The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “hospitable”as:
a : given to generous and cordial reception of guests b : promising or suggesting generous and cordial welcome c : offering a pleasant or sustaining environment
I’ve always thought I was a pretty hospitable person. I think I got it from my momma. We both have always enjoyed the hard work and planning of hosting large groups of people for dinner, our house busting at the seams with people laughing, eating, and enjoying each other.
But while in India I experienced something much more than that. The pastor who we stayed with mentioned that some families from his church wanted to have us over to their homes for a meal. Very cool. I thought: real Indian cuisine cooked by our very own Indian brothers and sisters and shared with them over their very own tables.
It went a little something like that.
When we arrived at the first home we visited, as soon as we got out of the vehicle I could tell that this family was of modest means. Now, they were living in a first-floor home right in the city, and it appeared to be fairly nice, albeit quite small. I later learned that being on the 3rd level of a building was preferable to the 1st floor because of all the dust and noise that you avoid. Good to know. This family brought tables into their living room to create one large dining space where we sat while they brought out platter after platter of delicious food for us to enjoy. Now, when I host people over for dinner, I always get everything ready for the guests before I start eating along with them. You’re the host, so you want your invited guests to be perfectly comfortable and cared for before you bother tending to anything for yourself, right? I noticed these folks doing the same thing, and I kept waiting for them to sit around the table with us and share the meal. They never did. In fact, they stood by the table while we ate, watching for any moment that they could slip in and refill a drink or put more (and more!) rich Indian food on our plates. They were more than happy to stand by and watch the smiles on our faces and laugh along with our conversation and see us groan and clutch our stomachs, declaring that we were too full to eat another bite…right before they brought out dessert.
It all felt supremely odd to me…to be served in such a way. They were perfectly content to smell the aroma of the dinner, and to watch us enjoy it, without themselves enjoying the flavors. I learned later that Indian culture dictates that guests enjoy the meal and the host family serves their needs, then eats their portion after they are gone. SO weird (for us Americans anyway.) Later I found out that this family had apparently hired a chef to cook this meal for us! They wanted it to be the best, so they outsourced the cooking! They had even borrowed fancy platters and cups from neighbors so they could serve us on beautiful tableware. Wow. Friday night I had a bunch of folks over and I asked my sister to bring some paper plates so I wouldn’t have to do more dishes. Nice, right?
Yet another night we went to dinner at a different family’s home. It was just a husband, wife, and their daughter who appeared to be around 20 years old. That particular night, our pastor had become very stomach-ill and was not able to attend this dinner with us. So off we went…me, my husband, and 7 other ladies, so these folks’ house. Now, although they were happy to have all of us come for dinner, I am sure it was a huge disappointment that our pastor and his wife were not able to come. They’d been expecting him. And being a pastor in India is nothing like being one here in the US. Many people don’t see being a pastor as all that big of a deal here in our country, perhaps because Christian pastors are a dime a dozen. But in India, where less than 2% of the people are even Christians, when the pastor comes over, it is a BIG deal. He is revered and treated with the utmost respect. They treat their own pastor that way, and to have the opportunity for a pastor from America to come into your home, well… that’s a big honkin’ deal. So you can imagine what I mean when I say the family was disappointed that he couldn’t make it. They handled the news with such grace, though…they still cared for all of us very sweetly while we were there. When we were about to leave, they brought out a painting and asked if we could take it to our pastor. They had purchased it for him and his wife as a gift. So incredibly amazing. (Now he was gonna really, really feel bad that he was too sick to make it!) As we were thanking them for the gift on his behalf and saying our goodbyes, Pastor Stephen, (the Indian pastor whom we were staying with) turns to me in typical Indian fashion and says “tell her to sing song” while pointing at one of our traveling companions, Leann. Um, excuse me??
Now Leann was one of the youngest of our crowd, and generally a very shy and quiet-demeanored young lady, but she literally has the singing voice of an angel. We had been given the chance to hear her sing The Doxology just days before inside the prayer tower on the property where we stayed. I remember standing there perfectly still in awe of her voice, as it echoed all the way up to heaven through the top of that prayer tower. We were blown away. Pastor Stephen remembered this, and I am not sure if it was because these people had just given a gift to us to accept on our pastor’s behalf, or just because he was just plum crazy, but when he pointed to Leann and said “tell her to sing song” I half-protested with “um…right now??” but he had already turned away and was talking to the family again. I awkwardly motioned to Leann and tried to quietly convey the request, which of course we both knew wasn’t really a request at all. But there was no time… Pastor Stephen was already turned to Leann and was announcing “And now she will sing song!” Everyone in the room (who was American) was shocked and waited without breathing to see what would happen. Everyone in the room who happened to be of Indian descent seemed rather pleased with this announcement. So, sang she did.
Right there in the middle of this living room, after we’d eaten rich, fried, spicy food for nearly 3 hours, after we’d talked and talked until we were exhausted from talking anymore, a family we had just met that night was now staring intently at this shy young lady, who was singing The Doxology in the most beautiful voice any of us had ever heard. At the end, all of us had tears in our eyes, and they applauded. I have a feeling that was a pretty darn good gift to leave with our hosts. Maybe Pastor Stephen wasn’t plum crazy after all. 🙂
The last family we visited was the home of man named Prenab who is on staff with the ministry. He runs the grounds where we stayed, and he was hosting us for a breakfast, along with his wife and parents. He and his wife had a daughter who was 7 and a 2 month old baby girl as well. We hiked up to their 3rd floor home and sat as we realized that someone had told them the wrong arrival time for our group. They weren’t expecting us for another hour. I could tell they were trying to be polite as they scrambled to accommodate us. We assured them it was no problem, we were in no hurry whatsoever. Prenab’s father came out to talk with us while everyone else prepared the meal. I’ve never been more thankful to have a bunch of “down time” at someone’s house. This 84 year old man had been a pastor most of his life, but he related his story of being a young man from a Hindu family. When he was young his mother began attending a Christian church and learning about Jesus. Because of this, her husband began refusing to allow her to eat. He was trying to starve her to death because she was converting to Christianity. Some time after that, he began sneaking off to attend church with his mother, and when his father found out, he would no longer let either of them eat any food at their home. After this had gone on for a while, his father became so furious that they were going to church, he came home day, stood about 12 feet from his own son, and shot him in the chest 3 times with a shotgun. Amazingly Prenab’s father lived. I cannot see any possible way that he didn’t die except for the fact that it was a miracle. There’s just no way a person could live through being blown straight through the chest like that. And the kicker?? Prenab’s father hadn’t even converted to Christianity yet when that all happened. It wasn’t until about a year after the shooting that he devoted his life to Jesus! This man has been a pastor ever since, regularly walking many miles to remote villages to share the gospel with people who have never heard of Jesus, and who face just as much danger as he did just for becoming acquainted with the Savior.
But he wasn’t even finished yet. As we sat there, stunned after what we thought was just going to be some pre-breakfast small-talk, this elderly man asked in very broken English if he could pray for us.
You want to pray for us?
Like we would refuse! He stood over us and prayed boldly in a language I had never heard of, and I felt more power come over me than I’ve ever felt in my life. I was weeping from the moment he began until he finished by saying”amen, amen, amen, hallelujah.”
Now that’s a gift.
After visiting all of these families, the thing that affected me the most was realizing that as much as we’d been preparing for months to take this trip and to visit these unknown friends, they’d been spending as much time and energy preparing for us to arrive. They’d been praying for safe travel for us for many months. They’d been saving up money and borrowing dishes and hiring people to help with the big day when we would finally step foot into their homes. Very humbling. And in all of it, they’d considered it an honor to serve us in their homes.
These visits made me think about hospitality in a whole new way. How much effort do I really put into preparing for someone’s visit to my home? Am I praying for their safety as they travel there? Do I treat them as well as or better than my own family?? Do they feel blessed when they leave my home, as I did when I left the homes of my Indian brothers and sisters? I don’t even think that the elaborate food and lovely dishes had much to do with the hospitality I felt. I think it had much more to do with the spirit of love I felt from these beautiful people who I’d never met and may never even see again. These people whom I likely can never really repay for their hospitality. These people who poured welcome over us. I am forever grateful to them for redefining my ideas of what it means to be hospitable, and what it means to live a life of faith & love.