Service, hospitality and kinship

“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send
receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (Jn 13:20)

Jesus is speaking to the disciples after washing their feet, emphasizing in the longer passage the servitude that we ought to show to one another. He must have anticipated how the human temptation to create structures of power is a potential danger in the church. Here he already cautions against it.

In the service learning program in which I teach, students slowly learn over the course of the year that service is not about fixing other people or about helping others from a standpoint of power over to those who lack something that we “have”. Service becomes about shared, mutual relationship, what Greg Boyle SJ names aptly as “kinship,” a sense of belonging to the same human family. The passage above characterizes that shared humanity as also a way of sharing in God together. Jesus says that whoever receives those whom he sends receives Jesus, and so in turn also the Father. In other words, we receive God when we receive others. But we also are receiving the Spirit in ourselves when we serve: it’s God’s self communicating with God’s self, in a sense, through and in our communities.

In my final class of the semester today, we discussed an essay by my colleague, Jim Keenan, SJ entitled “Jesuit hospitality.” I like to end my class every year with this essay. because it names hospitality or the receiving of and care for the guest and stranger, as something that is done “on the road” in a Jesuit mode of expression–something my students have just been doing all year long in the city of Boston. My students reflected on how they have benefitted from going out into different communities and immersing themselves into others’ worlds, and the value of experiencing not only being at the homeless shelter or inner city school or prison but also encountering people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, social class, or age groups. Even the simple act of taking the T in the midst of winter storm shut downs gave them a sense of the challenges faced by those in the city, and sometimes a sense of a shared struggle along with other folks waiting for the bus or train to come.

This being sent forth to a community as an act of hospitality–rather than, say, only tutoring or addressing problems here on campus–also ensures that students learn that they, too, are being received in service. They also are the recipients of hospitality when they serve, just as they offer hospitality in their service. They learn that in service, we are also being received, in the mutuality of kinship.