When I think about hospitality, I think about my mother.
My mother is an East Indian woman who grew up in an Indian village in Uganda, Africa. Her mother was a skilled cook, and she taught my mom the secrets of Indian cuisine. I am blessed to have grown up cooking with my mom and to have had her pass down her knowledge and recipes to me. Just as special, though, are the stories my mom used to tell me, while we cooked, of her own childhood and the times she used to cook with her mother.
One of the stories I have heard repeatedly from my mother was how her family always kept their doors open to travelers. It was very common for men and women to drop in, rest, and enjoy some delicious food before going on their way. No matter if it was late in the afternoon or the middle of the night, my grandmother and mother were ready to cook for the stranger knocking at the door – and because they were such incredible cooks, what a feast that guest would enjoy!
Even as a young girl, I would replay stories like that over in my mind, imagining what my mother looked like as a child, the space of her home, and the smells of chapatis and dal. I also dreamed of doing similar things for strangers “when I grew up.”
Now that I am grown up and have a family of my own, I still think about my mother’s stories of hospitality, and I wonder about how that sort of open-door policy could translate in America today. Our homes, whether in the city or the suburb, are nothing like African villages, and the possibility of a traveler in need of shelter and food coming to our door is also rare.
Nevertheless, I still think there are rich applications to be found in my mother’s stories of cooking for strangers in Uganda to our own context of ministry as Christians in the U.S. today, especially as it pertains to cross-cultural ministry.
To be hospitable to people of other cultures, we need to know what love and care looks like for them. This will require us to step outside our comfort zones, certainly, but also to expand our understandings of food and time, space and giving.
1) Food and Time
In most ethnic cultures around the world, people hold an open hand to the concept of time. This was true for my own mother and grandmother. They always had time to care for the stranger among them, and they did so by going out of their way to feed them.
This is an important lesson for any American Christian: if you want to reach out to someone of another culture, it will require time, and most likely, it will require food too. We must be all things to all peoples, and for most cultures, this means building relationships over meals.
Now, I should point out that the concepts of hospitality, time, and food are not just a cultural aspect limited to Indians, but are in fact a biblical ideals too. Truly, these elements piece together a beautiful picture of the gospel as it mirrors Jesus’ own ministry to people.
Think of all the times that Jesus broke bread with men and women, including his disciples and the “lost.” There are, of course, his famous miracles, like turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana or the feeding of five thousand people in Matthew 14. But there are also the numerous instances in which Jesus gathered people together in homes to eat with them, from the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 where Jesus tells him, “I’m coming to your house today,” to accounts like Luke 2 where he eats in the homes of “tax collectors and sinners.”
If we learn anything from these stories, it is that Jesus valued spending time with people and eating together, and he did so not just to care for their physical needs, but to care for their spiritual needs too. Jesus was ultimately after peoples’ hearts, but he also knew that one of the best ways to minister to people was through relationships and over meals.
If we want our ministry to emulate Christ across cultures, then we must follow in his footsteps. No matter who we are engaging with, we should hold a fluid concept of time and place a high premium on eating together as well.
2) Space and Giving
There’s also an important cross-cultural ministry lesson to be learned from eastern culture’s open-door policy. I love that my mother grew up in an Indian home where anyone was welcome to stop by at any time. There was no schedule, no appointments, and no “two-week notice.” Instead, their continual message was “Welcome. Our home is your home. Come in and stay awhile.”
Part of why I love this open-door policy so much is because it flies in the face of our American notions of boundaries. I know some people might be reading this and cringing. I know it’s an uncomfortable idea, but once again, I do believe it is biblical.
I think of Jesus’ life and ministry. While we do see times when Jesus separated from the crowds to spend time alone with God, more often in Scripture, we see Him caring for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the “lost.” In fact, throughout the day as he walked through the streets, Jesus even had people hanging from his clothes. Talk about a lack of personal space! In Luke 8, we read the story of a woman who is so desperate for help that she crawls through the throngs just to touch the back of Jesus’ garment. Instead of feeling violated, Jesus is moved with compassion and heals her.
Jesus is our best example of how we should view space and giving, and it boils down this this: we must generously invite people into the space of our lives and give of what we have for the sake of the gospel. This is true for anyone we want to minister to, but especially for people of other cultures.
This sort of biblical hospitality will require much of yourself. It will demand that you give of your time and your food, your space and your possessions. It will require energy and selflessness.
In these ways, biblical hospitality is not easy, but the reward is great. We, as Christians, must do these things and do them consistently, not just to care for our neighbors’ hunger pains, but ultimately to satisfy their souls. If we can live out the sort of hospitality that Jesus emulated for us, we will not just be good neighbors – we will be living out the gospel.
So, are you still wondering how to reach out to that neighbor, coworker or newcomer at church? Why not start by having them over for a meal?
Michelle Reyes, Ph.D., is pastor’s wife, German professor, and mom to a toddler. Her writings on faith, family, diversity can be found at CT Women, Flourish, Lifeway and (In)courage among others. Michelle also helped plant Church of the Violet Crown in Austin, Texas in 2014—an urban, multicultural church where her husband, Aaron Reyes serves as lead pastor. You can read more from Michelle on her blog, The Art of Taleh, or follow her on Twitter @ dr_reyes2.