During my early childhood I learned the value of offering hospitality to others. When we hosted family from out of town, I helped prepare for “company” by cleaning the house and assisting my mom in the kitchen. Once guests arrived, I offered them a warm smile and entertained them with card tricks.
Our house was also a gathering spot for neighborhood kids. We served lemonade and an endless supply of ice pops while we played hide-and-seek in our backyard and dug for treasures under the treehouse. Offering hospitality to friends and family came naturally, but growing up in a small town in western New York did not provide many opportunities to learn how to offer hospitality to people who were much different than me.
So, when my parents were asked to participate in the Fresh Air Fund, a program that helps children from low-income communities in New York City experience life outside the city, they agreed for us to be a host family. A boy named Robbie stayed with us for two weeks.
Robbie was born over 1,500 miles away in Puerto Rico, his first language was Spanish, and the neighborhood he lived in was so crime-ridden that he wasn’t able to play outside. However, like me, he also loved to watch DuckTales, eat SpaghettiOs, play soccer, and swim until his fingers looked like prunes. We were more alike than we were different.
These early childhood experiences helped me begin to understand that being hospitable means more than receiving others and extending resources to them. I’ve come to understand that hospitality is a mindset; it’s about setting aside assumptions we have about others and demonstrating we care.
Let’s briefly explore these ideas to understand how we can make hospitality front and center in our lives.
Hospitality is a mindset. Lonni Collins Pratt, in her book, Radical Hospitality, suggests, “The biggest obstacle to hospitality is not the state of the world. It is the state of our minds and hearts.” She's saying it’s not those things outside of our control that keep us from offering hospitality to others. The biggest obstacle to hospitality is within us.
Hospitality requires setting aside assumptions. We have the ability to decide how to respond in any given situation. When someone exhibits a behavior we perceive to be negative, remember to make the most hospitable assumption because when hospitality isn’t our first instinct, we are more likely to respond with frustration, skepticism, and anger.
A hospitality mindset can help us reframe difficult situations. I’ve adapted this line of thinking from Brene Brown’s book, Rising Strong. She suggests we ask ourselves, “What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?” More often than not, another person’s behavior and words have nothing to do with us. In fact, it's a challenge to understand what is happening in the lives of people we think we know well, let alone a stranger who we perceive as different than us.
Hospitality inspired living is a way of thinking that drives our actions.
Hospitality means responding to others with curiosity and care. People need to know you care before they care what you know. You can demonstrate care by asking thoughtful questions and deeply listening to another person’s reply. A question that stems from curiosity will keep the recipient from responding defensively. Listen to understand rather than to respond. We so rarely feel listened to in this world that this seemingly simple approach can have profound effects.
This way of living asks us to care for everyone - not just people who look like us, live where we live, pray where we pray, or vote like we vote.
Amy Oden, a religious scholar, states “Hospitality is not so much a singular act of welcome as it is a way, an orientation that attends to otherness, listening and learning, valuing and honoring.” This definition reflects how my understanding of hospitality has evolved. It reminds me that being hospitable is more than something we do; it can also be something we are.