It is critical to have the freedom to define a Christian identity and Christian community with distinctive beliefs and practices. But, to welcome strangers into a distinctly Christian environment without coercing them into conformity requires that their basic well-being not be dependent on sharing certain commitments. When basic well-being is under attack by larger society, Christians have a responsibility to welcome endangered persons into their lives, churches, and communities.
The story of the village of Le Chambon is a powerful example of the meaning of difference in the practice of hospitality. This small community of French Protestants rescued Jews during World War II. Opening their homes, schools, and church to strangers with quiet, steady hospitality, they made Le Chambon the safest place in Europe for Jews. They acknowledged and valued the Jewish identity of their guests and understood their need for protection. Defining as neighbor anyone who dearly needed help, they saved the lives of thousands of Jews. When the police asked the pastor of the community to turn in the Jews, André Trocmé responded, “We do not know what a Jew is. We know only men.” His response is profoundly illuminating. When, by acknowledging difference, we only endanger, we must only acknowledge our common human identity.
Because hospitality is a way of life, it must be cultivated over a lifetime. “Hospitality is one of those things that has to be constantly practiced or it won’t be there for the rare occasion.” We do not become good at hospitality in an instant; we learn it in small increments of daily faithfulness.
The people of Le Chambon who created a city of refuge for Jewish refugees began with small moves such as sharing their limited supplied of food. Only later did the danger to themselves increase and, by then, the pattern of welcome had already been established. They never saw their actions as complex or difficult. For them, offering hospitality seemed natural and necessary.
Gracious hosts are often caught by surprise when other people comment on their hospitable disposition and practice. They wonder what any other person would have done in similar circumstances. A number of Chambonnais, when commended for their acts of hospitality, asked “Well, where else could they go? I had to take them in.
André Trocmé, pastor of the church that was central to the welcome of Jewish refugees in Le Chambon, encouraged his congregation to "work and look hard for ways, for opportunities to make little moves against destructiveness.” Part of our ability to sustain hospitality in the midst of an unjust and disordered world comes from putting out small efforts into a larger context. God is at work in the world, and our little but significant moves participate in that work.
From Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Christine D. Pohl, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 83, 176, 184.