Hospitality in the City
Integrating neighbours into our home has given our family a greater sense of purpose.
In modern English, the word 'hospitality' conveys little more than the thought of 'entertaining,' but in the Bible it is something important and radical. Christians are constantly called to hospitality.
—Redeemer Vision Paper 3
I come from a large Asian-Filipino community in which the practice of hospitality is a regular part of life and culture. Almost every weekend involved a large community gathering—a birthday party, wedding, anniversary, death, anniversary, or simply the desire to get together and enjoy good food.
But the meaning of hospitality has changed for me over the years. In the past, hospitality was just a cultural practice of entertaining people within the circle of our community. But since beginning my own family, moving into the city, and being challenged by the biblical significance of hospitality, I see it as more than just entertaining. I see hospitality as an important spiritual practice.
The most recent and significant influence that has shaped my views on hospitality and city living has been the ministry of Tim Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.
Redeemer's Vision Paper called "Buildings for Community" explains both the spiritual and practical significance of hospitality:
Hospitality is essentially treating others as family. It incorporates newcomers into household, common, daily activities such as eating a meal, sharing a cup of coffee, or painting a room . . . It meant being quick to include and accept people, meeting practical needs with our goods in a spirit of love and welcome. Why is this so important? We were strangers when God accepted us (Lev 19:33) in the ultimate act of hospitality. Jesus died for us to make room in the household of God (a great word that combines the material idea of a house—with its shelter, food, warmth, and safety—and the idea of a family). Hospitality entails bringing one another into our common life.
Our decision to move into the city was propelled by two factors: first, the need to "leave and cleave" and form our own family values and habits; and second, our growing understanding of the theology behind God's call for Christians to live in the city.
The choice to make the city our new home was no small decision. The practical implications of moving into the city were enormous. Vancouver real estate is pricey. Many of our friends with growing families were settling in the suburbs. Culturally, people and values are different in the city.
So what practical steps does a young family need to make to live in the city? We decided to search for a home with extra room for people to live with us. This gave us an opportunity to compensate for the financial burden and cultivate a built-in community in our home.
What did it look like for our family to "bring someone into our common life"? It started with posting for a tenant on Craigslist. We had a specific profile in mind—someone who would naturally integrate with our family life, with whom who we could share meals and do BBQs, who would play with our kids—someone who would become a friend. Our hope was that whoever ended up living in our house would feel welcomed and at home with us.
With such an idealistic vision, who would meet such expectations? We were surprised after only a few days, we received a charming email from a woman named Leah who wrote a warm, friendly and casual cover letter describing her values, background, and dreams for her life. We were smitten with her.
Leah has now been living with us for almost a year, and forming a friendship with her has been wonderful. Through our relationship, I have seen the practice of hospitality turn from theory to practice as community building has become integrated into our daily life.
Soon our home became a model of eco-density, with our growing family of three sharing our home with tenants. Since our tenants share our kitchen and laundry, we became used to having someone coming in and out of our personal space. At first, this was uncomfortable for my husband and me, as both of us come from a suburban upbringing that valued keeping a comfortable distance from neighbours and never letting "outsiders" into the private sphere of the home.
The new reality of city living meant being in close proximity to our neighbours and interacting with them on a daily, personal basis—not just when we want to conveniently say hello.
Although I know those who would disagree with me, I have found it easier to be neighbourly while living in the city than in the suburbs. Since space is limited in the city, I notice that people tend to congregate and cross paths regularly in public facilities such as parks, libraries, community centers, and transit—whereas in the suburbs, people tend to spend more time in the private "playgrounds" of their homes (basements, rec rooms) and backyards.
Thus, the practical changes in our living situation made me re-examine my assumed cultural values of hospitality and develop an appreciation for the lost spiritual practice of hospitality, especially in the context of city living.
I like Redeemer's explanation of the original Greek word for hospitality, philoxenia, which literally means the "love of strangers": as Christians we are "called to an attitude of welcome not only to other believers [or people within our family or community] but also to those who are 'outsiders.'" Through our friendship with Leah, I have experienced this beautiful definition of hospitality—"love of strangers"—as God has given us an opportunity to integrate her into our life.
Yes, the limited space of our house in the city does pose practical challenges to "hosting" in the grand, suburban style that I knew growing up. But hospitality has become (to use a stereotypical West Coast term) "organic" to the way we live our daily lives.
With Leah we have shared meals (her boyfriend makes amazing curry!) and baked Christmas cookies. She has helped us with babysitting. Since gardening is her passion, one of the first things she did upon moving in was to beautify our backyard with her lovely plants. I came home and was surprised to see our backyard transformed! She even planted her potted lavender in our garden. I was touched. It was a sign to me of her commitment to living with us and her generous spirit.
I have personally learned a lot about being a good friend and neighbour through Leah's kind, simple gestures. For example, at times I have found our laundry neatly folded, set aside, and ready for pick-up.
As a massage therapy student, Leah often wants to practice her new skills on me and I—six months pregnant—am an eager recipient. She once offered to massage my feet, and I was unwilling. Who likes to expose this part of their body? But she coaxed me into it and, as an act of humility on my part, I surrendered my feet. Here I was being humbly served by a "stranger-become-friend"; I was suddenly impacted by the symbolism of this gesture, reminded of Jesus washing his disciples' feet and asking us to wash one another's. This was a great reminder to me of how friendship requires two acts of humility: the willingness to serve another and the willingness to be served.
I remember, years ago, a friend of mine participating in a spiritual gifts inventory. I distinctly remember how disappointed she was with the result: the gift of hospitality. I have always wondered at her reaction!
Why has our culture undermined the significance of hospitality? Perhaps the humble act of serving others in daily, practical ways is seen as too simple and mundane. Where's the glamour and glory?
Contemporary western culture leads us to think of our home as a private enclosure, only to be shared with a few intimates. Yet, the New Testament called Christians to see one's home as neither strictly private nor public space, but a place where we routinely share the safety and comfort we have to nurture others.
—Redeemer Vision Paper 3
I believe practicing genuine hospitality plays a vital role when living in the city. But why, and how?
First, practice genuine hospitality to make "strangers" feel welcomed. Who are strangers in the city? They are those without an established social network on which to rely—immigrants, young people searching for meaning and new experiences, international students, and so on. Open your heart and home to people in these circumstances. People in the city tend to come and go, underscoring the need for genuine hospitality. By being hospitable you are offering a home, shelter, and stability for the transient in the city.
Second, practice hospitality to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others. Simply walk across the street (or alley) and greet your neighbour. Over time, you will get to know their lifestyle, habits, and ways. Meet their practical or physical need if you have a chance. One winter, Vancouver experienced an unusual snowfall. We met several neighbours because their cars were stuck in front of our home in the middle of the night! Out we came with our shovels.
City people are busy and occupied with their own lives, but if you take the time to ask key questions, the awkward small talk dissolves and people begin to talk about the things that matter to them. I've had a neighbour talk to me about the pain of watching his elderly mother deteriorate in a nursing home. I simply listened empathically and asked questions. Somehow, after the hour-long conversation, he felt encouraged and refreshed.
Serve people in their area of need—whether it's loneliness, friendship, community, or even simply hunger. This is all part of hospitality.
Seeing our home as a place to build community has given our family life a greater sense of purpose. We have seen this impact on our toddler son; though he already has a naturally friendly personality, he has learned how to relate to and engage people of different ethnic backgrounds and age groups. We're blessed to have a son whose personality fits our family's hospitable nature. Our son often shows our guests around the house, encouraging them to sit down and eat with us and play with his toys. We hope that by modeling hospitality in our home, he will learn to have a generous, loving spirit and seek to serve others.
One complaint that elderly Asian immigrants often make about North American life is how socially and geographically isolated people are from each other. I have seen my elderly relatives become depressed because of this reality, especially in the context of suburban life. The town from which my family originated had a great sense of community—neighbours were seen as extended family.
However, my experience living in the city has given me a taste of what my elderly relatives miss about "life in the old country," because I have personally experienced how city communities can have a greater sense of integration and intimacy. Although hospitality is directed towards blessing others, it also blessed the hospitable one. In the city, close-knit communities can be forged where neighbours (and tenants) become like extended family.