The Heart of Hospitality

“The Heart of Hospitality”
Learning to trade entertainment for fellowship

Written by Erin Holcomb

I picked up the phone and swallowed hard, not knowing how awkward this call would be. I was about to make a leap into uncharted territory. I was inviting friends over for dinner.

Hosting a meal is something I usually look forward to doing. But this time was different. It was March 2010, and it was our first venture into Rice & Beans Month with Lahash. As I held the phone, I struggled with how to combine our desire to invite guests into our home with our commitment to eating simple meals of rice and beans for the entire month.

Others have struggled with this question. From special dishes to bathroom hand towels, in our culture we are trained to only offer guests our absolute best. So how could a meal of rice and beans be sufficient to offer to the same people we wanted to warmly honor? I knew I should dial and get it over with. I needed to give our friends fair warning about what would be offered at the meal, but I was worried they wouldn’t want to come. I was nervous that if they did come, they would leave our home hungry and disappointed. Really, I was afraid of being a poor host.

Hospitality is crucial to community. Christians are specifically instructed to “practice hospitality” by the apostle Paul (Romans 12) and it is even made a requirement for those being considered for leadership (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). There is something deeply spiritual and essentially human about sitting down together around food.

But I have also used hospitality with much less admirable goals. I’ve wielded the spatula as a tool to make a good impression that will boost my ego. I have given hints to impress my guests about my social status, my good taste, my domestic skills, and my worldly palate simply by setting a plate in front of a friend. I have turned a meal that should be a gift into an excuse to focus on myself – seasoned with the anxiety and self-doubt that are sure to follow such a gesture.

One of my favorite books in the whole world is the cookbook/food-theology-manifesto More-With-Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. In the introduction to this collection of simple food recipes, she touches on the heart of Christian hospitality in the face of our sinful pride:

Jesus hallowed the common meal when He broke bread, shared wine, and said, “This do in remembrance of me,”… But the word entertaining has crept into our guest-meal vocabulary. [People] used to just “have you over for dinner.” Now people speak as though they are about to stage a show.

We have forgotten that the heart of communion is the gathering of souls not the filling of stomachs. Food gives us a reason to be together, but it is not the reason. As I wrestled with serving a plain and lusterless meal to my friends, I was really struggling with how to welcome them into my home with only my heart to offer.

I did make that phone call, and our friends came over for a simple bowl of rice and beans. And it was great. Taking the attention off the meal gave me more time and emotional energy than I usually have reserved when guests arrive. Instead of wading through courses and multiple dishes, we finished our meal relatively quickly and talked late into the evening over cups of tea. There was very little to clean up, so there was no rush to end our evening prematurely. And our friends loved being a part of sharing our resources with the vulnerable in East Africa. They actually appreciated being brought into our new rhythm.

I am learning to trade entertainment for fellowship. I am practicing being a warmer, more generous host by giving more of my heart and my time along with whatever food happens to fit the moment. At times that means making a very special or even elaborate meal, but these days that is rarely the better gift. I have found it can be every bit as meaningful over a bowl of rice and beans.

Article adapted from Hope Is Alive, a quarterly magazine publication of Lahash International. You can sign-up online to receive this free magazine.