. This is a concept which the Dalai Lama promotes in contemporary time. It is not some ancient practise lost in the annals of time, it is living and breathing, it is contemporary and it is most urgently needed in our time.
In my time at Altrincham and Urmston I have been warmly welcomed by the various faith traditions. I have certainly felt listened to. Inter-faith relations and respect for those who think about religion differently is healthy and strong here. Sadly this is not the case the world over. I suspect that this is why there is so much anti-religious feeling in 21st Century Britain.
Sadly not all people of faith are welcoming of all, whoever they are. Perhaps this is why so many people have rejected religion all together. How often do we hear “I’m spiritual not religious”?
I think many spiritually minded people reject religion because they see it as authoritarian, unbending, dangerous and not a source of loving compassion for your fellow man or woman. My experience of religion has been very different, both within my own Unitarian tradition and through my encounters with the other faiths here in Altrincham and Urmston. I consider myself to be both spiritual and religious. I am religious because I join with others on a spiritual odyssey seeking truth and meaning. My fellow travellers often do not hold the same beliefs and yet we are able to journey together in compassion, helping one another along the way. I am also spiritual because I do not seek authority over others and no one has authority over my conscience in matters of faith. The religion I practise is free and it is deeply spiritual.
The 16th Unitarian Francis David once proclaimed “We need not think alike, to love a like.”
I have found this to be true among the faith communities I have encountered during my short time as a minister. They have made me, the stranger, most welcome.