Notes from Hospitality 101

I had promised I would summarize a few of the things I learned (and am currently learning!) while researching for an essay on hospitality. If you’re interested in reading the entire essay, send me a message. 🙂

  • We think of hospitality as taking place in our homes. But hospitality is broader than that; we can take hospitality with us wherever we go by honoring those around us.
  • Hospitality is not about bowing to the expectations of others. It’s not that we ignore expectations, but neither obligation nor martyrdom is true hospitality. Why? Because our work, our hospitality will never validate us; only God can do that.
  • Christ followers are commanded to show hospitality. (Check out Titus 1:8, 1 Timothy 5:10, Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:2, and 1 Peter 4:9.) However, the truth is that we love our comforts. And the other truth is that hospitality isn’t always comfortable. So while it would be easier never to invite anyone into our homes and lives, as Christians, we no longer worship the god of comfort.
  • If you’re an introvert like me, hospitality may feel like it requires more than you can give. But it doesn’t. Everyone needs boundaries and everyone has limits. If you’re introverted, it doesn’t exempt you from hospitality; it just means that you prepare for hospitality differently than those who have different limits.
  • True hospitality starts with worship. God is the One who empowers hospitality because He shows us both our imago dei and our depravity, reminding us that we are on the same level as everyone who walks through our door.
  • Hospitality can be grand and life-changing, but day-to-day hospitality is usually quiet, small, and insignificant.
  • We cannot wait until we know how to do it “right” or have the “right” circumstances before we show hospitality. If so, we will never start. Perfectionism can stand in the way of God working through us. In fact, hospitality goes hand in hand with humility, creating a space for our own vulnerability.
  • Speaking of creating spaces, hospitality creates a safe space for relationship regardless of life’s circumstances. Not only that, but we need to be fully present, committed to the privilege of walking with someone on their journey, even as they walk with us on ours. In other words, we should be invested for the long haul.
  • Hospitality is both living and speaking love and truth, all the while acknowledging that our story is only a part of a bigger story, God’s story.
  • Yes, hospitality requires much but it also blesses much. We connect with people we may have never known otherwise. We learn to enjoy them instead of use them. We are enriched when we enrich the lives of others, sharing our gifts and partaking of their gifts. We also bless God when we live in obedience to His Word.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A few more thoughts on hospitality

A few months ago, I mentioned that I hoped to share with you some of what I learned while writing an essay on hospitality. In May, a day trip to a mountain town with my neighbor’s family jogged my memory. My memory continued to jog, but only in place as the busyness of June took over.

Now here I am at last with my hospitality essay at my side. But my mind keeps returning to that mountain town…

As I sprawled out on the little sister’s bed during siesta time, my eyes roamed the room, spotting things stashed here and there. A rickety binder that looked as if it had been tossed on top of the wardrobe and promptly forgotten. Broken drawers in a dresser decorated with childish markers. An abandoned attempt at decor.

The untidiness spoke of things not cared for.

Yet there I was, a stranger to the family, welcomed into their home and offered a bed. Rather than buy expensive things and focus on protecting them from harm, this family created a space that said people mattered more.

The women set up a chair in the narrow kitchen doorway for me to sit and hold the baby and then spent the evening tripping over me as they bustled about. And they didn’t mind.

As we finished dinner around midnight, a deep weariness came over me as I looked around at the pile of people in the living room. As soon as they left, the cleanup would need to begin.

And then they left, and rather than being overwhelmingly dirty, the house looked almost clean. As I helped to stack the green plastic chairs and fluff the postage stamp pillows, I wondered why.

It was as if the people who had been in the room were the only decor. The room was serviceable not beautiful, because the emphasis was on the relationships of those who gathered rather than the things they gathered around.

I don’t believe that hospitality and taking care of things are mutually exclusive. However, coming from a culture that often values possessions more than relationships, I appreciate the reminder to engage the relational side of hospitality.

Oops. I’ve been rather long-winded and I haven’t even started my essay summary. Maybe next week? 🙂

5 things I learned about hospitality last week

Hospitality creates a resting place for those you love… and even those you’re still trying to love. It’s not boundary-less, but true hospitality grows our understanding of boundaries, sometimes stretching and sometimes reinforcing. About a year ago, I wrote an essay on this topic, drawing from the experience of others, experience I hope to acquire as time goes on. Maybe another day I’ll share some of those thoughts.

But today, I’m writing about what I learned last week in Córdoba with my Pakistani friend and her family.

Although the week had its ups and downs, I savored their hospitality. Hospitality is not cultureless and sometimes those hiccups caught me off-guard, like when someone ordered for me at a restaurant instead of letting me choose for myself. Still, hospitality transcends culture. It is resilient because love is resilient. 

Here are five things I noticed about hospitality during my stay in my friend’s home:

  1. Hospitality is selfless. The family adjusted their sleeping arrangements in the tiny bedrooms so that I would be most comfortable. The fact that the door didn’t close because the foot of my roommate’s bed was in the way was irrelevant. It really was the best arrangement and they were less comfortable for it.
  2. Hospitality is sharing the fullness of self. I heard a lot of stories. These women weren’t pretending to have it all together; they were vulnerable. On the lighter side, they also shared the specialness of their culture and background.
  3. Hospitality gives space for love to grow. It doesn’t demand love or care, but it shelters a space for them to grow. Time was protected. My friend’s mother took the day off of work just because I was there. We went out for churros instead.
  4. Hospitality wants you there. I’ve both hostessed and been hostessed out of obligation, but that’s not hospitality, at least not in its fullness. On this visit, I was welcomed and I was wanted. They delighted in my presence as I did in theirs. My friend’s little boy came calling my name whenever I was out of sight: “Come play with me!”
  5. Hospitality accepts as well as gives. The family refused to let me pay for our tostadas or bus fare or anything else. But they happily accepted the gifts I had brought them. Hospitality doesn’t expect reciprocity, but it graciously receives.

How have you seen hospitality in others? Have you noticed any cultural differences? How has hospitality transcended culture, even sub-culture? What are some bits of wisdom that you have gleaned along the way? I’d love to hear and learn. 🙂

Mi casa es tu casa

My neighbor’s hands were slick with oily meloui dough when the doorbell rang. “Could you get that?”

I opened the door and gave a cheerful “Salam walekum!” The young mother greeted me but backed away with popping eyes and an apology. 

“No, no, no, you came to the right door.” I grinned. “Welcome.” I had dropped by to play with my neighbor’s little boy. Soon I had three little people to play with and a mother who stood beaming over me, incredulous that I was there on the floor stringing monkeys from the doorknob and reading about 1-2-3 with Winnie the Pooh. The new little girls wanted laptime too.

Amid the chaos of the younger generation, I heard snippets of the visitor’s story, a story that didn’t match her sparkling eyes. Then we ate meloui, tiny cooling pieces at a time. I ate mine, trying not to sprinkle crumbs on the smooth little pigtail bobbing just below my chin.

“This is such a great day,” my neighbor sang as she shuffled us around the table in order to reach the fridge. “My friend came and my neighbor!” She smiled and began sorting through last week’s cilantro. 

If I hadn’t known, I would not have guessed that her son had been sick, refusing to eat and wailing day and night for several days straight. In desperation, his parents had hauled him to the ER where he got the medication he needed. 

Low on sleep on top of a distorted schedule, would I have been cheerful to have my house overflowing with people?

You could argue that hospitality is required in Islam and therefore, whether or not they feel it, North Africans are hospitable. True. But most North Africans are not just hospitable because they’re required to be; it’s less of a conscious choice and more of an integral part of life.

Another night, my neighbor, her friend, and I walked to the park. There, we joined up with several other women. Our bench seated three and squished four. We were seven.

Had we been American, we would have chatted briefly and then half of us would have moved to a nearby bench to sit. However, North Africans value relationships much more than they value comfort… and relationships require time spent together. So three of us stood or chased renegade children while four sat hip to hip. Every now and then, someone wedged themselves out of the line-up and gave another the chance to sit for a while.

I came home from that outing, over-stimulated and linguistically exhausted. The sound of my key turning in the lock was absolutely musical. I am American and I value both personal space and comfort. I will probably always value those two things. Those values and solid relationships aren’t mutually exclusive when others prioritize the same values.

But what about when they don’t?

I’m still pondering what it means to be an introvert in my line of work–What does that look like practically? (Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to explore this on my blog.) But I will say this: even in my exhaustion, I also rejoice in the beauty of a culture that decidedly values relationships and community, even at the expense of individual preference.

Some things I miss/ Things I don’t (so far)

Things I miss:

  • Friends
  • Making friends quickly
  • A respect for morals rather than a disdain of them
  • Bringing God into everyday conversation without people thinking you are overly pious
  • Easy and cheap transportation
  • Inexpensive produce
  • Going out to eat on a whim because of inexpensive menu prices
  • Bargaining for prices
  • Warm and constant hospitality
  • Crossing the street without a crosswalk… and not feeling guilty
  • People looking excited when you speak to them in their language
  • People watching out for you

Things I don’t miss:

  • The class system and discrimination
  • Being addressed in French
  • Being treated as a trophy friend
  • Being treated as better than others
  • The façade of open-mindedness
  • A monotonous cuisine
  • Bread
  • Catcalls
  • Being targeted by people asking for things because you are a foreigner
  • People budging
  • People asking invasive questions

Aisha- part 3

Isolated. That was the flavor of the air as we walked down streets that were merely variations of the same. I was the only foreigner in the neighborhood, strange considering that just over the hill, tourists were thick within the shadowy walls of the old city.

But here, crumbling buildings full of tiny apartments stretched toward the overcast sky. Cobblestone streets cupped leftover puddles and floating litter. Laundry was strung everywhere: on wires, through window grates, on rooftop clotheslines. Curious faces darkened whitewashed doorways and window ledges. Children danced along the streets in endless game.

Much of the world was happening outside. Together. As if the culture didn’t realize that people didn’t have enough room to live.

Our first stop was a relative’s home. We entered a low doorway and were enveloped in a world of chattering woman. It was a noise that trailed up several flights of uneven concrete steps. There Aisha picked up her 1 1/2 year-old son. And there, we were offered coffee so sweet it made my teeth cringe. My coffee cup smelled like the residue of someone else’s saliva. I smiled and drank the coffee anyway. Our hostess was a dainty woman. Her face was young, but her smile revealed only a few teeth scattered along her gums.

I met in-laws, nephews, sisters, and other connections I no longer remember. It didn’t help that I was struggling to remember my family vocabulary! After a few more stops, we wound our way to Aisha’s apartment. She insisted on carrying the juices I had brought with me even though she was also carrying her little boy.

The apartment building was cold and concrete. With every floor that we climbed, I would turn and ask Aisha, “Here?” She would shake her head, “Still!” She said that all of the way to the sixth floor after dozens and dozens of uneven concrete steps.

In each woman, there is a certain amount of pride for her home. Aisha was no exception, although her home consisted of a closet-sized wash room and kitchen, one salon, and one bedroom. That was all.

Aisha’s 16-year-old daughter Soukaina and I walked out on the roof to stare at the world six stories below. Heads walked by–heads without faces from my point of view. A woman dumped a bucket of water over the cobblestones in front of her home and scrubbed vigorously. Two little girls played school. A man propped himself in the doorway and watched the world. A woman two doors down did the same. But it wasn’t just the street that was alive; all throughout the apartment towers, people were moving: appearing in windows, hollering to someone below, gathering laundry on the rooftop, smoking a cigarette, or talking across the street with someone in the opposite building.

Once Aisha ascertained that I liked couscous, the lunch preparations began. I offered to help once, but only once. I was a guest. When the food was ready around 4 p.m., the family pulled down the table for my sake. (I heard the father say, “She’s American.”) There were some other random family members around the table, and I couldn’t remember exactly how they fit in the family. But it didn’t really matter.

We all dug into the center plate. Aisha kept tossing potatoes and carrots onto my side of the platter. Whenever I tried to stop eating, they demanded I eat more. No amount of “I’m full, praise God!”s could satisfy their vicious desire to watch me glut myself.

For me, mealtime was tense because in their attempt to honor me, they set my presumed needs so far above their own comforts that I felt the separation deeply. I was given two cushions to sit on at the table and the older woman present was given none. When I tried to share, I only succeeded in raising a chorus of protests. I was incapable of experiencing their everyday life because I had the prestige of a guest.

After an hour of TV and conversation over the TV, the preparation for the afternoon tea began. I offered to go with Soukaina to buy doughnuts, but the father turned down my offer on account of my being American. “This is not like the new city!” he declared. My presence would attract attention and a 16-year-old companion didn’t provide the necessary protection.

More female relatives joined us for tea and the conversation livened. We laughed, ate, and took pictures. And then it was time to go. We descended–down down down–until the precarious stairwell spewed us onto the narrow cobblestone street again.

We sloshed through the evening drizzle to the taxis. Aisha and Soukaina tried to accompany me home in the taxi, but when I put up a protest that rivaled their insistence, they relented. But Aisha gave the driver precise instructions where I needed to be deposited and made sure that I had enough money with me. I kissed them both goodbye.

For now.

Aisha- part 2

Aisha was waiting for me on my way to school the next day. And the next. And every morning that I had the early hour of class. Because of her, I began to recognize the network of house workers who met regularly to chat on the way to their respective jobs.

Although I was glad for the chance to practice conversational Arabic, I still was unsure of what she wanted from me.

The day she had invited me to stay at her house grew closer. Because of my apprehension, I managed to whittle the overnight adventure down to a day trip. On the Friday before, we rehearsed what would take place on Sunday: I would meet her at the same place under the berry tree across from the bus stop at 11:00 a.m.

I don’t think she believed I would follow through with the plan. She tried calling me five times while I was in church. And when I finally answered, I was on my way to the meeting place.

“I’m coming!”

She spewed a string of sentences I couldn’t understand, but what I assumed to be a reason that she was behind schedule.

“Okay. Okay. No problem. Okay.”

And I waited under the berry tree until a taxi pulled up and honked. Aisha was in the backseat, bouncing in her excitement. She grabbed me in a warm embrace before I had the chance to close the door behind me. And she talked, one rapid sentence after another, often missing the fact that I didn’t understand.

The taxi wound through the new city, behind the old city, and up up up on a hill. There was no containing Aisha’s joy as she led me out of the taxi and into her world.

It was the first bite of a day full of exquisite North African hospitality.

Aisha- part 1

We had seen each other before. Most mornings I passed her by on my way to school. She and a friend would sit on a concrete bench under a tree. Noting the consistency of our timing and location, I greeted the women regularly. But I never slowed enough to make conversation.

Until the day I needed help with my homework. Both ladies were startled when I plopped down beside them and asked them to help me. With no context for this encounter, they were full of questions: Was I a student? Where was I studying? What kind of Arabic was I studying? What was my name?

The conversation was labored, but I finished the assignment and arrived at class, breathless and only a few minutes late.

A few days later, I was striding to school with my normal stoic street face when a lady in my peripheral became animated and shouted to get my attention.

Another beggar, I surmised, and turned to greet her without reaching for my change purse. But then I recognized her face, although she wasn’t in her usual place under the tree.

As we greeted each other in somewhat reserved familiarity, I studied her for the first time. She wore old clothes and the kind of shoes that most women only wore to the public bath house. Her face was enveloped in the odor of her breath, which I smelled as I embraced her. She was a tiny woman, not built for the hard work that life required of her.

Who was this woman? And what did she want from me? She insisted on walking with me on my way to school; she said she worked as a maid at a house nearby.

Her speech was complimented with gestures. “You—come—my house—to sleep.” She isolated her words with the intention of helping me understand. “Do you understand?”

I did understand, but said only, “God willing” which was neither a commitment nor a refusal.

Before we parted ways, she asked for my phone number. That evening she called me and together we weathered my first phone call in Arabic. We exchanged greetings and a few other bits of information among the numerous confessions of “I’m sorry; I don’t understand.”

She told me she would wait for me the next day on my way to school.