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Jennifer Lucking is a missionary with the Reformed Church in America and a presenter at Mission 2020, an event to celebrate 377 years of God’s work around the world through RCA Global Mission and to dream about the future of mission. It was held January 16–18, 2020, in Orlando, Florida.

This is one of several articles written by Mission 2020 presenters that Faithward is featuring. If you were not able to come to Mission 2020, we hope this gives you a taste of the event!

A s I continue to plan for Mission 2020, I am basking in the Advent season, and the women I serve are a reminder that this season stirs complicated feelings for many. I am eager to share with you about Restorations Second Stage Homes and the work I am involved with in southern Ontario, working to provide safe, specialized, and supportive housing for survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

In the fall, we gifted the outgoing board chair of Restorations with a snow globe featuring the nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. As the present was unwrapped, someone around the table—reflecting on the nature of our work to address the lack of appropriate housing for trafficked survivors—commented, “They didn’t have anywhere to go either.”

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6–7, NRSV).

I find it incredible that we can hear a familiar Bible verse or a story over and over again, and then life’s circumstances and experiences spark something that you might not have ever previously considered or imagined. When I heard this—“They didn’t have anywhere to go either”—I thought about the Christmas story from Luke and pondered some of the details not provided in the account. This is where a combination of exegesis, wondering, and imagination come into play.

Imagining the nativity story

Let’s imagine: Joseph and Mary, weary after long travels, were seeking somewhere to rest their head, somewhere to provide shelter. Perhaps Mary was already feeling the first twinges of labor and suspected the birth of Jesus is imminent.

I wonder how they were greeted at the inn (or “guest room” as certain translations describe)? 

Were they given space begrudgingly? There’s no room! You should have come earlier! I don’t know what you want me to dothis is your problem. Fine, I guess you can stay with our animals.

A series of articles I read about the nativity story suggest that Mary and Joseph would have stayed with Joseph’s family while they were in town. (I guess my own family’s practice of “why stay in a hotel when you can stay with family?” could have Biblical roots?) Perhaps the family bristled with suspicion and shame as they did the math between Joseph and Mary’s marriage and her stage of pregnancy. We will provide you shelter out of family obligation. But no fine guest room for you! Stay with our animals.

A different take on the nativity

I found myself imagining a different story. What if Mary and Joseph, upon approaching the house, were met with care. What a bustling house we have with the census! So busyand yet so joyous being able to see all our returning family members! Joseph, so wonderful to see you! Mary, what a pleasure to meet you. I’m sorry we don’t have more room for you. We will do everything we can to make your stay as comfortable as possible. In fact, we’ve cleaned out the manger just for your babe. We trust it will serve as a comfortable and safe bed for him while you are with us. 

What is the difference between these opposing stories I imagine? Hospitality.

My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places” (Isaiah 32:18, NRSV).

A house vs. a home

The charity I work for has been renovating a house so that we may open our first residential program for survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. As we’ve been working through the renovation process—obtaining permits, sourcing materials, organizing labor, making decisions on what rooms will look like, doing the work—I’ve been reflecting a lot on the difference between a “house” and a “home.” 

Some of the survivors I work with have access to a house—they manage to find somewhere to stay, perhaps couch surfing or renting somewhere (albeit at increasingly rising costs above living wage). They are protected from the physical elements of the weather. They might have privacy. There could be access to food and drink. But they are not always thriving; they are sometimes just barely surviving.

I think of a “house” as merely a building which serves to provide basic needs that we need to survive, to shelter one from the elements and provide safety and security from outside threats. I view a “home,” on the other hand, as somewhere where people are fully able to flourish and thrive. Flourishing and thriving needs more than a structurally sound house; flourishing and thriving occur in an environment of hospitality, love and support.

The connection between hospitality and justice

To me, hospitality and justice go hand in hand. Hospitality is seeing someone and their needs and acting on a desire to respond not just so others may survive but also to promote peace and flourishing. 

When I imagine the nativity scene, I picture more than the structure in which Jesus’s family bonded as a new family of three. I imagine the people involved, their actions, reactions, practices and behaviours. I picture a warm environment—not warmth from the climate, but from the feelings that continue to permeate the Christmas season: hope, peace, joy, and love. And I think hope, peace, joy, and love make the difference between a house and a home.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as “Stable Hospitality” on Do Justice, a blog of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. It has been adapted slightly for this website. You can find Jennifer’s other Do Justice columns here.

Jennifer Lucking

Jennifer Lucking is a missionary with the Reformed Church in America, serving as the executive director of Restorations Second Stage Homes, an organization that provides safe, specialized, and supportive housing for survivors of sexual exploitation in southern Ontario, Canada.