I edged to the front of my folding chair, bobbing and weaving my head to find a view through the heads in front of me.
“Do you have a child there?” an older woman sitting next to me asked with a slight accent as she pointed toward the stage.
“I do!” I beamed. “She’s there, in the middle. Wearing blue.” All the little girls on stage were wearing traditional qipao dresses, though most were red, a color of good luck in Chinese culture and perfect for this celebration of the Lunar New Year.
“Ah, so pretty,” the woman nodded and smiled. The song began, and my daughter and her classmates began their choreographed dance and sang along in Mandarin. The woman leaned over again. “Your daughter? She speaks Chinese?”
“Well, she’s learning,” I laughed, looking at the stage full of singing and dancing girls, all of whom were African American or white like my daughter. “Their school teaches Mandarin every day, starting in kindergarten. They study it through eighth grade.”
Her eyebrows rose slightly, and she smiled. “That’s wonderful,” she said, turning her attention back to the stage. “That’s very nice.”
We watched together in silence after that, but I felt a warmness toward her. I’d had a hint of nervousness arriving at this large, citywide celebration of the Year of the Dog. Though my daughter’s class had been invited, I felt a touch intrusive. It was a major cultural event, and I was an outsider. But, the stranger sitting next to me had initiated conversation, cooed over my daughter and her classmates, and made me feel welcome.
I am always learning about hospitality from strangers. And immigrants—many of whom have suffered distinctly unwelcoming words and acts and—have been some of my greatest, on-the-ground teachers. From easy conversations in the park to impromptu birthday invitations, I’ve experienced countless examples of how to expand one’s circle to include more people.
In the Bible, the word hospitality comes from the Greek word philoxenia, which Strong’s Concordance defines as “love to stranger.” This definition is a shift from how I grew up thinking about the practice, which often manifested as “having friends over for dinner.” Of course, potlucks and dinner parties are wonderful, but biblical hospitality invites us to extend love and warmth to the stranger, as many of my personal encounters with immigrants have shown me.
However, while this concept—in theory—sounds inspiring and something many of us would be open to, life gets sticky in the details. How does one, in fact, invite a stranger over for dinner or out to coffee? Isn’t that a little odd? And, even if we have a heart to show kindness and welcome to newcomers in our country, how do we do so if we rarely encounter or interact with immigrants or refugees?
My husband was born in Guatemala and immigrated to the U.S. in his mid-20s. He vividly recalls the loneliness and isolation he experienced when he arrived in California. Recently, while we were speaking together about Christians and immigration, his perspective on how to welcome immigrants surprised me. He encouraged listeners to demonstrate welcome by going into their spaces.
What an upside down version of hospitality to my mind! When I envision my most hospitable self, I am neatly setting the table, giving the flowers a quick fix, and then throwing wide the front door, eager to greet whoever may come. But I also know that the “if you build it, they will come” strategy doesn’t always work.
What does it look like to demonstrate welcome by going into others’ spaces?
I think about my own family’s decision to join an immigrant church where we’ve worshiped the last four years and experienced overwhelming welcome. Many are familiar with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s words: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” While this observation is discouraging, we have an opportunity to cross those divides and be a part of a different faith community.
I think about the immigrant-owned businesses in my community and in my city. A 2016 study from New American Economy notes, “The United States is currently home to more than 2.9 million foreign-born entrepreneurs.” What does it communicate to show up regularly, spend my dollars in their place of business, and build relationships over time?
I think about the schools where my children attend, the parks we frequent, and the libraries we visit. And I think about the Chinese New Year festival and the woman sitting next to me. Her kind conversation and her affirming smiles were welcoming to me, and they made me feel at ease in a new environment. But now I wondered if our presence at the cultural festival made her feel more welcome in our city, in our country? I cannot say for sure, of course, but I hope that it did. I hope that our interest in cultural heritage, our commitment to learning a new language, and our presence at the community event communicated our own hospitality and love.
Jesus’ example speaks directly to this perspective on demonstrating love. He showed his love for us, not only by preparing a place for us in the spiritual spaces but by entering into the day-to-day of our human world. Jesus came to us. We can go to others. Even while on earth, when Jesus meets Zacchaeus, he invites himself over to his house. This exchange always ruffles my Southern sensibilities and the countless conversations I have with my children about how they cannot invite themselves over to other people’s houses. But in this scenario, Zacchaeus simply wanted a glimpse of Jesus, and Jesus responded with deeper relationship and community.
Of course, while we may learn from Jesus’ example of going into other places, we must remember that we are not Jesus, and there are some important differences in our approach. In an article for Relevant Magazine about short-term missions to developing countries, Michelle Acker Perez writes, “Developing countries do not need short-term heroes. They need long-term partners.” The same can be true in our local acts of hospitality. The call to demonstrate welcome is not a checklist task, it is a lifestyle practice of showing up time and time again, building relationships, and partnering together for mutual flourishing.
We graciously approach others out of obedient response to God’s instruction to demonstrate welcome, to love others, and to be present to our neighbors. Above all, we want to honor the image of God in our immigrant and refugee friends. We keep close the words in Hebrews 13:1-2 (NLT): “Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!”