Welcoming the stranger to campus
Todd David Whitmore
The Common Good
The beginning of each school year is a period of welcome. Welcome to incoming first year students. Welcome back to returning students. Such greetings are found virtually everywhere on campus from ads in The Observer to the speeches of Deans. The message of this welcome is, "You should treat this place as your home." References to the "Notre Dame family" are both frequent and genuine.
Christian and other religious literatures often discuss the idea and practice of welcoming someone into one's home under the "hospitality." In the New Testament, the word for hospitality is "philoxenia." It means, "love of strangers," as opposed to "xenophobia," which translates, "fear of strangers."
William Placher, in his book, "Narratives of a Vulnerable God," makes the implications of the terms quite clear, "New Testament texts find a variety of ways to challenge a model of a community of insiders who exclude ... A Christian church cannot define itself as a community of privilege ... A community that faithfully attends to the narratives of the crucified Jesus cannot be a community that excludes. Christians are a people who have seen that scapegoats are innocent. When we try to get into the in-crowd by joining in their ridicule or persecution of those they exclude, we find, as Peter did in that courtyard so long ago, that Jesus stands among those we have just excluded, and we have separated ourselves from him."
Catholic teaching focuses on hospitality in a number of places. Paul VI, for instance, writes in "Populorum Progressio," that there is a "duty of welcoming others — a duty springing from human solidarity and Christian charity." John Paul II, in "Familiaris Consortio," emphasizes the "ever greater importance in our society of hospitality in all its forms ... In a special way the Christian family is called upon to listen to the apostle's recommendation: `Practice hospitality,' and therefore, imitating Christ's example and sharing in his love, welcome the brother or sister in need."
I join with others in extending to you — new and returning students — a welcome to our community. Notre Dame truly is a national, and increasingly international, university, with students coming from a wide range of geographical locations. While campus ministry and the residential system do much to make our welcome clear, some of you, particularly first year students and students returning from abroad, may at first feel like strangers. Please take our welcome to heart.
I also invite you and the whole of the Notre Dame community to draw upon this period of welcome to ask how it might be extended even further. What prompts this invitation is a comment by a participant in a project I am directing which develops programs in Catholic social teaching at Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. This participant, who teaches as Loyola University of Baltimore, commented that it is sometimes said at his school, "There is a lot of Loyola in Baltimore, but not much Baltimore in Loyola."
What he meant was that students and others at Loyola did a significant amount of service type volunteering in the wider community — a lot of going into Baltimore's "home" and helping out — but that there was no real reciprocity, no invitation to the community of Baltimore to come to Loyola and witness to the university. There were, therefore, no real lessons learned beyond the general ones that poverty is a harsh reality and that many who are poor struggle mightily to change their circumstances. These are indeed important lessons, but if they are the only ones and if volunteer service in the city is the only way that the university relates to the city, then, another project participant added, we are left with a kind of paternalism that is inadequate as a model for hospitality.
I have sometimes wondered whether Notre Dame follows a similar pattern in its interactions with South Bend. There is a genuine role for service to the community. When I started with Big Brothers/Big Sisters nine years ago, I was told that the majority of volunteers were Notre Dame students and that the organization could not flourish in the same way without them.
In addition, I have been told that the University leases the Center for the Homeless building to the Center for a dollar a month, providing a real financial service that few people know about. But I also often hear Notre Dame described as "safe" against the "dangerous" South Bend.
Under this rubric, South Bend is a place for Notre Dame students to serve, to be served (beer), and in both to risk possible bodily harm from city residents. To the degree that we give in to this as our predominant rubric, we succumb to xenophobia, and therefore, in Placher's words, "have separated ourselves" from Christ.
To move towards a greater sense of philoxenia, the University needs to join with the city government of South Bend and community leaders from business and a host of other types of associations to create spaces — stores, coffee shops, libraries, greasy spoons, community centers — where both University members and community residents can mingle and even join together in activity that is more reciprocal than unidirectional service, as important as it is, allows. In short, the University needs to play a leading — though not dominant — role in helping to establish places where both it members and those of the city can be at home. The appointment of Lou Nanni as assistant to President Malloy bodes well in this regard. Nanni knows both Notre Dame and South Bend quite well. He has been central to the Center for the Homeless. He and the rest of us can help bring South Bend into Notre Dame and in this way say "Welcome" to the city.
Todd David Whitmore is an assistant professor of theology. His column appears every other Thursday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, August 24, 2000