We host international students in our home. We’ve been doing this for two years, and by and large it has been a fantastic experience for our family, to the point that our kids are actually disappointed if we have a short time without a student with us. But such an activity brings hospitality to the forefront, not just in an isolated, every-now-and-then sort of way, but daily. What does it mean to be hospitable?
There are lots of factors at play. There are cultural differences, first off. We’ve hosted students from South America, Europe, and Asia. All of them are seeking a genuine experience of American life and culture, including family life. This includes American eating habits, which I’m fairly sure we’re not fully representative of, but there you go. We deal with the issue that many of our students are younger and from affluent families, meaning that they haven’t had to eat things they don’t like. And we also have to deal with the personal preferences and dietary concerns of our guests. We’ve had several students who are lactose-intolerant, one student who would not eat pork for religious reasons, and plenty of students who just don’t like vegetables.
How do you be a good host in such a situation? It can be nerve-wracking. Knowing that these people intentionally signed up to experience everyday American family life is not entirely comforting if you know your guest is not happy with the food you make. We aren’t a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast, we’re a family. We can’t (and won’t) cater to the personal whims of our guests, but we want them to be happy and well-fed.
Even just with inviting other families over for dinner we must contend with the exponential rise in food allergies. One of our kids’ homeschool friends has a life-threatening peanut allergy. We want to be respectful of such needs, but is avoiding nuts to save a little girl’s life on the same par as catering to a student who really just doesn’t like to eat veggies?
Our culture is obsessed with bullying, and the realm of food has become a violent arena for bullying of various kinds. Vegetarians and vegans and paleos and organic enthusiasts can be very quick to get aggressive as they not only seek to eat the way they feel led to, but feel it necessary to try and force others to eat the same way.
My wife organizes a weekly play-date open to any and all homeschoolers in our area. For the last three years it has been a wonderful mix of new and old kids and parents coming together to meet and talk and play. Naturally, around holidays talk turns to having a special party or event for the kids on Park Day. The same sort of thing that happens in a classroom in a public school (or at least used to) – send some goodies to share with your kids and let them have fun together.
Two years ago as these plans were coming together around Valentine’s Day, one of the home-school mothers was adamant that her kids be included. No problem – the event is open to everyone, right? She was adamant that her preferences about food be respected – their family doesn’t eat any sugar. No problem, right? Everyone is bringing things to share, feel free to bring treats that your kids can eat and share with others, and then just avoid the stuff that your kids aren’t supposed to eat. Piece of cake (so to speak), right?
Wrong. This mom insisted that the entire event had to be sugar-free. Otherwise, her kids would feel uncomfortable because they couldn’t eat the snacks that the other kids brought. She accused my wife and the group of basically being food bullies, demanding that sugar be allowed at the event, even though nobody was forcing her or her kids to either bring sugary-snacks or eat them. The very fact that everybody else in the group didn’t see a problem with this demonstrated their bullying ways.
It sounds silly but it created a serious rift in the homeschool community, particularly those who came to park days. Harsh words were exchanged both in person and in e-mail. This person couldn’t see that her insistence that everyone cater to her particular wishes was, at best, equally bullying.
It’s enough to make you think twice about inviting someone over for dinner! Yet hospitality is one of the Biblical requirements for Christian leaders (1 Timothy 3:2)! Interesting that we don’t hear this mentioned very often, or stressed. Yet there it is, alongside monogamy. I actually had a seminary prof who refused to translate it as ‘hospitable’, and tried to redefine the word as meaning basically a nice person. I suspect St. Paul meant what he said, and was inspired to choose the appropriate word for it. How then do we go about it in our fractured world?
I appreciated this blogger’s sensible approach on the subject, an approach that mirrors our own overall. As much as the host wants to make the guest comfortable, the guest should remember that they are receiving a gift, the gift of hospitality, and should be gracious about it. How one prefers to eat at home can be set aside for the greater goal of relationship with other people – unless of course it’s a serious medical issue. We’ve learned to inquire in advance about dietary needs and preferences of our guests. We accommodate them as much as possible. In the process, we’ve learned that people can be flexible when they want to be. We’ve also learned that some people exaggerate their food issues. Exploration needs to occur as to just what the boundaries are with any specific guest.
I also appreciated this same blogger’s basic rules for eating. Common sense can go a long way to making hospitality easier – both for the host as well as for the guest!