We all like to think that we are hospitable individuals, inviting friends and families into our homes, serving meals, and entertaining our neighbors with dinner parties. But are we truly living hospitable lives? Webster’s Dictionary defines hospitality as the generous and cordial reception or welcome of guests, or an offer of a pleasant or sustaining environment. Ambrose Bierce took a somewhat more cynical approach to hospitality, however, in The Devil’s Dictionary, defining hospitality as “the virtue which induces us to feed and lodge certain persons who are not in need of food and lodging.”
Sadly, many of us live by the limited definition offered by Ambrose Bierce and merely offer hospitality to those who are not in need. Authentic hospitality requires much more of us. Authentic hospitality requires that we extend hospitality within our nation, within our communities, and within our hearts, so that we offer a genuinely generous and cordial welcome to newcomers, outsiders, and strangers, as well as our family and friends.
We must ask ourselves: Am I acting with hospitality toward others, including those from different backgrounds and cultures? Am I hospitable in my actions and in my heart? Do I extend hospitality to others such that I am able to put aside my own vulnerabilities in order to make someone else feel more comfortable? I must confess that I often fail in my practice of authentic hospitality. Sure, we often invite family and friends over for dinner, we invite neighbors over for dinner parties, we host in-laws for weekend visits. But do I extend hospitality to those who are truly in need of a warm reception? Sadly, I often fall short, but with intentional practice, I hope to improve.
Tolerant Hospitality as Nation
Authentic hospitality as a nation obviously affects our immigration policies, but it also pertains to the ways in which we treat immigrants and people with ethnic and cultural backgrounds different than our own. Americans are becoming increasingly less hospitable to immigrants as evidenced by controversial immigration laws in states like Arizona and Alabama. For instance, an Alabama law requires students or their parents to present an original birth certificate at the time of enrollment in a public school. If the student or parent is unable to do so, the school is required to assume that the child is an illegal immigrant. Not only does placing assumptions of illegal immigrant status upon an innocent child (and thereby depriving them of an education) potentially violate constitutional rights, it hardly seems hospitable.
Authentic national hospitality extends beyond the protection of the civil liberties and constitutional rights of those in the United States through the creation of practical immigration laws, it also requires that we put aside misperceptions, stereotypes, and assumptions so that we can focus on the ways in which we can make others feel welcome and comfortable in our country.
I recently attended a service at Grace Commons during which two Puerto Rican nationals who have been living in Chicago for several years talked about their experiences as new residents in America. One of the speakers talked about how she struggled to learn English when she first came to Chicago. Shortly after arriving in Chicago, she went to a restaurant where she struggled to place her order due to her difficulties with the English language. She talked of the profoundly welcoming reception she felt when her waitress made a simple effort to communicate with her in Spanish.
I am embarrassed to say that despite my rather liberal views on immigration, I am not as hospitable and welcoming as I could be. For instance, I often let the fact that I know and understand Spanish remain unknown even though it may make a Spanish speaker feel more comfortable to speak in his or her native language. For the past two months we have had contractors in our house working on various home improvement projects. They have been working in our house for so long now that they greet my sons by name in the morning, yet I am still embarrassed to speak to them their native language of Spanish. I have allowed my vulnerabilities and self-doubts about my rusty Spanish skills to prevail over authentic hospitality. I have been more concerned with how I would be perceived if my Spanish is subpar, than making it easier for them to communicate, and as a result I have prevented them from feeling truly welcome in my home. For this, I am deeply saddened and shamed.
Practiced Hospitality with our Communities
Authentic hospitality also requires that we act hospitably within our communities – in our cities, towns, neighborhoods, and at the workplace. It can be difficult to extend hospitality within our communities, particularly in large urban cities like Chicago. Amidst concerns about crime and due to the relatively transitory nature of urban living, particularly among young adults, we guard ourselves and excuse our inhospitable attitudes. I am not suggesting that we act recklessly and naively so that we become easy targets for crime and uncomfortable situations. Rather, we should perform a “gut check,” (as my friend and fellow blogger Lisa suggests) and decide whether we are avoiding an extension of authentic and abundant hospitality due to safety concerns, or simply out of apathy towards our communities and those within it.
Generous Hospitality of the Heart
Authentic hospitality also requires generous hospitality of the heart. Are we hospitable in our hearts, by letting our guard down and sharing our thoughts, dreams, and emotions with friends and loved ones? Or do we close our hearts to others with a façade of inauthentic appearances? Do we run to the front door to throw our arms around our loved ones when they come home? Or do we let a passing “hi honey” suffice while we remain preoccupied with whatever household task we had been doing at that time? Young children are an excellent example of genuine and generous hospitality of the heart – running to greet parents and loved ones, burying their face in a shoulder when sad, frequently asking for help (sometimes more often than harried parents appreciate, I’m sure), sharing their bold and imaginative dreams to become an astronaut, a cowboy, a princess.
Do we share our innermost hopes, fears, and dreams; or do we guard ourselves against the potential criticism and judgment of others? Do we admit to our insecurities, flaws, and shortcomings when we know that empathetic understanding will help someone who desperately needs to know that they are not alone?
Gathering the Courage to Practice Authentic Hospitality
Authentic hospitality is not just about entertaining our family and friends; it is about the generous, bold, abundant, and courageous opening of our hearts and minds to the needs of others. For instance, my husband has suggested that when the contractors come to our home on Monday for what may be the last day of work that I tell them in Spanish that we are appreciative of the fantastic job that they did on our home. The mere thought of revealing my limited knowledge of the Spanish language to native Spanish speakers causes me to shudder with anxiety – what if I don’t say something correctly (just another example of the perfect as the enemy of the good)? And why is it that we are fearful of giving complements in the first place? In any event, I hope to muster the courage to put aside my own petty vulnerabilities in order to act with authentic hospitality so that they may feel a truly “generous welcome.”