“An Unconditional Embrace”

The New York Encounter event introducing the newly translated book by Fr. Giussani, “The Miracle of Hospitality” shares three expressions of the same unconditional embrace.
Amy Sapenoff Hamm

Fr. Giussani, in his newly translated book The Miracle of Hospitality, describes the conditions for hospitality as a miracle, noting that, “If we do not feel welcomed or loved in the first place, we cannot share anything. In other words, we cannot make our presence part of another’s presence; we cannot open our presence to welcome the presence of another.”

Three expressions of this miracle were made flesh on the stage Sunday afternoon at the New York Encounter. The event, “An Unconditional Embrace” shared different stories of people who have been given the grace and opportunity to welcome others or have had the experience of being welcomed themselves.

The event began with a brief introduction to Giussani’s text by Tom Tobin, the moderator. Tom and his wife Grainne have themselves welcomed young adults needing support and housing over the years. He pointed to three key points from Giussani’s text to ground the conversation that was to follow. First, people need to be welcomed in order to welcome. As Tom said, “we welcome others to a place where our own need has been embraced”. Second, belonging to a companionship is imperative. Third, welcoming is a work that must be gratuitous, because “hospitality does not mean that you give something, but that you give everything”. Each of these general points became clarified in the concrete examples that followed.

“We welcome others to a place where our own need has been embraced”

Maria Chiara and Rick Kusher shared their experience of welcoming Davide, their son with Down Syndrome, into their family, highlighting how much they were sustained by the support of friends. The beginning of their witness traced the memory of Maria Chiara, delighted to find out that she was pregnant, feeling specially chosen to welcome this new baby. After initial rounds of genetic testing and pressure from doctors to take another path, Maria Chiara, with the help of Rick, saw her pregnancy in a different light. She was still feeling chosen, but in the way the Simon of Cyrene was chosen to help Jesus to carry His cross. As Maria Chiara said, “I knew that we were participating in Christ’s passion, but that we knew we were not alone. The yes we said to the baby was carried by so many of our friends and family.”

Life with Davide, from the days of infancy to the present, as a pre-teen, have been marked with a kind of reciprocal embrace. Maria Chiara and Rick both described their relationship with Davide as a place where their own humanity and needs are attended to. Davide, in his simplicity, lays bare his love for his parents and family, expressing his joys and sorrows in a totally transparent way. He makes Maria Chiara laugh when she is down, prompts his parents to kiss and hold hands when there is tension, and seeks out Rick when he withdraws from others.

Paradoxically, Maria Chiara and Rick found the experience of welcoming Davide to be one where their humanity, shortcomings and all, has been welcomed. As Rick said, “Davide is almost too much in his sweetness and affection, so I would wonder, why did we get this gift? I had an intuition, that has grown over time, that my love for Davide was a taste of God’s love for me.”

“Hospitality does not mean that you give something, but that you give everything”

Nate and Ashely, a couple from Omaha, Nebraska, shared their experience of giving everything to become foster parents to three little girls, sisters ranging in age from an infant to three years old. Their story was one that, from an outsider’s point of view, had been full of missteps and tragedy. Before becoming foster parents, they were part of an open adoption program, hoping to adopt a baby. During this time, they experienced several adoption possibilities and two changes of heart, where the birth mother selected them as adoptive parents, but ultimately decided to keep the baby. It was during this time that they confided to a priest friend that they wanted to be careful to not grow too attached to the child in the early stages of the adoption process, lest they become too attached and later disappointed. Their friend corrected them, saying, “if you loved this baby, you needed to love her now, without reserve”. They would have to be willing to love to the point of giving everything, trusting in a radical dependence on God to carry on.

This conviction helped them to take their next step, pivoting to fostering instead of adoption. The initial slog of bureaucracy and paperwork quickly dissipated and before they knew it, they were taking two sisters into their home, the oldest being just two years old. The first few days were chaotic, as all parties involved tried to get their feet on the ground. Nate and Ashley quickly learned that they had to continue to say yes, not based on their own capacity, but as a fruit of their dependence.

Seeing their journey in this light allowed them to welcome the third sister as a newborn, despite feeling like they had reached their limit. As they had when standing in front of other difficult decisions and circumstances, they decided to open their home and hearts once again, asking God for the freedom to say ‘yes’.

Nate and Ashley noted that in the past year their girls have made tremendous social and physical progress. But the real progress that they see is in their own capacity for love and finding joy, the bounds of which are indeed infinite. Early in their journey, during one of their first adoption matches, they had feared becoming too attached to the child who God had ultimately destined for someone else. Now, as foster parents, there is an even greater risk, knowing that the goal of fostering is eventual reunification with the childrens’ birth mother. However, at the conclusion of their presentation, Nate and Ashley were both emphatic that they have learned that attachment is precisely the point. Growing more in love and more attached to the children that they have been asked to welcome is one of the greatest gifts as foster parents.

“Hospitality is a totalizing embrace of what is different”

Hasmat Wali spoke about his radical escape from Kabul, Afghanistan in August of 2021 and the hospitality that he and his family received en route to his current home in Northern Virginia.

A little under three years ago, Hasmat’s life was just beginning. He was a young man at the beginning of his career, newly married, and with a new-born son. However, his life quickly turned upside down when the United States initiated their withdrawal from Afghanistan and the government shut down. The Taliban quickly took over province after province, before eventually taking over Kabul, the capital as well.

Hasmat, having worked as a contractor for both the US State Department and the Department of Defense, knew that both he and his family would be a target. He quickly went into hiding, moving from place to place for two weeks. Eventually he received news that he and his family would be escorted out of the country. They left with little more than the clothes on their backs, their documents, and a little bit of cash. The airport in Kabul was full of chaos, with thousands of people scrambling to get out of the country. Hasmat and his family left their country with 800 other passengers in a cramped cargo plane, making the four hour trip to Qatar.

It was there that Hasmat’s journey began to shift from terror to hospitality. He noted how much he felt cared for and attended to by the military personnel that was helping with evacuation. Even if there weren’t many resources to go around, the soldiers helped to make sure that his young son had the formula he needed. This was also his experience of the US military once they reached the United States, staying at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for two months. He noted that everyone he met in the camps, “wanted to help us to experience freedom”.

He found the same sort of welcome when he reached Virginia and was paired with Lutheran Social Services as well as Catholic organizations that helped his family to find housing, furnishing everything from clothing to the furniture. Hasmat was able to get a job with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, seeing this as a true gift and way to give back. The fact that he is now working for an organization that has a mission of welcoming others has become one more occasion for gratitude. Despite barriers of language, culture, and circumstance, Hasmat and his family are alive and thriving thanks to the hospitality of some many who desired their freedom and wellbeing.

These examples revealed, as Tom said at the beginning, that welcoming is not just a kind gesture or taking someone into your home, rather it is a totalizing “embrace of what is different”.