Reimagining Hospitality Through Myth Telling
“In the cherry blossom’s shade there’s no such thing as a stranger.” Kobayashi Issa
On Sunday, November 25th, thousands of asylum seekers from Central America walked toward the American border. The US border agents indiscriminately fired tear gas into children, women and men who were still standing on Mexican territory.
In a powerful photograph, a running mother pulls her two daughters while they are tear-gassed by border agents. Behind them lies the wall which separates a wishful crowd from their dream of security and new beginnings.
The image symbolises the state of a growing polarised and hostile world.
The criminalisation of asylum seekers at the border of Mexico and the United States dialogues with a global trend in which people seeking refuge are portrayed as threats and unwanted guests. Instead of finding protection, those fleeing violence, persecution and poverty are commonly met with more violence, militarised borders and punitive measures.
With the rise of walls and hostility to refugees, offering generosity and cultivating hospitality become an act of peaceful resistance.
One way of doing so is telling narratives which shed light onto the human face of people on the move. Stories and myths are not only powerful tools for humanising the experiences of those who are forced to flee, but also catalysts for changing responses. In reimagining hospitality and telling stories that nurture our minds and hearts with care for those in need, we are planting seeds of more inclusive and receptive societies in the collective imagination.
“Before anything ever was, it had to be dreamed.”
John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes
There’s a beautiful story written by the Roman poet Ovid in 8 A.D which invites us to reimagine the nature of the relationship between host and guest, both individually and collectively.
Disguised as poor travellers, the gods Zeus and Hermes visited many villages in search of refuge for the night. They knocked on numerous doors, but residents repeatedly turned the gods away. Everyone regarded them as uninvited guests except a poor elderly couple – Baucis and Philemon. Despite their material restrictions, the couple welcomed the gods in their home and generously served their guests food and wine. After refilling her guests’ cups many times over, Baucis noticed that the wine jug was still full. Philemon then realized the visitors were not simple visitors, but gods and offered to kill their only goose to feed Zeus and Hermes. Touched by this gesture, Zeus rewarded their generosity by transforming the humble cottage into a beautiful stone temple. Zeus also granted the couple with their ultimate wish: to be the guardians of the temple, die at the same time and stay together for eternity. The god turned Baucis and Philemon into trees, guarding each side of the temple’s door.
This myth embodies the ancient Greek tradition known as philoxenia. Even though philoxenia is mostly translated into English as “hospitality”, this interpretation doesn’t reflect the deep meaning of the tradition. The etymology of the word reveals that it is an expression of love and friendship towards strangers.
The myth and this ancient Greek tradition open space for reimagining hospitality, widening our understanding of the relationship between host and guest to include a quality of love and friendship towards strangers, to reclaim the sacred nature of this relationship.
“Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another. Originally, no one had more right than another to a particular part of the earth.” Emmanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace
Today, from the Mexican-American border to the edges of Europe and the heart of refugee camps, the relationship between host countries and those seeking refuge is fragile. Particularly in societies in which refugees are perceived as unwanted guests.
Like the myth, where villagers repeatedly turned the gods away, many countries erect walls and intercept boats in an attempt to prevent the movement of people, sending a strong message; “You’re not welcome here”. Increasing political hostility and legal restrictions often make it difficult for refugees to access the protection which upholds their basic human rights.
Yet, while these political and legal restrictions have indeed put the lives of millions of refugees on hold, members of the international community and civil society have responded to refugee flows with receptivity and generosity, implementing welcoming policies and integration programmes. Resembling Baucis and Philemon’s generosity to the gods knocking on their door, nations, societies, organisations and individuals have opened doors to their social spaces, homes and hearts, to welcome people who are vulnerable but still capable of contributing to social, economic and cultural development.
Building diverse and multicultural societies is challenging. It’s a process of collective construction, of challenging existing power structures and reframing the idea of a stranger to include a vision that in a globalised and interconnected world, there are no outsiders, we all belong to one humanity, we all share a common home and common destiny.
Building diverse and multicultural societies demands dialogue, openness to listen to the other, mutual understanding and respect. It challenges our understanding of place, belonging and identity.
It opens us to diversity in unity.
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines." Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching out: the three movements of spiritual life
Published by St. Ethelburga´s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace: