Wayne Meisel: Opening 1,000 Doors: Houses of Hospitality and the Promise, Requirement and Hope of the Church

Taken with permission from HuffingtonPost.com/Religion

If you're young and idealistic, engaged and committed, and want to serve full time in the community, there are three basic things that you will need:

You will need to be paid. Fortunately, there are more and more service jobs that provide a stipend (although often small) thanks in large part to AmeriCorps. 

You will need health insurance. My mother was supportive of my community service work, as long as I didn't get a tattoo and had health insurance. For years, this was the stumbling block for young people who wanted to serve but were forced off of their parents' coverage once they left school. Tattoos are up to you, but thanks to ObamaCare, young adults can stay on their parents' health insurance until they are 26.

You will need a place to live. Finding safe and affordable housing has become the biggest challenge for young people who want to serve in full-time positions. Churches have helped. Churches can help. Churches need to help.

Churches Have Helped

In 1986, the Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, Md., established theWestmoreland Volunteer Corps. The church helps recent college graduates find a place to live, a service job and a stipend. 

Several years later, Rev. Earl Kooperkamp and his wife Elizabeth transformed the attic of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Harlem into a four-bedroom apartment where volunteers can live while serving in the neighborhood. Though there was no requirement to attend church services, residents would often choose to sing in the choir and join the fellowship that the worship service offered.

Perkins School of Theology Professor Elaine Heath established the Missional Wisdom Foundation, which sponsors the Epworth Scholars Program. Since 2006, students have lived together in homes where they commit to a rule of life. Each of the houses has an issue area that resident are engaged in. Dr. Heath describes it as an incubator community "so that students can see an alternative way of doing church." At Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Jack Barden, the Vice President of Admissions, made a variation on the theme by turning an empty dorm into an intentional community for AmeriCorps members serving in the city. These individuals live on the seminary campus and have access to many of the school's resources, including the library and the workout facilities. 

Last year in a small rural mining town between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, several students from Waynesburg University joined forces with a local church congregant who owned an unused house. Six graduates who wanted to stay in the area were able to create and live in an intentional community together.

Going against current trends and assumptions about post-graduation life, they wanted to stay in the rural town where they had served during their college years. With a secure place to stay, they went out and found jobs to support themselves so that they could live and work together.

Intentional communities are the rage. Much of it is done under the banner of the term New Monastics. Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove's book, "Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World," gave shape and definition to the concept, as did Shane Claiborne and The Simple Way. Most of the leading faith-based young adult volunteer programs, many which are a part of Volunteers Exploring Vocation, have members living in intentional community. Houses of Hospitality are a local congregational expression of the model many have developed embraced.

This energy and activism has occurred primarily outside of church structures. With some notable exceptions, congregations have not gotten in the game. But they need to.

Churches Can Help

Some might ask: Why should we do it? Why is creating Houses of Hospitality important? 

For the individuals, they are provided a safe, affordable and meaningful place to live. For those who isolated as they arrive in a new town and have few resources, churches can serve as a portal into the community.

For the churches, these houses offer a way for the congregation to be present and relevant to a generation hell-bent on making a difference. The causes they care about are the same ones the church and its members invest in. These young people often serve at the same organizations where members work or serve on boards, offer financial support, or even volunteer. Creating Houses of Hospitality offers a church the opportunity to live out and into its understanding of itself and what it is called to be -- a telling presence in the community. 

The presence of a core group of engaged, passionate young adults can have a profound effect on a congregation that is primarily populated by people in their 60s or above and rarely sees anyone much younger on Sundays.

These new residents with high energy, resolve and commitment bring a wealth of creativity and hope to places that desperately need these qualities. The hidden strength of these communities, once uncovered, are often so compelling that many of these volunteers fail to leave at the end of their service term and remain for another year, a few years or for a lifetime. A church that is engaged is a gift not just to the members but to all of those who are in eye shot of their steeple and in ear shot of their bells.

Churches Are Getting Involved

Some are starting to act. In St. Paul, Minn., House of Hope Church is turning a home next to the church into a House of Hospitality for four young adults, while designating the space on the first floor for community gatherings and meetings. 

Kenda Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, has launched the Acts 2 Community Initiative with the United Methodist Church of Kingston and other communities. Elizabeth Chun Hye Lee, the United Methodist Church's Executive Secretary, Young Adult Mission Service, is working with Rev. Hannah Bonner to establish the Restoration Generation service initiative, which will establish houses to support volunteers working on Hurricane Sandy cleanup in New Jersey.

Rev. Bob Henderson and the Covenant Church in Charlotte, N.C., recently purchased an apartment building with five condominiums. They are committed to housing young adults involved in service and to be creatively involved in the life and the outreach of the church. 

What Does It Take?

  • A congregation's determination to show hospitality to young adults and to establish a living arrangement for a small number of them.
  • Identifying a property where the can live. This could be a manse or a parish house that is not being used or underused. Perhaps a church member has a house that they can make available at a reduced rate. If there is no property available, a church could rent a house nearby and furnish it with silverware, bed, couches and love. Or how about converting extra space in a church into a dorm room. Why not contact a school and see if they have underused dorm space?
  • Creating some type of community rule of life that will deal with things like: How many people will live in the house? What will they be expected to do? Wilson-Hartgrove wrote the "12 Marks of New Monasticism." Before launching, a church must ask and answer a number of questions: What type of spiritual exploration and routine will be expected of them? How will they engage in the life of the congregation (please don't say attending Sunday morning worship or Wednesday evening Bible Study). Certainly invite them but don't make them. For more information about Houses of Hospitality, please read: Faith 3's Invitation To Join The Movement
  • Appointing a liaison to the house will be important, either a member of the church staff and/or a member of the congregation. There will need to be someone in charge of the house, both the logistics and the programing.
  • Keeping it simple. Grow into it. The first year will look different than the insuring ones. There is no exact model one has to follow or a product that must be created other than providing a safe and meaningful space to live. Last month, under the leadership of the dynamic Rob Fohr, the newly appointed Young Adult Catalyst of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, we sponsored a webinar that had more than a hundred participants wanting to learn more about Houses of Hospitality. As a follow-up, a resource link is up and available to anyone at: PresbyterianMission.org

The process could take years, or not. I have been working with one congregation for over a year and they are going to wait until the fall of 2014 to open their house. When explaining the idea to Cameron Cochran, a 24-year-old woman who lived in intentional community through Church of the Savior, she explained that that it would take about 20 minutes to pull together living arrangements on Craigslist. So somewhere between 20 minutes and 20 months.

Churches Need to Help


Establishing a House of Hospitality is one of the most transformative initiatives that a church can take on to be present, relevant and supportive. Houses of Hospitality need to be as common as youth fellowship and as integrated as the Sunday offerings. 

Over the next seven years, the Christian community must establish 1,000 Houses of Hospitality. They can take many different shapes and forms. By the fall of 2014 we could have 100 houses, by 2015 we could have 200, by 2017, 500 and by 2020, 1,000. 

Houses of Hospitality will deliver the powerful message of welcome and inclusivity to a generation and it will make churches a central part of the service movement, which is where it needs to be. All it takes is a desire to do it and the decision to follow through. It is called the Gospel.


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