Adventures of a Presbyterian pastor on a Jesuit campus
Called to be a guest
In ministry, we often think of ourselves as hosts, but really, we are just the guests.
by Abby King-Kaiser
I am not in college anymore.
It seems like an obvious statement, but in September, I need to remind myself of this often. I am not in college anymore.
Entering my 4th year of campus ministry at Xavier University in Cincinnati, I have become increasingly aware that I am but a guest in the college experience of 4,200 other souls. This work is not about me.
This matters because the One I follow had no place to lay his head. He called Zacchaeus out of the tree and invited himself over. The people muttered, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
This matters because I worship the One who sent 70 disciples to be guests, not hosts, in other people’s homes (Luke 10).
In the bustle of fall’s activities—welcome events, endless emails to new students, small talk, conversations that instantly dive deep with returning students, running from one thing to another—I have found this guest-like quality of Jesus to challenge me to stop focusing on being the perfect host (of worship, of Communion, of transformation) and start being a good guest. Given the gaps between those I serve and me—cultural, religious, theological, and ever-growing age gaps—this orientation really matters.
And it is changing the way I work (and live).
Growing up, I was in awe of the way that my mom could talk to ANYONE. I felt shy, like I tripped over my words. Yet she could walk up to any stranger and strike a rapport. In the process, she taught me several “rules” for being a good guest.
#1—NEVER invite yourself over.
This was my mom’s biggest rule. Don’t overstay your welcome or ask too much of someone’s hospitality. (Note: Jesus invited himself over all this time. This is the perfect time to remind myself that I am not Jesus.)
More instructively—build a relationship first, and follow your host’s lead. Sure, show up a lot. Take all hospitality that is offered—this is how you build community BUT don’t insert yourself. Be respectful of someone else’s space.
My role as a campus minister is not to be my students’ primary relationship; it is to encourage them to build relationships among themselves so that they can walk with each other through territory that is unknown to me.
#2—Obey the house rules.
I can serve Communion on Sunday night in the student center but not take Communion across the street at Mass. That’s cool. My socks don’t match but off come my shoes when I enter the interfaith chapel for Friday prayer with our Muslim students.
Hospitality means respecting the practices and beliefs of my host, whether I like them or not. More importantly it means setting aside my concerns and norms (even my control!) to know someone else as God created them.
This is hardest rule for me. When I thought about Mass through the lens of my own exclusion from the Table, I couldn’t understand it. But when I shifted my perspective to be a guest, I perceived how this rule was inviting me to remain true to my own tradition without compromising another’s. Suddenly, I saw hospitality; I saw the lengths my hosts took to include me. I saw the particular practices of this Catholic community and all I could learn from it.
I remember the first time I went, as a child, to my best friend’s church. I had been raised in a dress-up-for-God Presbyterian church that worshiped in a whitewashed sanctuary and sang from a hymnal. Hers was a Pentecostal-style, non-denominational church that worshiped in what looked like a big box store. She told me I could wear jeans to church. I was in 4th grade. My mom flipped out. You don’t wear jeans to church. She gave in, I wore jeans, and I was dressed the same as everyone else.
Now, I rarely wear a robe, worship on campus in jeans, and yet, at least once a year, I steam my clerical garments, pick out my best stole, shine my best shoes, and line up to process with the Jesuit community and other clergy on campus for the Mass of the Holy Spirit.
Clothes offer social cues. No matter how much I wish that were not true, it is. Some days, the way I dress means I am assumed to be a student. Other days, it is obvious that I am mom, a leader, a pastor, and who knows what else. When being a guest, our willingness to take on the custom of the place where we are going is a cue to our openness to the people in the community. Dressing can set you apart or allow you to blend in. There are times to be set apart, but most often in my ministry, I see the fruit in my relationships when I am willing to join in, down to my clothes.
#4—Bring a gift.
I learned this rule more while traveling than from my mom. In the Midwest, I didn’t grow up attending events where a hostess gift is the norm. But, when I traveled with a Hungarian friend, I noticed he always took an offering from his home culture to his hosts. And when I went on an immersion trip in Southeast Asia with my seminary, I watched as the professors lovingly unpacked artifacts from our life in Northern California to share with our gracious hosts in Hong Kong.
I am not in the habit of spending tons of money on the folks who ask me over for dinner, and yet, this practice has spoken into my ministry deeply. The gifts Christ calls me to offer are not material, but the gifts God has given me. In some places, it might be the gift of simple presence; in others, I may be asked to offer an opinion or advice, to contribute to a collaboration, even to pray or preach. As a guest who follows Jesus, I am called to bring my whole self, without judgment or reservation, to love as Jesus loved.
Each of these rules is again a reminder that I am not in college anymore. But, I have been to college. I have been on this campus as long, or longer, than all the undergraduates here. This is not my home, but it is like home to me. When I follow the ultimate guest, the one who sent us to be guests, my work is transformed.
Abby King-Kaiser is the Assistant Director for Ecumenical and Multifaith Ministry at the Dorothy Day Center for Faith and Justice at Xavier University. She returned to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio for this call after a long sojourn in the Bay Area. She is a coffee snob, occasional painter and obsessive, though amateur, Instagrammer (@revabbykk).