“Hospitality means inviting the stranger into our private space, whether that be the space of our own home or the space of our personal awareness and concern. And when we do so, some important transformations occur. Our private space is suddenly enlarged; no longer tight and cramped and restricted, but open and expansive and free.” –Parker Palmer, The Company of Strangers
When I was raising my children, I had a couple of friends and mentors who practiced what I call radical hospitality. They shared their home with others—not just for a weekend or even a week, but long term. Along with that home-sharing came an offer of mentoring, community, assistance. I saw how, as Palmer observes, their private space was enlarged by welcoming people in this way.
As my kids grew up, we often invited people, both friends and strangers, to stay with us—usually for no more than a week or so. Because our church hosts international conferences, we have the opportunity to welcome people from around the world to our home, and have done so for the last 15 years. This practice of hospitality shaped me and my children in profound ways.
I love having people stay with us, or gather at our table. But I dreamed of someday opening our home to people in a more radical way. What if we were to invite people to live with us for more than a week or two at a time?
My youngest left for college a month or two after our dog passed away. Our nest fairly rattled, it was so empty. It took me a while to get over the shock, frankly. I wrote about how much an empty nest did not work for me, at all. But guests trickled through, joining us for meals or a weekend or a week-long conference. Holidays found us with a full table, even when the kids didn’t make it back.
Where is the way opening (or closing)?
We began putting the word out, through conversations with other people (and with God) that we might be ready to welcome someone to stay in one of our vacant bedrooms. And slowly, people came to us, to talk about the possibility of staying in our home. We extended that offer to a young woman, then to a young married couple, then to a woman about our age. Each time, it just didn’t work out, or they found another situation that fit their needs better.
I wanted to be that woman: the one who welcomes everyone, who invites strays not just to come to a meal but to be sheltered for a while. I wanted to live my faith in the way Jesus invited me to in Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you invited me in.” I wanted to be radical, to practice radical hospitality.
Opening your home is not for everyone. As I’m finding out, in this season, it may not be what God has for me. It may seem strange to even consider inviting people to live with you. But I really felt that was what God wanted me to practice: radical hospitality. We’ve got the space, physically, at least. But did we have the space, emotionally? And was radical hospitality limited to opening our home?
In the Quaker tradition, God’s will is discerned, in part, by examining these two questions: where is the way opening, and where is the way closing? It seemed like home-sharing, at least for now, is a “way closing.”
Although my husband initially seemed enthused about having someone stay longer term, it soon became clear that he felt a bit of anxiety about it. His questions, his concerns—though not unexpected, seemed to point toward an underlying uncertainty. He seemed conflicted.
Which makes sense. He’s been under a lot of stress lately. His job is busy, as always. But the main stressor: His parents are not aging gracefully. The past few months have been full of difficult conversations about their care, where we essentially go from one crisis to another involving them. Both of them have ended up in the hospital at least once in the past several months. They are not well. If you’ve got aging parents, perhaps you understand the emotional toll. If you haven’t yet experienced this, you will someday.
His parents are requiring more time and energy and emotional engagement than ever before. On top of his already stressful job, he’s feeling a bit overwhelmed.
What if hospitality happens elsewhere?
As I prayed about it, God gently asked, what if radical hospitality doesn’t have to happen within the four walls of your own home? What if your assignment for this season is to bring hospitality to people outside your home?
What if hospitality is visiting your father-in-law while he recovers in the rehabilitation center, listening to him complain and gently cajoling him to get out of bed? What it hospitality is doing some grocery shopping for your mother-in-law (and sitting with her for 40 minutes while she explains the grocery list to you and asks ten times if you have the store discount card)? As we visit, drive them places, even have difficult conversations with my husband’s siblings to find workable solutions to a knotty problem, we are practicing hospitality. We are creating space where they are cared for, fed, comforted. We are inviting them into the space of our concern. But the entire messy situation drains us both. We have talked about how, in some ways, his parents feel like strangers. And also like toddlers, who balk at accepting help and stubbornly tell us they can do it themselves.
We are practicing hospitality outside of our home with my in-laws. And also in other places. Since January, I’ve been making weekly visits to the home of a young Syrian refugee family, as a way of welcoming them to the United States. This, especially in these times, is an act of radical hospitality. The beautiful thing is, it is they who offer me hospitality—offering me food and chai and shy smiles as we sit on the floor and break bread together. I visit them, or take them to the zoo, or go for a walk, or just play with their kids.
This mutual hospitality—I welcome them to my country, they welcome me to their home and table—has upended my understanding of this practice. It’s also challenged my privilege: learning to receive from those I think I’m helping has been spiritually forming. I’m learning how empowering and kind it is, when I show up at the doorstep, to let them serve me a meal. I’m humbled by how little I understand. I realize, over and over, how patient they are with my Americanisms, my lack of knowledge about their culture and faith. They have patiently answered my questions about their journey here, their faith, their family.
As Joan Chittister writes: “Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step towards dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.”
Driving an hour each way, and spending a couple of hours with this young family, each week, takes time. I could never have done it when my children were at home. But in light of our current political climate, spending time with refugees feels like something I need to do in this empty nest season. It energizes me—although it still takes effort.
When the latest potential house sharer fell through, I looked at my husband and said, you know, maybe this is not the right season for us to share our house. It seems like it’s stressing you out. At first, he protested, but after a moment, agreed.
I think we need to make our home a sanctuary, for a little while, I said. A place where we can rest up, in order to be have the emotional strength to serve our family. A place where I can work and write and have quiet, so that I can be filled up to love on a refugee family, on my husband’s family. A place where we can show hospitality to each other.
Someday, we may find ourselves invited to share our home with someone who needs shelter. But for now, we look for ways in which we can offer hospitality outside of our home, for ways that we can invite people in—if not into our home, into our hearts and into our emotional space, where we can offer them the shelter of acceptance, relationship, love.
Comment below: What sort of hospitality might God be inviting you to practice? What does it mean to invite someone into the space of your personal awareness and concern?