The Sacred Art of Hospitality interview with Nanette Sawyer

Hospitality is all the rage in communities coast to coast this year, in part because we are approaching the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving. But what is hospitality? Emily Post? Serving tea? A suite at a convention with mixed drinks? Where do we turn to rediscover the spiritual core of hospitality?

Google is no help! Type in “hospitality and church” and you’ll get more than 35 million responses!

Today, we’re proud to introduce the Rev. Nanette Sawyer and her book: Hospitality—The Sacred Art—Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome. Our good friends Fred and Maryanne Brussat at the Spirituality & Practice website have reviewed Nanette’s book, calling it “excellent” and providing a quick summary of the book that we will share with you here:

The Rev. Nanette Sawyer is founding pastor of Grace Commons, an innovative Christian community in Chicago that holds hospitality as a core value. An ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church (USA) … Sawyer sees the spiritual practice of hospitality as sending out circles of meaning and connection in our lives. Its three main qualities are receptivity (opening the door to God), reverence (entering the space of love between us), and generosity (giving the gifts that we have received).” You may enjoy reading the Brussats’ entire review or an excerpt of the book that the Brussats published at their website.

As you can tell already, this is not an Emily Post guide to etiquette. At the same time, it is a very practical book. The chapters have titles such as “Hospitality to Neighbors: Becoming the Merciful Neighbor” and “Hospitality to Enemies: Extending Generosity through Non-Retaliation.” In each section, Nanette divides up her material with easy-to-follow sub-heads and lists of helpful bullet points. She explains step by step how readers can explore all of these forms of hospitality. It’s a great choice for small-group discussion in your congregation.

However, we also want to be clear: This isn’t a cookbook guaranteeing church growth as an outcome. This book is—as SkyLight Paths so appropriately has labeled the book—about learning the “Art of Spiritual Living.” This process makes for a better life—and a better world and, if you follow these practices, a much healthier congregation and community. In the course of Nanette’s book, you’ll find ideas that parallel our own Read The Spirit Founding Principles.

At one point, Nanette describes the value this way: “Through this practice of hospitality to ideas and the people who hold them, I have been opened and inspired, nurtured and reassured of the deep relationality that is life. I hope that my learnings can shine a light on your path as well.


READ THE SPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: As I travel around the country, I meet countless people talking about “hospitality.” Kindness is a central part of our American character—but, most of us are ashamed that our country now seems so divided and so—well, so flat-out rude. I’m going to urge readers to buy your book to discover a much broader understanding of what hospitality means—where it begins and how far it extends.  I’m also going to tell readers that you aren’t Emily Post. So, give us a big picture of hospitality: What is it?

THE REV. NANETTE SAWYER: I have often thought of my book about hospitality as a book about love. It’s about learning how we can become people capable of love. I’m asking: How do we learn to love like this? How do we show love? How do we use love? Think about love as a tool that we can learn to use more effectively and we begin to appreciate how incredibly empowering and transformative this can be.

DAVID: I like that! One way to explain the big picture of hospitality is to define it as an expression of “love.” You’re teaching people that hospitality really springs for a deep authenticity—as deep as love itself, right?

NANETTE: Absolutely. And if we hope to be hospitable in an authentic way, then we have to take risks and learn to see both ourselves and others in new ways.

In his declaration of a national Thanksgiving 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln told the nation that we must be honest about our own failures and limitations. He wanted Americans to see these truths. Yet, he wanted Americans to understand that we still are precious and we can heal from our wounds. That’s another important part of this process. Hospitality calls us to be better people.

DAVID: You’re touching on forgiveness here—giving up the angry knots of hurt we feel toward people we believe are our enemies. One way “forgiveness” is described is that we consciously give up our desire for vengeance for past wrongs. We let go of the fear and the anger we’ve nursed since the original offense.

NANETTE: That’s right. Now, we need to say that forgiveness is not permission to simply let people go on acting harmfully. But forgiveness is closely related to hope. Forgiveness says that we are placing our hope in this new kind of hospitality we are developing. Forgiveness is a big process. We have to learn to forgive ourselves. We have to let God forgive us. This is all part of becoming better people capable of love and capable of hospitality.


DAVID: My wife and I are helping to clean out the home of my elderly parents, who now live in a smaller apartment. Our whole family has been involved in this process for months now. It’s a big task. But one thing people learn in cleaning out a person’s former homestead is that we certainly can’t hold onto the things we accumulate forever. It’s an ancient truth in all the world’s religions: These things we seem to “own” in life are not really “ours.” And, it seems to me, that’s a part of what you’re trying to get readers to see about hospitality.

NANETTE: That’s part of this bigger vision I’m encouraging. As people talk about things being “mine” or even “our own”—they are describing only their own isolation. As you say, we don’t really “own” what we have in a permanent way. My book is about building a shared community. I’m calling people to open ourselves up to a bigger reality. It’s about sharing everything that we have and everything we think we own.

DAVID: Let’s take this down to a practical level. The fact is that most people in congregations coast to coast don’t know much about the other people in their own congregation. On most residential streets across America, neighbors don’t know each other anymore. If some of the things we’ve said so far in this interview seem a bit abstract—your practical advice in the book starts with very tangible steps. You advise readers to: Spend more intentional time with your family. Meet your neighbors. Learn about the other people in your congregation.

NANETTE: Right.  If we’re going to welcome neighbors, we have to start by knowing who lives nearby. We ultimately need to be aware of the whole planet, but we can start with becoming aware of the people who live with us on our street, in our neighborhood, in our town. Maybe the people on your street are all like you—but maybe not. It takes a great deal of courage to go out and meet the people living nearby. We need to practice an awareness of what’s happening around us in our neighborhoods.

I also talk to readers about practicing hospitality in your family. And I encourage people to learn about each other in congregations, as well. In many congregations, these days, there is a real hesitancy to invite other congregants over to your home for dinner. I want to encourage people to start thinking and talking about why that isolation is so common today. What is it inside of us that makes it hard for us to open our homes? Is it because we’re afraid of what we might learn about them—or what they might learn about us?


DAVID: After 40 years of interviewing people around the world, I love conversation. But this really is a skill that most people haven’t mastered, today. In fact, as we move more toward digital interaction with the world, the ability to start a good conversation with another person really takes some practice. Of course, the best conversationalists are those people who are genuinely interested in the person they’re meeting—so interested that they spend as much time asking questions as they do talking about themselves.

One thing that sold me on the value of your book was the practical pages you provide in the heart of the book about the practice of conversation. You provide several good discussion starters—classic questions that good conversationalists often use. Tell us about that.

NANETTE: I write about something as basic as conversation because most people don’t regularly experience intentional conversation.

DAVID: You write, “Intentional conversation has this effect of creating a free and open space between the people conversing. It is the space of encounter in which we are deeply attentive to each other. In this space, we foster our curiosity about each other and express that curiosity in the form of an invitation to know each other better.”

NANETTE: Most people tend to go for easy topics in conversation—like the weather. And that’s not bad. We’re culturally conditioned to do that and the weather can be fine as a starting point. But, you want to find out more about what’s important to this person you’re meeting. We really want to get to know people, so how do we move from passive comments on the weather—to finding out about the other person. You can ask: What do you do for fun? Or ask about the person’s hobbies. It’s simple. Just ask: What are your hobbies? Or ask: What’s been on your mind lately? That’s a nice open question that invites a person to take their answer in a number of directions.

If you ask questions in this more open-ended way, you’re likely to discover new things that never would have occurred to you. If you risk this kind of conversation—if you risk learning about the people around you in this way, then we all will feel more connected and less isolated.


DAVID: You recommend many ways to interact with people—conversation is just one of the essential steps. In your own life, you’ve been experimenting for years with creating collaborative artworks as a way to build community.

I’m going to provide a link so readers can take a look at one of your online installations, based on a large-scale collage project you did a year or so ago. You took the centuries-old format of Stations of the Cross and you invited lots of people to help you create contemporary stations. (Here is the link to Stations of the Cross: Pray with Grace Commons, built around immigration themes.) I’m in awe of what you achieved here! It’s one thing to recommend your book. But, it really underlines the value of your book when people can see how powerfully you’ve spread this message. Just look at your Grace Commons Stations of the Cross. To create this big installation, you produced some of this art yourself. The members of your congregation and community produced some. And then—you created a hospitable place where other artists and other congregations also created artworks. Finally, you brought them all together.

I think this really is a tangible sign of the power behind your ideas.

NANETTE: I’ve become an artist through my work with Grace Commons. We intentionally did a lot of work with the arts in ministry because we wanted people to tap into different ways of engaging in spiritual life. We did an arts workshop on what we called Mapping Forgiveness. We started a project called Art Space in which people would actually do art in what we consider a worship time. One project was to make an all-original stations of the cross, so we tried that in 2007. There were some artists in the community who agreed to create one or two stations. Then, we created other stations as collaborative art projects involving a lot of people.

That went so well in 2007 that we created this later Stations of the Cross on immigration themes that you’re going to link to online. If you look at the art we produced in that second stations project, you will see a lot of collages among the pieces. That’s because I needed to develop a way of doing art that would convey meaning and yet also could be done in a community setting. With collages, everyone can tear paper and paste it.

DAVID: Clearly, you’ve got lots of talents in teaching and talking with people. So, here’s the last question: If you had a chance to talk with readers as they finish reading your book, what would you tell them?

NANETTE: I would say: I hope you feel affirmed in your preciousness. I hope you feel affirmed in seeing that you are precious and loved by God. I hope that you are encouraged not only to accept that love deeper in your own life—but that you also want to share love with the people you encounter each day—and then with our larger planet.


The Rev. Nanette Sawyer is a pastor, artist, teacher and spiritual counselor who understands that hospitality has the power to heal. The author of Hospitality—The Sacred Art, Nanette teaches about a soul-deep hospitality that is nothing short of transformative. For years, she has been involved in interfaith work both locally and nationally. As an author, she writes as a Christian who is committed to what she describes as “reclaiming the historically dynamic nature of Christianity, as well as its roots in hospitality and generosity.”

Raised in a conservative Christian church, Nanette renounced the faith in her pre-teen years and spent more than a decade finding her way to a Christian faith that made sense and was rooted in grace and love. She recalls that it was the hospitality of generous teachers and practitioners that led her to this new experience of Christianity as a positive force in her life and in the world. Nanette began her working life with a two-year stint as a repair seamstress after getting out of college. Next, she directed a Women’s Resource Center at a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, for eight years before heading to Harvard Divinity School to study Comparative World Religions and to obtain a Masters of Theological Studies. After Harvard, Nanette worked at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists in Boston for two years, and then headed to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago to get her Masters of Divinity degree. In 2002 she was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and was one of the first women to found an emergent style church.

Supported by the Presbytery of Chicago, Nanette launched an experimental “church without walls,” now called “Grace Commons” (originally Wicker Park Grace) in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. Since November 2012 she also pastors a small, progressive church, St. James Presbyterian Church, which is currently the host of the Grace Commons community. In addition to her book on Hospitality, she has chapters and articles in a number of books and magazines. A sought after speaker, you can learn much more about her life and work by visiting her main blog: A Transformed Faith at

(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    Hospitality for introverts is a topic on my mind, thanks for asking! Introverts often don’t know how to ask a question, but love to answer them. At the church Coffee Hour Sunday I noticed a woman who would not look at anyone. I’m new, we’re new, to this church and not feeling real sure how to be yet ourselves. This woman’s husband didn’t turn his head much. Then I noticed they were putting Zerox copies of photos of churches and mosques in Turkey down on the coffee table. So we got to talking about their recent two-week trip to Turkey. THEY brought the pictures. That was what worked.