Monday, February 22, 2010

Welcome, Stranger

"I'll be confound. It's Malloy."

Daddy's tone wore no hint of pleasure.

We had just gotten home from church on a hot Sunday morning. Perry and I had changed into our shorts, itching to get Daddy to take us to the beach. Mama was frying chicken. Grandmother was setting the table. Andy, the dog, was barking at a long, sleek, light green Chrysler Imperial inching down the lane to our house. Nobody ever showed up unexpected right in time for Sunday dinner. Even Andy knew that much.

The big, swept-wing Chrysler eased to a stop in the shade of the oak. Out stepped a man dressed in unseasonably dark, wool trousers. His shirt somewhat matched the Chrysler, its pale green punctuated by something like blood-red suns baking some place like Florida. His brown, silk tie (I had never seen one worn with a sport shirt) bore the grease of many meals. His frayed collar was disgustingly gray.

I had never heard of Malloy Grant, though in days to come I was to hear much. It didn't take me long to ascertain, probably from a quick covert conversation with Grandma, that Malloy was in fact a relative. I could not imagine being related to someone so foul. I supposed that he must be at best a very distant relation.

I watched to see how Daddy would get rid of him, there being no doubt in my mind from the initial sentence of recognition that shedding Malloy would be his certain aim. To my surprise and deep chagrin, I heard him ask, "Well, won't you stay for dinner? We're just about to sit down."

It would be a long time before I could ever eat fried chicken again without thinking of Malloy and his dirty hands.

Malloy, a first cousin of my grandmother's, was one of three siblings. By all accounts they were odd beyond words. Family rumor had it that Daisy and Abbie, Malloy's sisters, had gone to Washington to work for the Treasury Department. Malloy had gone some place too. But so mysterious and guarded was he that no one ever figured out exactly what Malloy did. We all supposed him to be some sort of spy for the CIA. Relatives resented "the tar out of him," as they put it, because he had a way of getting loads of information from everyone while revealing nothing about himself.

In years to come, I encountered Malloy several times, always camped out at some relative's house for an indeterminate, and unexpected, visit. From bitter experience long before I ever met Malloy, my dad had said, "No more" to Malloy's sojourns that could easily turn into months.

But I learned something that hot summer Sunday about hospitality. One shares one's fried chicken with whoever happens along. Whether or not they need a bath.

The church has only one ministry, and that is hospitality. Hospitality is even more basic than reconciliation. Hospitality is sitting down to a meal with any and everybody. Even unsavory characters. Even undesirable relatives.

St. Benedict memorably said in his Rule, “Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,….” Everyone is a guest in this place, a guest of God. We are the doorkeepers. This Lent we will be unpacking the words of the prophet Isaiah,

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Let all guests be welcomed as Christ, stranger and friend, old and young, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight, all races, all nations, all colors, all languages.

Nothing characterized the ministry of Jesus more than that.

© Frank G. Dunn, 2010

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