I’ve joined a discussion series in which we share our experiences on a different topic each week. This week we (10 of us) each shared on the theme “Hospitality and the Stranger.” I share here a few interesting and diverse stories.
I, myself, was remembering learning about how this subject was viewed in ancient Greece: hospitality to the stranger was almost at the top of their moral code. Travel was so difficult and dangerous – there were no hotels and restaurants! If people had to travel any distance they had to rely on the goodwill of anyone they met. They would knock on the door of any residence and expect help and hospitality on their way.
What a different social code the Greeks had compared to our attitude today where a young stranger – black in a white neighborhood – can be shot to death for just walking through the neighborhood! And the local law accepts this.
Sharings from our discussion:
Maureen: went to the New Jersey Shore recently with some organization to help with rebuilding since Hurricane Sandy which happened one year ago. She was so struck by the gratitude and fortitude of the people whose houses were totally destroyed and have still not been rebuilt. They’re surviving under the most difficult circumstances., and expressed such gratitude for any help they were given.
Willa: her parents were both from small homogenous towns in Iowa but somehow came out of that with great open hearts to all kinds of people. She herself was trained in a program to teach teachers how to teach their students to be more open to differences. The basic method they use is having the children tell their own true stories to each other. As people do this, they learn that others have feelings and experiences just like their own. And no one can argue with true experience. A teacher or adult can tell children they “ought” to respect each other as their equal but “oughts” are not as powerful as real sharing of life experience.
Willa’s family moved a lot when she was young, like every four years. She remembers feeling like a stranger each time she moved and feeling so grateful when other kids would make her feel welcomed.
I remember learning about a program that The American Friends Service Committee used to have in the Chicago area where children from the inner city were bused out to spend a day with a family in the suburbs, and suburban children were bused into the innercity to stay with poor families in these areas. It was an education for all that no amount of teaching could have equaled.
M.J. 1) She has an aunt who has hosted the gigantic Christmas dinner for the extended family (easily 50 people) for over 50 years! She has a large farmhouse and so has the space, but it’s an enormous project. Only in recent times as an adult did M..J. perceive that the underlying reason the aunt does this is because she believes no one would come and visit her otherwise! She has such low self-esteem. M.J. and others have tried to remedy this by visiting her at other times, but the aunt seems so old and set in her self-deprecation that it’s hard to change this belief in her.
2) M.J.’s sister hosts an “orphans’ dinner” each Thanksgiving, inviting people who have no family to share dinner on this holiday. Once she invited three young couples from India and M.J. herself objected at first because they would bring Indian food rather than the traditional Thanksgiving food. But they were so delightful and the food so delicious that she decided to open her mind to the people over the traditions.
Bob: Was in the Peace Corp in the Philippines, and learned there to delight in people who were different. There, he was the one who was different – tall, fair skinned, but he found them entirely accepting of him. The life of the village where he lived and worked was incredibly different – no TV, no telephone, no cars, no movies, – nothing to do! Except relate to each other warmly and openly.
Aileen: (I don’t know what country Aileen is from. She’s been here 7 years, she says) In her town everyone’s doors were always open. Children and adults went in and out of each other’s houses freely. If one was busy when a neighbor came in, one stopped all and happily paid attention to the visitor. Efficiency was not important. When she moved here, she learned that for children to play together one had to plan “play dates” and formally take children here or there so they can be together. Likewise birthday parties here are formal: arrive at a certain time, only certain invited guests, do certain activities together in certain order, have children picked up then at a certain end time. Wherever she’s from, Aileen says birthday parties are just open doors, all day. People and children come and go and the party goes on and on and on.
She has noted with enthusiasm the “block parties” that streets have in the cities. This has helped her neighborhood become a little more like back home. Now some parents on her block are freer with letting their children come and go between houses, and adults visit back and forth more.
Mary: She and her husband belong to an organization that coordinates hospitality for young businesspeople from other countries. They’ve done this for 30 years! Many Germans and Japanese have stayed in their home but also people from many other countries. Some they’ve visited in their own countries. Also her husband works for Argon laboratories and so they’ve often given hospitality to scientists from other countries.
Leslie: something about the story of Abraham and hospitality. I couldn’t hear her…
Then: Her own home seems to her a place of privacy. But the family she married into has a tradition of openness that she’s gotten used to.
Janice: A humorous story about needing a large and inexpensive place for a memorial service for many out-of-towners. She found the Moose Lodge fit the bill, except one had to be a member to rent the hall, so she joined the Moose. They were definitely “foreign” to her, like out of another country and time! But she’s persisted and gotten a bit fond of them. Today is the Service! So we all hope her unusual efforts at hospitality will pay off.
I’ve experienced hospitality in stunning ways. When my second husband, Tom F., had a brain stem stroke at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, we ended up at the hospital in Santa Fe. The admittance form asked Tom’s religion so I put, of course, that he was Quaker. Soon a doctor visited us who was a member of the local Quaker meeting. Then two women came and said they were leaving for the week and they gave me the keys to their house and told me where it was. It was my house for the week, they told me, though they’d never met me before! Then the next morning someone came and told me he’d be with me until noon to do anything I needed; he’d be in the waiting room. “Did I want some coffee? Did I need my laundry done?” Then someone else came at noon and stayed until 4:00, followed by a third person who stayed until 8 at night and accompanied me “home”. If I needed to talk with someone for advice, they were there. If I wanted someone to pray with me, they were there. They’d gladly take me anywhere or go get anything I needed. They just sat in the waiting room, waiting to help me as needed. These people from the local Meeting came like this every day we were in Santa Fe! My situation was very scarey and shocking but their hospitality to me, a stranger, was – breathtaking! I’ve never seen anything like it. It touched me so deeply.
When I was in college I went to Mexico for a summer to do some simple forms of social work. Six of us arrived at the village where we’d been told we’d live; we went to the parsonage where the local priest would connect us with families we each would stay with. There’d been some problem and there was no place for me, but the monsignor went out and asked an old woman in the parish to take me in. She wouldn’t have said no to him, of course, so this woman and her daughter, maybe 8 years older than myself, – very poor people themselves, spontaneously took me in for the summer with no complaint. They were wonderfully kind and generous. They were told that Americans are used to more protein than the Mexicans and so every day they made sure I had an egg; they couldn’t afford much meat but they bought me an egg every day. They gave me the largest room in their 3 room abode. It had a bed but I suspect it was for them a living room when I wasn’t there. They wouldn’t accept money from me, so I was at a loss as to how to adequately respond to their generosity when they had so little. I did take them for a vacation to Vera Cruz: we took the bus together and stayed 2 nights in a hotel and enjoyed the beaches and I paid for all. But still I knew I’d received so much more than I’d given to this village and it’s people when I left.
Other stories about Hospitality and the Stranger.
When my son was in college, he picked up a hitchhiker as he drove home to Chicago from Indiana. It was storming out so he brought the man home for the night rather than drop him along the expressway. At this point of time my first husband was deceased so there was just my 16 year old daughter and my son and myself. I was uncomfortable with this bedraggled-looking stranger in our house for the night but I wasn’t about to put him out in the rain. So I thought carefully about where to bed him down, choosing a place that gave the maximum security to my daughter and what little we might have of value that could disappear. We went to sleep; I knew I’d done the best I could with the situation.
All was well in the morning and my son dropped the man back at the expressway. We still heard from him occasionally, calling us stranded here or there across the country and asking if we’d wire him a little “help,” which I did once and that was enough.
My son liked to help “strangers” and I never wanted to discourage that generous spirit. I’ve done the same over time and I never want to close my heart to helping needy people who come to my door. They do, just as hobos used to during the Depression. I live two blocks from the west side of Chicago and often have unemployed men knocking on my door all wanting to rake my leaves, shovel my snow. I’ve had to pick and choose to whom I will give this coveted work. I hate to turn down any person who wants to work but – there just aren’t enough leaves to go around! And some men have established themselves in my heart; I sense their integrity, feel inspired by their courage and humility and determination. One young man has worked for me for three years and is often inside my house – he washes my floors, among other things! But he and I also sit down and chat and he’s come to feel like a son to me. While another young man I’ve known for years would also like this work and would dearly like to think of me like a mother but I’ve distanced myself from him, not quite sensing the integrity of the first young man, not quite willing to welcome this one into my house.
I’ve come to realize I cannot help everyone. Honestly, when I was younger it was in my heart that I wished I could take away all the suffering in the world. I hate learning about the horrible things people have had to experience here now in our world and throughout times past. Over time I’ve had to come to peace with that old endless question: Why do people have to suffer? I’ve learned to respect the learning we each can find through the challenges of our individual stories. In my book on this topic, Pain: The Challenge and the Gift, in one chapter I say that pain forms a cup of blessing. Our suffering forms the bowl which will hold a blessing when we respond to the challenge to heal our suffering.
Back to our topic: I’ve learned discernment about offering hospitality to the stranger. I have several times taken in people to live with me for short periods when their lives were low. Sometimes my hospitality was just what they needed to get on their feet. Sometimes our partings were harsh and sometimes they were blessed.
If I did not enjoy their presence, I did not continue the hospitality. This has been another learning for me: that completely-unselfish giving is very seldom the right thing to do. If the giver gets nothing at all back, the giver must be fed from some other source to keep going in this form of giving. The best situation is when the giver feels gifted by the receiver in some way. Sometimes I feel inspired by the people I help, sometimes I enjoy their companionship, their liveliness or stories of their own life experiences. Sometimes it just makes me feel good, gives meaning to my life, when I see that I’ve made a difference and someone’s life is better because of me.
And now as my years have moved forward and I seem to be on the “finish line” of my life, however long or short that may be, I find a new attitude inside me about hospitality and the stranger. Besides feeling more vulnerable as I live alone and am not so physically strong, besides that which causes me more caution, I do still enjoy company and especially of people with interesting experiences that I haven’t had. But I’m also more cautious about anything that takes my time – counseling, care giving – I do not give my time away so freely. I know I still have things inside me that want to be done before I leave this particular play that I’m in. I do not welcome just anyone into my time and space. There is an interior change of direction I’m taking. It includes the stranger that I cannot see – the departed loved ones who I know are around me, the Guide who I guess I’ll never “see” until I die but who always seems with me when I ask. These are strange relationships – those I cannot see – but I’m becoming more and more comfortable with these strangers. Soon they will be my community!
One more very positive story about Hospitality and the Stranger. There is an organization that promotes peace and understanding among the peoples of the world through hospitality. SERVAS is more than 60 years old and connects people in more than 100 countries by coordinating overnight stays in homes. Both hosts and travelers are interviewed, to promote security for this interaction among strangers. Hosts are listed by country: the family situation is described, their hobbies, languages spoken, what kind of accommodations they offer, how much notice they need before a visit. Travelers in the program contact whichever hosts seem appropriate and make arrangements. Stays are for not more than three nights. After the traveler returns home, they’re expected to write a report of their visits and to return the address lists.
I was going to Europe when I joined SERVAS but was traveling so spontaneously I wasn’t able to contact people far enough ahead. But in Brugge Belgium I contacted a man who said he would be a “day host” – he didn’t have space in his apartment to house anyone but would show them around the city. He did this for me: for three days he took me around Brugge, told me all the history, taught me how to drink Belgian beer carefully, and even met me early in the morning at my hotel when I left. He helped me with my baggage, took me to the train station and got me on the right train. It was a delightful gift!
One last offering about this subject: What is it that defines the Stranger? The more someone/something looks or acts differently than us, the more foreign and strange this feels to us. I have a large photo of a Praying Mantis in my bedroom, to remind me that animals and plants feel “strange” and scarey to us because they are the extremes of looking and acting differently than us. The world of insects looks eerily like everything we imagine an alien from another planet would look like. Yet, they’re right here, among us, in our houses and yards! And we will kill them very quicklyif we find them in our homes! Welcoming the stranger could ultimately involve respecting the tiniest strangest life forms, and plants that have no eyes nor legs, animals that communicate telepathically instead of verbally. How do we know these Strangers are less worthy of our respect and hospitality than the two leggeds, our own species?