Renée James looks at how God gives life through our hospitality.
You don’t know the value of being included – until you’ve been excluded," says Lis Lam. Growing up Korean American in predominantly white communities, she knew what being "other" meant. She was "the Asian girl" for more years than she can remember.
Because of Covid-19, hospitality has rarely been more difficult or important. But Lam already saw its profound importance in pre-pandemic times. As a young 20-something and new to New York City, she went to a local church where, for a few months, she made awkward small talk after the service. Then two girls invited her over for dinner.
"They were as different from me in life experience and personality as can be," Lam remembers. "Together, we cooked a meal and sat down to eat. And by the end of the night something profound happened. We became friends."
Lam tasted the richness of Christian hospitality at that meal – respect, acceptance, mutuality – a recognition that she, a stranger at the time, could contribute to the experience of preparing and sharing a meal.
"When you don’t feel included and then all of a sudden someone extends the hand of friendship to you through a meal, it seems so little, but it can change everything," she says.
For scholar Christine Pohl of Asbury Theological Seminary, meals do change everything. In her book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999), Pohl writes there’s a theological importance to eating together. It’s the activity most closely tied to the reality of God’s Kingdom and the most basic expression of hospitality. Offers of food or a meal together are central to many biblical stories, scholarly discussions of hospitality and contemporary practices of it.
Ancient Israelites understood themselves to be aliens and strangers, tenants in God’s land, dependent on God for welcome and provision. They were answerable to Him for their own treatment of aliens and strangers – a central element of their identity as a people on the margins. Their acts of hospitality revealed whether or not they were living in covenantal loyalty to God, acknowledging the hospitality God was showing His people by passing it on to others.
Jesus welcomed children, widows, prostituted women, the oppressed and the powerbrokers of the day. He was a gracious host but also a vulnerable guest (John 1:11). He dined with tax collectors, Pharisees and their tables. Hosts who anticipated God’s Kingdom, Jesus said, would welcome guests who could least return the favour. His parable of the Good Samaritan recasts common assumptions about who is worthy to receive care and attention.
When we welcome poor and needy people (the "least of these") we welcome Jesus himself (Matthew 25). The conse-quences of our hospitality or its lack are felt by Jesus. He inhabits our welcome.
Paul and Peter exhorted early Christians to welcome as Jesus welcomed, to regard hospitality to strangers as a fundamental expression of the gospel. Indeed, it was a qualification for leadership in early church communities.
Pohl argues that well into the 17th century hospitality remained an important Christian practice, countercultural and subversive in its very nature. There is power when you offer welcome and recognition, especially over a meal, to someone rendered invisible or ignored by the larger community.
She suggests acts of Christian hospitality dwindled due to the rise of institutions that did the work of caring for our disenfranchised neighbours and unknowingly promoted a more distanced way of responding to strangers. Today, "Our households have become smaller, private and more individualized," she writes. Our dwellings sit empty for most of the day. Our busy lives lead us to curate who we invite over for meals, if at all.
It’s become easier to avoid strangers, particularly ones who do not seem to need our help, and to ignore those who are hidden from view in long-term care facilities like seniors’ homes and prisons.
"The practice of hospitality forces abstract commitment to loving the neighbour, stranger, and enemy into practical and personal expressions of respect and care for actual neighbours, strangers and enemies. This is at the core of hospitality," writes Pohl.
Today, with institution-sized gatherings restricted by the pandemic, the urgency of family-sized hospitality is suddenly that much clearer.
Practising hospitality anywhere
As Canadian Baptist missionaries who have lived in four different countries over four decades, David and Cathie Phillips have received and offered hospitality in many settings.
"When I saw a German billionaire eating beside an African refugee who had no money for the next day’s food – and that they both had questions about God – I began to realize that hospitality could be done anywhere," remembers David.
"Hospitality had created that space of equality and belonging where we could share about Jesus." This was in Turkey, six floors up in an Istanbul apartment building where the couple served Friday night meals to refugees, migrants, businesspeople and international students, then facilitated conversations on any number of topics.
In Brasilia, Brazil, they gave and received hospitality with pastors who taught them the importance of recognizing people and showed them how events like birthday parties could be an ideal space and time to share the gospel.
In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the Phillips provided school lessons and helped with meals during the day for children who lived in jail with their mothers.
Returning to Canada the couple discovered that, even among Christians, having a home doesn’t necessarily translate into offering up that home for hospitality. To them it seemed most Canadians go out to restaurants to share meals. Inviting acquaintances home for meals and conversation is rare.
Almost two years ago the Phillips, along with church volunteers, began to open the doors of a portable parked near their church on Thursday mornings. "We could open the portable doors to everybody – to church people and to those who wouldn’t come to church–all would be welcome and equal," Cathie remembers.
Cathie and David have gotten to know about 90 of the 200 people who come to the weekly Gathering Place for homemade treats, a hot lunch, board games and hours of conversation. Since mid-March’s pandemic lockdown they’ve interacted regularly with their Gathering Place friends on the phone, another way of doing hospitality. "People are opening up spiritually – more than ever before," says Cathie.
Practising hospitality on the margins
Seven years ago Aaron White, his wife Cherie and their children moved into their new home – a house located beside a brothel in Canada’s poorest postal code – Downtown Eastside Vancouver (DTES). "It was a clear, revelatory call," he remembers.
Aaron is the executive director of 24-7 Prayer Canada, part of the 24-7 global prayer movement that invites people into lives of continual prayer, intelligent social justice and above all, hospitality. "Hospitality is a huge deal in Scripture," White says. "So much so that a lack of hospitality served as a measure of how sinful a society had become."
Another call emerged when he and Cherie returned home from a cross-continent road trip. They had visited 24-7 prayer communities, and everywhere they went they’d been warmly received – welcomed and fed. "We realized how beautiful that was," remembers White.
They also realized their neighbourhood friends might not have been welcomed in the same way. "Why don’t we offer that kind of welcome, a meal and a seat at our table?" they wondered. They decided to open their home for community weeknight suppers six nights a week, inviting people to come in, cook and share life together.
The family has held community suppers for most of their years in the DTES. "The table can be a challenging place. It can be a mess. Hospitality can be an extraordinary mess."
Their hospitality has evolved over the years as they’ve opened up their home and table in various ways, inviting people to come and live with them, with mixed results. Unmet expectations on both sides and guests entering with issues that demanded more time, knowledge and expertise than the couple could offer meant some of their friends "left bad," in White’s words.
Despite this, they refuse to keep people at arm’s length.
White also supports the International Association for Refugees Canada as well as Jacob’s Well, a local ministry focused on offering welcome in the DTES. Cherie collaborates with a real estate developer to build long-term sustainable housing in Greater Vancouver. They’re only able to offer such support because of how they’ve personally challenged and enlarged normative definitions of private property and family.
"Our friends want to participate in family," says Aaron. "Many Christians have bought into certain narratives like protecting one’s property at all costs and defining family as solely biological. This simply isn’t biblical."
The guests around the table have become family to the Whites, even to the extent of helping their children with math homework. They see Jesus in this extended family. Cherie has gone looking for people down some neighbourhood back alleys and held women in her arms as they’ve detoxed on the street. "There are no walls around Jesus," says Aaron. "He is everything and He is in us. And if this truth isn’t matched by our lives, then people will not believe."
The couple says choosing hospitality as a way of life doesn’t mean you have to move to the margins the way they have. "Find someone in your congregation and plan to eat together. Go do groceries together, cook together, sit and eat," says Aaron. "Talk about your lives and about Jesus. Do this for two weeks, then find another person and repeat."
Pohl writes, "The contemporary Church hungers for models of more authentic Christian life in which glimpses of the Kingdom can be seen and the promise of the Kingdom embodied. More than words and ideas – the world needs living pictures of what the gospel looks like."
Practising hospitality at the table
Lis Lam can’t forget the recognition and inclusion she received as she stepped into communities and relationships where she wasn’t simply the Korean American girl in predominantly white settings. That friendly meal in New York City became one of a number of experiences that compelled Lam to practise a sustained hospitality that focuses on the table.
Today she lives in Scarborough, writes the food blog The Subversive Table with the tag line "Cook at home. Invite more people. Save the world" (www.TheSubversiveTable.com) and wholeheartedly embraces her calling to create spaces of welcome that are expressions of God’s embrace and acceptance of her, and of us all.
"God’s calling to me was simple. You cook. You host," says Lam.
Her welcome is wide. Before the pandemic hit, Lam cooked and hosted at least 60 meals per year – 12 big meals along with weekly weekend gatherings for family, friends and acquaintances. She makes each meal and gathering an occasion, no matter the time and labour involved. "Every meal I prepare is like Babette’s Feast for me," she laughs, referencing the 1987 Danish film with a lavish dinner at the centre of its plot. "Every time."
There’s a mystery here," she says. "There’s an exchange that happens. You have a meal with someone, and at the end of the day you’re changed."
One of the last meals Lam hosted before the pandemic lockdown was a January thank you dinner for the volunteers who had helped her family navigate their same-day closing and moving into a new home. Even though not all of the guests knew each other and not all were Christians, she remembers the palpable presence of God at the event and thinking that people would leave feeling, This is what community feels like. This is what it means to be part of something.
Obeying the government’s social distancing guidelines has freed up Lam’s time for reflection. "We have been packing too much into our lives," she has realized. Even so, when churches are allowed to gather once more, she looks forward to having everyone (a hundred or more) over for a two-pot meal after church, a way for her to welcome and be a welcoming presence in the community.
With each meal she prepares and hosts, Lam says she hopes to point those gathered around the table to the Lamb’s marriage supper. "I’m creating a picture of the reality that is to come," she says. "This is what a redeemed, restored humanity will be doing one day.
Recovering a culture of hospitality
Scholar Christine Pohl says, "A key Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, combines the word for love or affection in a kinship or shared faith (phileo) with the word for stranger (xenos). Hospitality is closely connected to love and it is oriented toward strangers." She argues it’s not optional for Christians and suggests ways we can recover this practice.
Start with spiritual formation
- Make room in your heart, whether or not you find room in your house.
- Cultivate a grateful spirit. Hospitality begins in worship and recognition of God’s grace and generosity.
- Pray to see opportunities.
Make your home a ministry site
- Set up a Christ space always ready for guests, in keeping with local hygiene and safety guidelines.
- Make room in your family for friends and guests.
- Remember spiritual growth happens in the kitchen over coffee.
Reduce the strangeness of strangers
- Creatively try out threshold spaces, for example a large room where several families may welcome strangers.
- Build minimal connections. Identify common ground.
- Look to see Jesus in your guests.
Reflect on priorities, possessions and power
- Can your routines handle interruptions?
- Considering your resources, what are your limits?
- Do you insist on taking the role of host, even in another’s domain?
- Can you recognize another person’s capacity to help you?
Understand the Church as God’s household
- Eat meals together.
- Your church’s greatest resource is the fellowship of believers. Simply be together.
- Don’t confuse hospitality with mission.
Renée James of Toronto is the communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec. Read her July 13 blog post Practising hospitality from home for a profile of how hospitality has shaped the lives of Helen and Tafari Kukoyi and their Toronto family.