Continuing to explore hospitality, we ask what form it takes among the diaspora?
I’m visiting my Lebanese friend Mariam at 3 in the afternoon. ‘Do you want something to eat? Have you had lunch?’ she asks. ‘I have had lunch, thank you anyway,’ I tell her.
‘Do you want some tea? Some coffee? Some juice? Water?’ I’m about to say no but then see her face – I’d never live it down if I said no. ‘Yes please – tea would be great.’
I sit and talk with her drinking sweet milky tea (I like neither lots of milk nor sugar in my tea) and she proceeds to give me a box of dates. “These are delicious”, she says. “I have plenty.” I’m not sure that is true. Mariam is a single mum with 5 kids and she depends on the Food Bank fruit and vegetables we deliver to her every 2 weeks. However, I take the box of dates and she smiles. ‘Next time you come I will cook and you will eat!’ she says as I leave.
An evening visit to Ayesha, from Syria, will always involve a vast array of nuts, cakes, biscuits and fruit. Her husband stays for a polite amount of time and then goes, leaving us to eat and talk. Another friend tells me that it makes her happy when guests eat and she feels really bad when they don’t. She knows it’s a different culture so she understands but still feels bad because she feels she hasn’t respected her guest unless they eat.
This is the common face of hospitality among my Muslim friends in Sydney. My friends from South Asia are equally welcoming but ask that you give them 24 hours’ notice before visiting so they can cook. Visiting equals a meal.
When I first meet someone I want to continue talking with, I’ve learned to simply invite myself to their place. More often than not their faces light up… “You want to come to my house? Welcome!”
It’s made me think more about the meaning and significance of hospitality.
What lies behind this generosity – sometimes even to strangers?
I know that when I go to their home, I am honouring them. In Australia I’d show you honour by inviting you to my house but the opposite is true among my Muslim friends here. That explains their surprise and delight when I ask to visit them. They often feel isolated, don’t understand the language or customs, find communicating with schools about their children or doctors about their health doubly stressful. Those of you who have moved countries know exactly what I mean.
Shana has a Masters degree from her country but feels like a child here when she tries to communicate in English. We’ve usually met in my space (an ESL class, food bank or playgroup held in our church hall) but now they can show me their space, their world. When she opens the door I see a woman whose confidence has grown 10-fold from when I first met her outside her home. In her home she can display her honour in the food she makes, the house she keeps clean, the family she cares for and who cares for her. Sometimes extended family or other friends visit too – to see the Australian woman who is paying their relative attention. Don’t get me wrong, I think its genuine generosity… but in her home there’s an opportunity to display her real confidence and honour. I’m now on her turf even if it’s in a country that feels so alien.
I wonder at times how much is bound up with her understanding of our relationship. Does she see me as her patron – someone who can help her navigate Australian culture and bureaucracy; to introduce her into communities in Sydney; to help her belong in some way? Her hospitality may be her way of reciprocating. And others just love cooking and love cooking for their friends!
How can I truly honour her as I receive this hospitality?
As I sit waiting for the food to be brought out to me I need to ignore the urge to go in and help (unless they have become a really good friend!). I need to allow her to serve me.
I now have opportunity to show myself an honourable woman by the way I relate to her husband (if he is present) and by the way I treat her children.
As I sit in her space, I learn so much as I simply look around at the décor, the calligraphy the furnishings. When we sit together, I can ask her about what I have noticed. I can be truly interested in her as a person; as a mother; a sister; a daughter; and as a wife. I find that she is often so much more relaxed and willing to tell me the things on her heart: her faith, her joys and fears, without being overheard. In her space I can share my heart with her as well. I’m aware that a power imbalance between us remains; however it does feel less somehow, when I’m in her home.
Something to Learn and Do
When I was in traditional parish ministry and people came to my place I’d make sure I had tea, coffee & something to nibble on. I’ve learnt a lot since then.
Hamida was mortified. “Christine came to my house yesterday and didn’t tell me she was coming. I didn’t have any food to give her – I could only give her a small curry, samosa and rice!” I thought I was being helpful when I said “ Oh Hamida – it’s really OK. Australians don’t expect a meal. She just wanted to see you. If you came to my house you’d be lucky to get a cup of tea and a biscuit!” Hamida stared at me with disbelief and managed to get one word out…“ NOooooo!”
I’ve learned about a generosity of spirit and heart as I’ve experienced Biblical, Middle Eastern generosity in action.
I tend to define hospitality as helping people feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.
Many of our Muslim friends here have left their families and wider communities. They are here alone. We have discovered that by providing a new community to which they can belong – whatever form it takes – is seen as hospitality.
When friends have significant life events (birthdays, babies, children’s achievements, engagements, citizenship) the believing community seeks to organise celebrations for them and their friends, sometimes in our homes or we’re invited to theirs.
I met up with a woman a few weeks ago. I’d met her during Ramadan in a tent we had set up to serve coffee and tea and to talk to those who wandered in. Eighteen months on she wanted to meet with me because she remembered my hospitality. There was no lavish meal but there were welcoming words; there was no beautiful lounge to sit on but there were some cushions that reminded her of home. She remembered the story I told her of how a man welcomed home his wayward son. She remembered the words of peace that Jesus spoke before he left to be with God.
I’ve learnt that the hospitality we can give our Muslims friends here, especially those from other countries, is more about how we care about them, show interest in them, welcome them, help them feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. In our dingy church hall we only serve a biscuit or if you’re lucky, some cake. I do notice however how comfortable Muslim women who come week after week are here. Here, we create a community for women to belong to; provide a place for their children to play; help them navigate this western world; give opportunities to learn English and are always offering ways for women to discover Jesus.
As our Muslim friends extend their hospitality to us and so honour us, they mitigate the shame of not belonging.
And as we honour them with our hospitality, our prayer is that they will know the honour which Jesus Christ seeks to give them.
(c) When Women Speak … November 2020
In 2008 Anna Shean moved from 14 years in church ministry to community ministry in an area which has one of the largest and most diverse multicultural populations in Sydney. Here, Anna seeks to make disciples of Jesus from among Muslim communities and equips others to do the same.