There is a story that has become etched into the structure of our family. My grandma has always been one to host, and more than that, to gather people. A visiting missionary who has devoted his life to Cote D’ivoire was in town (circa the 90’s), and our family and extra friends had gathered to hear his stories and spend time together. The plan was to make Fry-bread, a recipe passed on from a friend on the neighboring Warm Springs Indian Reservation. We joked that they must have given us a slightly different version of the recipe because it never turned out quite the same, but this time it was our alteration that created a recipe we would never forget
Oil beginning to simmer, we helped heat up cans of chili, chopped onions, grated cheese, and mixed up sticky globs of dough that would soon bubble in the golden oil. Suddenly, the pot of oil began to overflow, and with it a pungent scent overwhelmed the room. The jug of oil had been accidentally swapped with a neighboring jug of Pinesol floor cleaner! Dinner was late that day, but the stove had never been cleaner. More importantly, the people who gathered were close and loved.
In my grandma’s kitchen, I learned how Jesus taught us to welcome the stranger. That is what hospitality is after all. It isn’t hosting a gala with food you’d never eat on a normal night, or inviting the people over that you already know and agree with on every issue. Hospitality is making strangers belong and sharing the life saturated with the Spirit of God to those hungry for more than a bowl of soup.
In the kitchen with the dishwasher that pulled out from the wall with a butcher board top for kneading, we made pizza to welcome college students who lived too far away to go home for the holidays.
At the hearth of the fancy new gas stove, we lined up dozens of frozen gloves, hats, and jackets for children waiting to drink hot chocolate and thaw off before heading out into the snow again.
The freezing pantry (that is actually a lean-to outside of the house) welcomed college students arriving in the middle of the night to scavenge for a midnight snack.
In the kitchen with an eclectic china set consisting of every pattern (from every decade) of Corelle plates bought for ten cents at yard sales, we tried out recipes from far off places with exchange students from almost every continent.
The single bathroom, with no lock, but a drawer full of combs that could be pulled out to stop the door from the next occupant’s entrance, wasn’t a reason to shorten the guest list.
The back bedroom with shag carpet and a VHS player let the children play and the adults talk about the things in their lives.
I didn’t know then that the people who gathered could have had so many barriers to friendship and were carrying such heavy loads. The big things our world is at war with have all been addressed around that table. Racism. Mental Health. Poverty. Broken families. Addictions. Economic inequity. I didn’t realize that I was seeing the outcasts be loved, the struggling have equal footing at a meal, the sojourners becoming family. Categories that could have divided, were instead celebrated and shared.
Many of those who gathered are now scattered into their own places, creating their own places of welcome. When I began to recount to my husband, the many ways I have seen people gathered with love and imperfection, he showed me how the gathering never stopped; It has been carried on in me, and in all those who are now scattered.
Because I saw strangers welcomed, we haven’t had more than a year of our marriage without someone living with us for some amount of time. Since I saw people feel welcome with sweet tea and writing their names on red solo cups, I don’t feel bad about breaking out the paper plates. Since holidays were shared, and extended to anyone, I am on the lookout for who might want to join in this year. Since food and culture are so important to share and help people feel welcome, we have had Ceviche for Thanksgiving made by a foster teen.
When you go out to gather your people, look at what you have, not at what you wish for. You have everything you need to make someone feel important and loved. Don’t let your location, your decor, or your regular-life food keep you from inviting people in.
Look for the strangers, who need a place to land. There are so many people just waiting for an invitation. Those who are wandering about in life, who need to be grafted into a family.