I enjoyed reading the post “The Hardest of Christian Dispensations” on the blog Tantoverde, which discussed judging others. Although I could have shared my own experiences of being judged and found wanting, I commented instead on one of the things we did in our family to encourage our children to love and respect people; we practiced the Christian virtue of hospitality. I believe that hospitality is a gift that can be nurtured. In my childhood and earlier adulthood, I did not have this gift. I witnessed it in action with my first mother-in-law, Mamita Edith, who would welcome any one we showed up with at her house, with no prior notice, and feed us all. Her motto was: “Donde comen tres, comen cuatro,” literally, “Where three can eat, four can eat.” Pots of rice and beans were extended to make food for all.
While I admired this philosophy, I did not, in the early years of my second marriage, have the aplomb to carry it out myself. I remember the first time we invited a pastor and his wife to dinner. I was so nervous that, when I leaned in to take the chicken out of the oven, I singed the hair off my forearm; the smell of scorched hair added nothing good to our meal.
Somehow, though, as our four younger children were growing up, our family started reaching out to other people with food. First it was bread. I had learned to bake bread with my ex-husband, when we had a bread baking business first on the Lower East Side and then in Woodstock, NY. I scaled down some of the recipes so that I made six loaves at a time instead of twelve, and my children eagerly got involved in the baking process. One loaf disappeared as soon as it had cooled enough to eat, and we kept another one or two, but the rest we gave away. We evaluated the loaves together, giving away the best looking ones and choosing on whom we would bestow them. Sometimes we would take bread with us when visiting a friend, or pick someone from the list of our bread fans; occasionally we realized that a person totally unexpected needed a loaf of freshly homemade bread. I remember only three times in about 30 years when the offer of fresh bread was refused.
Our son Matt was attending community college when he heard of a church just beginning, comprised mostly of young singles and led by a young pastor whose messages were good. We went as a family to check it out – my husband and I the only people of our age there, and our three young girls some of the few children. We ended up becoming part of that church community and found that we could invite young people from church over to our home for dinner on a moment’s notice and they would gladly come, eat a lot, and take home leftovers. It warmed my Jewish mother’s heart and was so casual that it never made me nervous.
At some point we decided as a family to institute a monthly Saturday evening open house. We made a big batch of bread and a big pot of soup, usually black bean, minestrone, or chili, and sometimes had dessert or salad. Then we put the word out, and people started coming, perhaps bringing more food, perhaps not, but all welcome. The most fun part was that often people would show up whom at least some of didn’t know….some of these people became very much a part of our family. My son Matt and daughter Cathy were both in college at the time. When they came home for a weekend visit while we were having an open house, they remarked with some irritation that they’d been greeted at the door by people they didn’t know, welcomed into their own home which was crammed full of people, and asked how they knew our family! Matt also said that he was getting really tired of that ever-present minestrone soup….
We have had many other opportunities to open our home to welcome guests wherever we live. Each opportunity enriched our lives and taught our children to minister to other people, to share what we had, and to learn from and respect our differences. One Thanksgiving we invited some Chinese international students and friends who had triplets, among others. The Chinese students had not known it was a meal and had eaten before they came. Our friends were worried about their kids eating too much, so they’d fed them first. We’d never had so many leftovers from a Thanksgiving meal before, but the meal became not the focus of the visit but the excuse to bring us all together to enjoy each others’ company
When we moved to the South, we thought we would find that Southern hospitality would take the form of ours, and that we would be invited to eat and to fellowship frequently. That was not the case, and we realized that, if we wanted to experience the kind of hospitality and fellowship we’d left behind, we would have to initiate it. We started inviting people to drop in and got a pleased yet surprised response. The idea of the open house seemed strange to people, yet they enjoyed it once they participated. Picture this: tables laden with fresh loaves of bread and butter; a huge pot of soup on the stove; desserts, salads, and snacks set wherever there was room; water, juice, coffee and tea up high where the little ones couldn’t reach. Rooms full of people, sitting, standing, conversing, eating, in a shifting kaleidoscope of relationships. Children everywhere, playing with each other, with adults, being held, being fed. Age no barrier to interactions, as children might get involved in a conversation with adults, and adults would get into playing games with the kids. People of all ages, colors, backgrounds, beliefs coming together in a shared experience of food for the body, the soul, the mind, and the heart. That is the community that hospitality fosters, where cold judgment stays outside and warm fellowship reigns.