The Accidental Habit of Hospitality

Photograph by Lisa Clarke

Home: a place where you belong. A place where you emerge. A place where you return. 

I’ve lived in houses all my life, and they’ve all been home in one way or another. This is not to say they’ve always been comfortable or safe: even the best homes cannot avoid the reality of our broken world. But I’ve had places for rest, rejoicing, and restoration. Places for cultivating and flourishing. I’m grateful for those who have worked hard to make home for me — and with me. Making home is never a solitary task. 

Neither is making home a self-serving task. As a stay-at-home mom of young children, I currently carry the primary weight of the daily tasks essential for our family, but our family is corporately after something much bigger than clean laundry and mere living. Make no mistake: we are after clean laundry. Some days we are only after clean laundry. Never mind folded. But ultimately, if we care only about whether we have fresh socks for ourselves, then we are to be pitied. We have neighbors — both next door and across the globe — also in need of socks. And stew. And safety. So we want our practice of home to include hospitality.

My husband and I are introverts, which means we like people in small and carefully selected samples spaced far apart. We enjoy hosting folks in our home, but we won’t do it apart from deliberate planning: we rarely invite even close friends over impromptu. It’s not because we don’t think about our friends. Neither are we too busy. Rather, our internal wheels run in tight circles — and my ruts are especially deep. I must take regular exit ramps to people. 

Enter the habit of hospitality.

For a little more than ten years now, I’ve watched my introverted ruts develop smooth exit ramps through the weekly practice of hospitality. It started easy: just college-aged women gathering for Bible study. And it has morphed into a co-ed gathering of young adults who eat dinner at our table and then study the Scripture together. After so many years, it feels like little more than welcoming friends and guarding the pantry from appreciative but voracious bellies. In fact, the growth from study to study plus dinner and conversation feels more like accident than anything else. But the accident has changed us. Every Tuesday night, our children look for “the people,” as we call them. We are the beneficiaries of their gathering.

Hospitality begins with homemaking, and proper homemaking is always connected to hospitality. The slow roll of daily tasks, like scrubbing the toilets and sweeping the floors. The seasonal study of vegetables and how they might come together for a meal. The predictable safety of steady care among housemates. And then you want others — non-residents, the stranger the better — to enjoy what you enjoy. You want to extend to others whatever provisions and comforts belong to your household. Even introverts may find that it feels natural to make home in this way. Hospitality is the art of homemaking for people who don’t belong to your home. 

There is a sense in which our Tuesday gatherings fit that bill. But in the Bible, hospitality often involves risk and sacrificial sharing, and the truth is that our home rarely welcomes strangers. Knowing one another is good, and the comfort we have with one another is a natural outworking of developing a core group over several years. In fact, that comfort may not be achievable through any other means but time. Yet I often wonder if our group is too safe, too predictable. 

Home: any refuge where God is. The place for which the human heart longs. The place where holiness abides and justice rules, where the lowly and defenseless take refuge. This God is Father to the fatherless, protector to the vulnerable, comforter to the lonely, and wealth manager to the imprisoned. He puts rebellious people in dry places but can make even the wilderness hospitable. If he's there, it is home.

We began feeding the people out of a kind of necessity. The various groups of college women who came in the early years were usually friends with cafeteria meal plans, so they had plenty of opportunity to talk and eat together. Their busy schedules also made it easy to start and end on time. Though we welcome lingering until our own need for sleep requires that we kick visitors out, we strive to start and end our weekly Bible study time promptly to accommodate those with homework to finish or an early start at work the next morning.

But when we began gathering the co-ed group, we had trouble. These folks gathered from different campuses and stations in life. Though most were members of our church, some were not. So when they saw each other on Tuesday nights, they wanted to catch up. It became increasingly hard to start Bible study each week without awkwardly shutting down friendly chatter, and they all regularly wanted to stay late. So upon recommendation from a friend, we began offering dinner. That solved the problem of the clock, but it accomplished so much more. There is mystery in the fellowship of shared bread. 

My husband and I both grew up in small nuclear families — we each have but one sibling — so the idea of cooking weekly for about 10 people felt daunting at first. I learned to love my slow cooker and bread machine. But now our large weekly meal is a natural part of our family rhythm. Even as other things have changed for our family (we keep adding children, and school, and music lessons, and soccer teams), the Tuesday night dinner and Bible study has not. On the contrary, other commitments and habits must serve our Tuesday community. Our housekeeping and extracurricular activities and arrangement of furniture must account for “the people.” They are central to our family’s practice of home.

This small measure of hospitality has also deeply affected our parenting. Our children squeal when they remember that it’s Tuesday and the people are coming for dinner. They love these friends who come weekly to our home, and they feel an emptiness at the table on those Tuesdays when we must cancel community dinner for some reason. Our children belong to these friends — almost all single young adults in their late teens to late-twenties — and these friends belong to our children. They own these relationships and have no memories of life before this weekly habit. Though we also gather regularly with our church, this gathering at home is an invasion of space that our children take for granted. They know that our family is part of a larger community. They know that the larger community is a part of our household. And they know that even they, at their very young ages, play significant parts in that community too.

So when I worry that our weekly Tuesday night gathering is too safe to properly call hospitality, I remember how it has changed our family and our home. We have far to go, but we are learning to think of our home as more than ours. We are learning how to make it a place that fosters human flourishing. We are learning to make it a space where people can practice bearing God’s image well so that they might do the same elsewhere. We are learning to practice home with glad hearts. And I hope that we are learning to welcome strangers into our safe places. Yes, almost by accident, the mystery of community has transformed our house into a home.

Jennifer Strange is the assistant editor of the Art House America Blog. Also a wife, mother, writer, editor, Twitterer. Most Mondays, you can find her in yoga pants, mopping and cooking for the people. Her poems have appeared in The Other Journal, Rock and Sling, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume IV: Louisiana, and at the Art House America Blog along with other essays. She also recently chatted about hospitality with the Yellow House of Highland, a community of young adults trying to love their neighbors well. 

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