I’ve just returned from the Summer Gathering of the The Ekklesia Project, held every year at DePaul University in Chicago. This year’s theme, “Neighbors Near and Far,” took on the pressing issue of immigration. For three days we explored together what it means for the Church to understand itself as a called-out people in exile–alien to Empire–and thus called to see the immigrants in our midst as neighbors to welcome and be welcomed by.

Danny Carroll, a professor of Old Testament at Denver Seminary and the author of Christians at the Border, deftly (and with infectious passion) showed us how the story of Yahweh and the covenant community of Israel is a story of a migrant people. And in Jesus, the refugee child of this pilgrim, persecuted people, homeless and without papers himself, falsely arrested, tortured, and executed by the authorities–this Jesus shows us in his living and dying how to love our immigrant neighbors.

Beth Newman, a friend and long-time participant in EP, spoke to us about hospitality with her characteristic grace and her naturally hospitable spirit. She asked us to “remember where we live” and to understand that at the heart of hospitality is vulnerability. When she began her talk by reciting George Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” she had me–as they say–at hello.

Our third plenary speaker was Craig Wong, a man who lifts your spirits just by being in his presence. As director of Grace Urban Ministries in San Fransciso, an outreach arm of Grace Fellowship Community Church, Craig reminded us that the Eucharist is the “table that turns us” — the place at which a shared meal received from a generous, hospitable God becomes the site from which we are sent out to receive, with gladness, God’s hospitality in the stranger.

We were led in worship and preaching by the skilled musicianship of Chi-Ming Chien (who also happens to be the founder and principal of Dayspring Technologies which recently took the EP website to new heights of awesomeness) and the compelling preaching of Erin Martin, a United Methodist pastor in Eugene, Oregon, and Gabriel and Jeannette Salguero, co-pastors of The Lamb’s Church in lower Manhattan. A new feature this year was the practice of lectio divina, led beautifully by Mark Lau Branson whose work on “appreciative inquiry” can be transformative for congregations facing change (and what congregation isn’t?).

There were workshops on immigration policy; advocacy and social service; hospitality in the home; and ministry with immigrant families. There were good books to be had, thanks to our friends at Brazos Press, Wipf and Stock, Doulos Christou, and Eerdmans. There were conversations over coffee, over meals, over glasses of beer and wine. We were always running a little behind schedule because these conversations with old friends and new can’t be rushed or easily ended–they are the stuff of gospel friendship and hospitality. Our fearless leader, EP Coordinator Brent Laytham, was patient with us, mostly. We thanked him profusely for all his hard work.

The Ekklesia Project has long defined itself as a school for subversive friendship and during our time together in Chicago we were reminded that “vulnerable hospitality” is central to such friendship: not merely or even primarily the vulnerability of those we extend hospitality to, but our own vulnerability–our willingness to risk our own comfort, status, power, (safety?) in receiving the gift of God’s goodness from the strangers in our midst.

Since returning home I’ve been thinking about a powerful sermon I encountered a few years ago by Edgardo Colón-Emeric entitled “Jesus the Illegal Alien.” In it, Edgardo notes that the Greek word paroikos (stranger, foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship) is the root of the word “parish.” So our parochial life, life in local Christian community, is illegal life. Can we truly hear this in the context of contemporary U.S. immigration policy?

Vulnerable hospitality is about crossing borders–whether they be concrete fences or our paralyzing fears. But in Jesus, our good coyote, we have a trustworthy guide. And in each other we find the strength we need for what lies ahead.