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Even Martin Luther complained in the 16th century that the hospitality of Abraham’s day was not possible with “such a large number of vagabonds and scoundrels in the world as there is today.”
The word hospitality, derived from a Greek word meaning “taking care of strangers,” is most often used now for an industry – hotels, resorts, or restaurants. In churches, it can simply apply to those who usher or serve refreshments after a service. And it is often associated simply with entertaining friends rather than the transcending of prejudice by hosting strangers in our homes.
Yet when Lincoln declared an annual Thanksgiving, it was meant to promote hospitality. The woman who championed the official holiday, Sarah Hale, wrote in 1864: “Let us each see to it that on this one day there shall be no family or individual, within the compass of our means to help, who shall not have some portion prepared, and some reason to join in the general Thanksgiving.”
The holiday can be a great equalizer, bringing together the rich and poor or a family with strangers. In ancient days, strangers would wash each other’s feet or provide a spare bed as a generous welcome. The willingness to meet such basic needs was the moral basis for holding society together.
The benefits of hospitality can be hard to predict. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” we read in Hebrews.
Making a place at a Thanksgiving dinner for others who have little should not be a duty or something done with an expectation of reciprocity. Such kindness may be repaid in ways not imagined. A community may be created or restored. Fears may be reduced and social boundaries broken.
Hospitality creates the kind of gratitude that pays forward to the next Thanksgiving.