The Hospitality of Vulnerability

Rev. Becca Messman’s view of hospitality changed after ministering to a young, dying woman who lived with one foot in heaven and one on earth.

The word “hospitality” conjures images of special nametags and coffee stations. I think of Southern Living flower arrangements on the perfect Thanksgiving table. I imagine neatly turned-down bedspreads with chocolates on the pillows. Given that the word shares a root with “hospital” and “hospice,” I find it stunning that hospitality has come to mean anything but vulnerability. Hospitality is the sense that things are effortlessly under control, and we are expecting you. It means clean guest towels, not wads of tissues. In churches, we often associate hospitality with getting our act together so that we can welcome the issues other people bring. Sometimes hospitality looks like keeping our own wounds hidden for as long as possible, lest we drive people away.

My time with a woman named Wendy permanently changed how I think about hospitality. Wendy, only 46 years old when we met, was full of life and yet tragically dying of cancer. After years of treatments, she received the unthinkable news that she had weeks to live. Our lives intersected when a friend took the risk to call me out of the blue and ask whether I might help Wendy plan her funeral.

“Welcome to my mess!” she said with a chuckle when I first stepped into her home, where a French bulldog warily watched me. Perfect floral arrangements rested everywhere — but they were the kind for which there is no right card, definitely not the Southern Living kind.

She had stumbled over a threshold; she had one foot in eternity and the other here, and I could often feel a draft of heaven in that space.

Over the three months that followed, my life was blessed by my time spent with Wendy, to the extent that I lost track of who was helping whom. The stress of my life seemed to recede every time I knocked on her door. She had stumbled over a threshold; she had one foot in eternity and the other here, and I could often feel a draft of heaven in that space.

In her final months, so many people knocked on her door. College friends dropped off flowers. A neighbor tended her garden. One friend came every single day just to deliver her favorite tea. The hospice team was wonderful. Some days, Wendy asked for company; on other days, she asked for time left alone or for time to cuddle her 11-year-old son. She let grief enter — but also joy. She let anger enter — but also laughter. She let faith come back in after a long time away.

She specifically asked a friend to learn and sing “Crowded Table” by The Highwomen at her funeral. On that big day, when I sat with red eyes and heard those lyrics belted out, I realized Wendy had set the table for our healing. As the song goes, “Everyone’s a little broken and everyone belongs.”

As people squeezed into a Presbyterian church that wanted to be there for the community, all I could think about was the Lord’s Supper, and Jesus, that gracious host, broken for us. A taste of heaven, a call renewed, the gifts of God. Christian hospitality — not a kiosk of perfection, but a table of vulnerability.

Listen to The Highwomen sing, “Crowded Table”

Published in Presbyterian Outlook, April 5, 2024 and reprinted with permission.

Rev. Rebecca Messman is the senior pastor of Burke Presbyterian Church in the Washington, D.C., area. She is a parent, pun-maker, poet and preacher.