Open Heart, Open Home
● By Style
My grandparents began taking in members of the Jewish community soon after the Waffen-SS confiscated the top floor of their church for a regional headquarters.
In the basement of that same building, right under Nazi noses, my family created a shelter. My grandfather was the pastor of this church in the Netherlands during World War II. He figured the Jewish hideaways would be as safe there as anywhere.
When I was a kid, my grandparents told this story over and over. I always wondered why they took these risks. It would have been more sensible to allow the brazen to take over the church’s facilities unchallenged. Were they not concerned about the threatening consequences? But somehow the menace of their Nazi neighbors did not deter them. Did they not fear for their own lives and for the lives of their small children? How were they able to provide for so many people? They received almost no income from their church; instead, they often received payment in the currency of chickens, eggs, fresh milk and produce – placed on their doorstep whenever a local farmer had a little bit extra. Yet, they did not consider the scarcity of their own resources an insurmountable obstacle.
In one of my last conversations with my grandmother, then well into her ninth decade, I asked what kept them from complacency and spurred them toward such dangerous hospitality during the cold winters of World War II. She simply said: “We trusted in God. We knew God would protect us and would provide for us. Because of that, we simply welcomed people who needed a place to stay and food to eat, even if there was a bit of a risk.”
The fact that the church building happened to swarm with Nazi soldiers was primarily a logistical challenge. My “opa” and “oma” offered food, shelter, and protection to those who desperately needed it, and because of their practice of dangerous hospitality, many of their guests lived to tell the story.
My father grew up in North Carolina in the ’30s. He often told about the racism of the “whites” against “the coloreds.” He remembered the segregated restaurants, buses, bathrooms and schools. He knew what it was like not to be welcome. When my father was a college student in Washington DC, two elderly white ladies befriended him. Much to his surprise, they invited him over to their home for dinner.
He was instructed to arrive after dusk and use the backdoor as the entryway. No one was to know a black man was visiting with these women in the white neighborhood. This would not be safe for anyone. In spite of their attempts to keep their hospitality under wraps, neighbors soon began to talk and consequently spread contempt and ill-will for the two welcoming women.
This simple occurrence of being welcome was an important affirmation and acknowledgement of my father as a fellow human being. They practiced hospitality because they saw him as a person, not as an object of contempt or hatred. I’m convinced this kind of dangerous hospitality is what our world needs now, more than ever. Offering hospitality is not so much a matter of elaborate gourmet dinners in a home that has been featured on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, as it is about an enduring commitment to provide food, acceptance and shelter to those who need it most.
Tim Blackmon is the former lead pastor at River Rock Church in Folsom. For more of Blackmon’s articles, visit his blog at timblackmon.blogspot.com.