The pandemic has shown us it can be easy to be inviting
For Superbowl Sunday 2016 I shaped a football from homemade pâté I had whipped up the day before, and added pretzel sticks for the stitches. "That looks weird," my husband said. In hindsight, I believe he was right. At least three-quarters of a football’s worth of pâté remained by the final touchdown, even though we had a houseful of people.
Fast-forward six years and one gigantic global pandemic, and for Superbowl 2022 I bought a bag of nacho chips and a jar of salsa to share with the couple who joined us. It was a low-key evening of learning to play dominoes, chatting and watching the game. Small and easy.
With the restrictions of the pandemic, most hosting of dinners and other social events in our homes came to a temporary end. I missed it terribly – inviting the guests, planning the menu, cooking the meal, and the conversations around the extra-large dining room table we purchased years ago for that very reason. We love to practise hospitality and we view it as part of our calling. Good things happen over good food.
"Lives are changed by eating with people," says Susan Wells, author of A Place at My Table: Creating Space to Belong (www.APlaceAtMyTable.ca). "Is it our call to touch lives? You have to eat with people to do that."
Wells believes some people let themselves off the hook from practising hospitality because they think it’s not their thing, or they worry they’re not good enough at it. "Some of us love it more than others, but Jesus never made hospitality a gift for some as if you get to pick and choose. It was never optional if you’re following the life of Christ," says Wells.
In Gordon T. Smith’s book Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age (IVP Academic, 2020) he emphasizes the power of hospitality as "an essential spiritual practice" that is about giving to and receiving the other. Smith refers to this "basic" Christian practice as a "cultivated capacity" that "comes naturally to no one."
In other words, we all might need to try a bit harder.
If that sounds heavy, here’s two bits of good news – hospitality does not need to be fancy. And there is still always take-out.
"Don’t try to be Martha Stewart," Wells says. "Maybe even the word hospitality throws people off. Start with who you are and what you love, and work from there."
For all the pandemic took from us, it did provide a glimpse at simpler, no-fuss methods to visit. Even six feet apart, good conversations grew from long walks. Take-out dinners on park benches deepened friendships.
Wells developed a dessert-in-a-jar practice of meeting neighbours (old and new) at a local park with Mason jars filled with an easy custard dessert with fruit. One visit with a new neighbour led to "walking tours through Burlington, showing her the areas while we got to talk about faith and her background," says Wells.
Patios and backyards became substitutes for living rooms, and heavy sweaters and hoodies took the place of dressing up. What we learned then can help us make hospitality even easier now – for everyone – as we open our front doors once again.
Simple can work just fine
The idea of simple can be best ties in with a key value of hospitality for Wells – make your hospitality about what is best for the other person, and not necessarily about dis playing your pâté-sculpting prowess, however tempting that may be. Elaborate, complex meals might actually hinder relationships.
"Some people may feel they have to respond in kind, that they have to match your dinner party, and as a result some friendships might not develop because that is not their thing."
However, it’s not all or nothing. "I love to create interesting dishes, but I don’t do things where I spend the whole time in the kitchen rather than visiting," says Wells, pointing out that charcuterie boards that are now so popular used to just be called crackers and cheese.
Be inspired by photos and ideas of what others do, but make it your own according to your budget, ability and, of course, what makes your guests feel most at home. Fancy can be fun, but not if it intimidates the people we are hosting or keeps us stuck in the kitchen instead of joining in the conversations.
Find your ham in a can
Wells remembers her mother-in-law always keeping a large canned ham in the pantry so she could host a meal quickly when needed. "What are our versions of a can of ham?" asks Wells. "It could be taco night. I consider tacos something almost anyone can do."
Keeping ingredients on hand for a simple supper (spaghetti and meatballs anyone?) can also make spontaneous hospitality more likely to happen. Sometimes spontaneous actually works better for people’s schedules.
So much good can happen around a table while sharing the simplest of food and our true stories.
Some of us will need to release worries about what our house looks like on that particular day because visiting becomes more important than vacuuming. Inviting someone over and ordering pizza may not feel special enough to you, but when Wells has done it, it had a surprising impact.
"Our guests said they were honoured because we were doing something with them that we would normally only do with family or close friends. It spoke of intimacy and not showing off. They talked about it a lot."
Make hospitality a priority
"If you’re going to wait until you have time, it will never happen," says Wells. "If you’re going to wait until you get better at it, you’ll never exhibit Kingdom hospitality. You will miss a lifetime of opportunities."
So much good can happen around a table – or in a backyard sitting on lawn chairs – while sharing the simplest of food and our true stories. Strangers become friends and we taste the riches of fellowship, even if it’s over a slice or two of pepperoni pizza.
"Do what you can within your own budget," encourages Wells. We are all busy (or we will be again soon). Many of us are also out of practice when it comes to welcoming people to our tables, and some of us have never embraced this particular spiritual discipline.
As society reopens it’s a perfect time to jump in. Just try. Hospitality is worth it.
Karen Stiller of Ottawa is a senior editor at Faith Today.