A few years ago, I visited Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota for the first time. My visit came in the midst of some conversations with my spiritual director about the tension between the life of my faith community, a Lutheran congregation in the Twin Cities, and the social movement work that I had studied in seminary and had committed to as a vocational calling.
At my spiritual director’s recommendation, I met the Abbey’s Oblate Director. I told him that I was committed to working diligently for a world of justice and equity, and that my worship and theological home was found firmly with the Lutherans. But I explained the tension between those two communities, between those two expressions of my faith, that felt disconnected and out of place to me. I left with a copy of the Rule of St. Benedict and some advice about practicing the Liturgy of the Hours and the Benedictine spiritual life.
What I discovered in Benedictine spirituality rescued my faith. It was the Rule and the community of Benedictines that helped reconcile my theological and my vocational communities. At my congregation, the Lutheran expression of the Gospel and the worshipping community taught me who God was and extended the mercy and grace of Christ each week in the Eucharist. In my seminary and social justice work, I learned about the just world that God continues to unfold.
It was the Rule and the community of Benedictines that helped reconcile my theological and my vocational communities.
But it was the Benedictine life that gave me the process and the practice to put all of this learning to use in a way that felt authentic and powerful. It was Benedictine spirituality that helped me to ask, in light of my freedom in the Gospel, and in light of the world that God has called us to build, “How then shall I live?”
In particular, the Benedictine value of hospitality reframed my own understanding of social movements and my role as a person of faith. I had entered into justice work with one mission: to win. Movement spaces dedicated solely to winning can often become toxic mirrors of the world they are seeking to topple, and I found myself drawn into arguments and tactics that highlighted my desire to be right instead of loving others justly.
But a short line in chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict took hold of my heart and challenged me to show up differently. Benedict writes, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.”
I had entered into justice work with one mission: to win.
To welcome the other as Christ meant I had to see each person fully and authentically as themselves. I could no longer judge the person next to me by what they had or hadn’t accomplished in the past, just as I could no longer demand that someone prove themselves before joining the fight for justice. Instead I was challenged to meet them as they presented themselves with joy and thanksgiving.
I was confronted with this as my community participated in a campaign to restore access to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants in Minnesota. A woman in my congregation, who I had long ago dismissed as not seriously committed to activism, would often approach me after someone would preach or pray about the treatment of immigrants in the US. With tears in her eyes, she would say something like, “Isn’t it just too awful?” I thought, with bitterness, that if she would only join the fight, she just might help to improve the lives of her neighbors. I dismissed her grief because I didn’t find it useful.
However, one Sunday as she approached teary-eyed, I heard the words of Benedict ring in my ear: “All who present themselves are welcomed as Christ.” Rather than find a way to scuttle off to other work, I sat down and asked her to tell me why this issue had such an impact on her. She told me about the love she has for her young nieces and nephews and how she couldn’t help but see their faces in the children who had been separated at the border. She told me about the cruelty she had experienced in her own life, and how she couldn’t bear to see it exercised on folks as vulnerable as the immigrant community. I spoke with her for nearly forty minutes, asking her to say more about her own experience, her own grief, while I listened. I didn’t ask her for anything. I simply thanked her and returned to other work.
I heard the words of Benedict ring in my ear: “All who present themselves are welcomed as Christ.”
A week later, the Freedom to Drive Coalition hosted a rally at the capitol to show Minnesota legislators the power that had been built over a year of base-building and campaigning. I arrived early to corral my leaders and help with set-up. As I entered the rotunda I was confronted with an incredible sight: there in the front row sat the woman from my congregation! She held a Freedom to Drive sign in her hands and her face reflected a determination that I had never seen from her before.
Though the capitol was filled with hundreds of leaders, allies, and constituents that day, none of them had a greater impact on me than the woman from my congregation. I saw in that moment her grief transformed into action. I knew that my superficial dismissal of her in the past was rooted not in welcoming her, but in needing something from her. And in that selfish act we had both lost something. She had lost the opportunity to exercise her grief and her anger over the mistreatment of neighbors in whom she saw the faces of her family. I had lost the chance to mobilize a powerful leader who understood her own commitment to the cause so deeply that it brought tears to her eyes.
I knew that my superficial dismissal of her in the past was rooted not in welcoming her, but in needing something from her.
But on this day, we were gathered together at the seat of power in our state demanding that immigrants be treated with dignity and to oppose the exploitation of our neighbors. All from the simple act of welcome. The simplest act of listening a person into powerful action.
I have continued to practice what I hope is authentic hospitality in my work and have asked for forgiveness when I fall into the same traps of ego and urgency. It is Benedictine spirituality that has given me the daily tools to work for justice with humility and patience. I believe that social justice movements can learn a lot from Saint Benedict about building communities of depth and compassion that are able to transform the world. And, it all begins by welcoming our neighbor as Christ.