My experiences of hospitality in the Middle East North Africa, and South Asia, has always been that of generous hospitality. Along with some colleagues, I was invited to an iftar (breaking of the fast during Ramadan) with our landlord and his family. The table groaned with food. It finally reached the stage when I hid my plate under the table to stop more food being put on it. I had been brought up to finish everything on my plate, and the more I did that, the more my landlord put on it for me to eat.
Visiting a family who lived in a poor neighbourhood of a large South Asian city, I was welcomed with joy, hugs and belonging. I lived in another city and did not often get to visit, but I was always welcomed with warmth and generosity. It took a few minutes, but then the bottle of water and the bottle of soft drink were placed before me. These were not luxuries they would have for themselves, but they were bought from the little they had, and given to me. What should I do? Their young son watched with eyes full of longing, I am sure he would have loved to taste a soft drink.
On another occasion I was visiting the family of one of the girls from the college hostels where I worked. They were a well-off family who owned their own hospital and were generous in their hospitality. The mother, a highly respected gynaecologist, took me shopping for cloth, and then we went to their tailor. I left that visit with a whole new wardrobe, embarrassed at generosity that I could never repay.
This family lived in a city where my company held their annual conference. According to my company I should stay at the conference centre with all my colleagues. According to this family I would stay with them, and they would make available their son to ensure I was at the conference centre for the meetings and brought safely home. The leadership of my company was not overly pleased with the arrangements, but then there were also the obligations of being a guest with this family.
What does it take to be a good guest in the communities where we live with our Muslim friends, to be those who receive hospitality?
Love. We must start with love, the real, self-giving, unconditional love for those we are among. As we have just passed the Christmas season, I was reminded of how God accepted the hospitality of those he had created when he sent Jesus who came and dwelt among us. Again and again the Bible reminds us that this was one demonstration of the depth and richness of God’s love for us. Wherever our neighbourhood is, do I have a deep and giving love for those I am among so that I will receive their gifts given so generously and freely, not always seeking to be the giver/host?
Emptying self. Philippians 2 comes to mind as I ponder how accepting hospitality from others requires me to give up control and power. I make myself vulnerable to the love of others, and willingly accept all of its generous expressions. This vulnerability is in the practical matters like timing, food, cleanliness, as well as in other deeper issues of personal space, privacy, not knowing everything that is happening around me, and so much more. Jesus emptied in himself in order to be vulnerable to receive from the world he was born into, as well as to give himself. In learning to receive we also learn how to give.
Humility. It takes humility to receive from someone else, particularly someone we see as having needs we can meet. This is humility that honours the other through acceptance of their generous blessing of us. It is humility that sees the goodness of God in the least that is offered. The Philippians 2 passage says that Jesus humbled himself. It was part of his emptying of himself. The vulnerability of humility needs an intentional act to place myself at a place of receiving from others.
Generosity. To be a good guest requires the generosity of open hands and an open heart. This is a generosity that is committed to honouring the host, to enjoying fully the kindness and warmth of hospitality lavished on us. This generosity does not compete with others, because sometimes we will be guests of those who have far more than us; but it also does not bring gifts that place a burden on those who are less resourced than us. Generosity blesses the host and builds them up.
There are a couple of experiences of being a guest that have reminded me above all else that to be a guest is to stand on holy ground.
I had been helping some nuns at a monastery in one Middle Eastern country over an extended period of time that I lived in the country. When I was leaving the country the nun I had worked most closely with invited me to their private church and then invited me to hold the relics of the saint after whom that monastery was named. What should I do? I didn’t want to dishonour this generous act of hospitality offered to an outsider, but at the same time I didn’t hold the same beliefs about the place of relics and saints. As she placed the container in my hands, I took the opportunity to bow my head and pray, thanking God for the cloud of witnesses that encourage us in our faith and praying a blessing on the women of this monastery. As I finished praying, I had a deep sense that I had stood on holy ground because I accepted the invitation from God to honour others. It served to give me a fresh view of being a guest and what it means to see the space of shared moments as a holy space, something more than what we agree and disagree about.
When I was invited into the tent of a family who had been displaced because of the devastating earthquake in Pakistan some years ago, I also knew I was standing on holy ground. With the little they had, we shared a cup of tea and we talked. Their hospitality created a space where we could share together the pain of loss, the devastation of being made homeless and the fears of uncertainty. As their guest, I was invited into more than their tent, I was invited into their lives. It was a holy place of encounter, a place where Jesus was present to reveal himself, without words.
Being a guest, I am convinced, is to stand on holy ground, breaking the bread of hospitality in a way that reveals the presence of God. This is not so much about what I say, but how I embrace my host with the honour and love of God.
(c) When Women Speak … January 2021
CH spent more than three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).