My first Christmas in China, my American teammate got sick and asked to be alone. Rather than spend Christmas binge-watching television by myself, I jogged to the outskirts of the city where tarmac turned to orange dust. I ran through dry fields that would grow potatoes, spinach, and sunflowers in the summer, then wandered into shallow canyons carved into high desert rock and clay.
Creeping along a trail hugging a hill, I spotted two homes chiseled into the bluff opposite me, complete with doors and windows. I was staring across the narrow ravine when a woman appeared and gestured, hollering at me in Mandarin. I obeyed, winding along the trail leading to the gate of the woman’s courtyard. She asked me something in Chinese I couldn’t decode, but I guessed she wanted me to come inside her home. Curious, I allowed her to steer me to a dwelling carved into rock.
Later, I’d learn these structures were called yao dong, and were common in some of the more impoverished towns in our province. “Warm in the winter, cool in the summer,” my students would say. The woman poured steaming water over tea in a mug, the leaves unfurling like flowers. She handed it to me and said something else before going outside, leaving me perched on the edge of a stranger’s bed.
She led in an older man wearing a white cap signifying he was Hui (pronounced “Hu-way”), a culturally Muslim people group concentrated in my province and scattered throughout China. He sat next to me and grinned, his stringy white beard bobbing with his facial expressions. Realizing I couldn’t understand him, he chatted with the woman and glanced at me occasionally, still smirking. I imagined my parents at home in Florida, opening gifts hours later with my brothers, nieces, and nephews. They’d probably devour cinnamon rolls with their second cup of coffee. I peered down at the mysterious leaves floating in my mug and smiled. Without realizing it (since they themselves didn’t celebrate Christmas), these Chinese Muslims had invited me in on a day I most longed for companionship.
The lavish hospitality I experienced from Muslims throughout the years I lived in China modeled biblical hospitality in a way my Western church never had. Human beings usually fear the unknown, misunderstand the mysterious, and reject riddles we can’t quickly decipher. In Greek, the word hospitality, philoxenos, literally means “love” (philos) of “strangers” (xenos). Xenos is also the root of “xenophobia,” or fear of strangers. Prejudice against a person because of race, skin color, or ethnicity is never a Christian response. God commands us to not just invite friends and familiar people to our tables, but remember that Emmanuel, God-with-us, often disguises himself as the stranger in our midst (Luke 14:12, Matthew 25:35).
Strangers invited me to their homes more times than I could count during the five years I lived in northwest China. Now, when I meet a new immigrant, refugee, or international student in the United States, I remember the selfless hospitality I received while living in China. When I see strangers, I see myself. I hear a faint echo of the haunting words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “I was a stranger, and you invited me in.”
“You’d do the same for me,” the father of one of my Muslim students once said after I thanked him for his hospitality during my stay with their family for the weekend. “If I came to your country, I know you’d do the same for me.” Unfortunately, I knew seventy-five percent of international students would never enter an American home during all their years studying in the United States. Headlines broadcast my country’s fear of foreigners in place of wide, welcoming arms. As Western believers in a Middle Eastern Jesus from a culture that intrinsically valued hospitality, do we welcome well? Do we offer our visiting or immigrant guests the lavish welcome they would likely give us were the tables turned?
When my husband and I married and settled in Chicago soon after I left China, we didn’t know we’d end up renting our spare room to international students. When a Saudi Arabian girl in an ESL class I had volunteered at for just a month asked to live with me, my husband, and our one-year-old in our two-and-a-half bed, one bathroom apartment, I expected my introverted husband to say “No way.” Instead, he said, “Why not?”
Norah rode with us to Georgia to celebrate Thanksgiving on a farm, camped with us for my son’s birthday, and accompanied us on many other trips and outings. At dinner, our conversations often turned to spiritual matters as we asked questions about Islam and listened; and she compared and contrasted Islam with our belief in Christianity. The four-month lease turned to one year and by the end of it, our son called her “Auntie Boo.”
We eventually fled cloudy Chicago for sunny Colorado and Auntie Boo returned to Saudi Arabia. As our expanded family of five searched for a home to buy in Colorado, we searched for a house with a spare room by a bus line so we could rent to international students from the nearby university. We envisioned our home as a sanctuary for the lonely and perhaps a place where foreign guests could find physical and spiritual nourishment.
Priya, a graduate student from India, lived with us for six months. Soon after Priya graduated and moved away, another woman from Ghana named Angela moved in with us. Angela, who is a Spanish major and a Mormon, giggles constantly and loves rough-housing with the kids. She’s lived with us for a year, with one more to go.
Our children possess an awareness of the world I never had as a child. Our four and six-year-olds can point to Saudi Arabia, India, and Ghana on the canvas map that hangs behind our kitchen table. They know other languages, religions, and cultures exist besides their own. They’ve learned about Ramadan, Islam, and hijabs from Norah; meditation, saris, and Hinduism from Priya; and plantains, hair extensions, and the significance of given names from Angela. Our children have tasted Norah’s tzatziki sauce, Priya’s curries, and Angela’s banana pancakes. They’ve smelled unfamiliar perfumes, incense, and cocoa butter. My children are growing up with a knowledge of the nations far beyond our welcome mat. Not only does this knowledge expand the creativity of God to them, but these conversations frequently turn to deeper discussions of life, death, and eternity.
It’s easy to don our matching T-shirts and “go to the nations” during spring break, but more challenging to invite the nations back into our homes to eat and sleep. We sacrifice privacy, as my husband and I peek over our shoulders when we’re affectionate in the kitchen or living room. Angela sees our messes, hears our poor parenting, and senses our frustration when she uses up the last of the cumin or bay leaves. If I’m honest, I sometimes resent sharing my kitchen, cabinets, and Tupperware with a non-family member. Like my children, I’m still learning how to share my toys.
On another level, I appreciate the forced vulnerability. We can’t hide, pretend, or wait until our house is immaculate or our kids are well-rested to invite. Angela is always here. This is real life. We are who we are. And God is who God is: a God who embodies the spirit of hospitality, invitation, and welcome. God tells us to do the same. We follow the witty lead of a welcome mat I spotted recently: “Come on in! We’re not ready.” We’re not ready, but we welcome anyway.
My children, our neighbors, and our friends reap the benefits of us not waiting for perfection or readiness before welcoming strangers. And our guests see, hear, and experience the gospel lived out in real life. Hosting international students in our home allows hospitality to not just become a one-time event. It’s an on-going experiment in cracking the hard shell of my pride, allowing God’s love to enter. In our human, bumbling way, we make space for the strangers God brings, just as strangers in China welcomed and absorbed me into their family life when I was far from home and all alone.
Leslie Verner has written more on this topic in Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness.