When is Hospitality Hospitality?


by John Espy

Last Sunday my friend and I had a conversation about hospitality.  At one point I had made the statement that the current trend to resist and restrict immigration was inhospitable, that our country had a history of resisting immigration at times as with the Irish, Chinese and Japanese but that in the end, the country was always better off, that immigrants had a positive impact on the country. I felt that, as a country, we needed to be hospitable to immigration.

My friend pushed back on that saying that hospitality should not be extended with the expectation of return, that it should be freely given. He had earlier given an example of our “hospitality industry” which is hot really hospitality but is transactional in nature, with the expectation of payment for services rendered, a quid pro.

I didn’t respond at the time but I’ve been ruminating about it. I want to push back. My statement was not a justification and reason for allowing people into our country, it was more a post hoc observation on the intrinsic goodness of people. It’s as if the innkeeper’s neighbor said he shouldn’t let indigent travelers sleep in his stable because they might trash the place and steal his chickens. The innkeeper might have responded, “I’ve let dozens of people sleep in my stable when I had no room in the inn.  There was one guy who dumped over the manger and left without so much as a ‘thank you’, but most people leave it as good or better than they found it. I am grateful but that is not why I do it. I let them stay because they were in need and I had a bit of space, humble as it is.”

If the innkeeper had offered his stable with the expectation that the travelers would shovel out the manure, that would be a transactional quid pro quo, an expectation for something in return on the part of the innkeeper. But if he offered it only as a shelter for a weary traveler and the traveler shoveled out the manure without being asked, I would call that an act of unsolicited gratitude on the part of the traveler. One might choose to consider that a transactional “payment” for the service but it does not negate the innkeeper’s act of hospitality. 

When people immigrate into this country, we have no idea whether any one individual is going to become a criminal, a law-abiding and successful entrepreneur or someone who sits around drinking beer and watching soap operas all day while living on food stamps. That should not be a consideration.  The inscription on the Statue of Liberty says, “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” That is hospitality.

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