I believe in hospitality. My father, a college professor in our small Midwestern town, often invited students who lived in faraway places like Tonga or Detroit, to share Thanksgiving dinner with us. Sometimes students stayed overnight in freshly made beds with towels laid out on them. And before returning to their dormitories, my mother would place something in their hands—a jar of raspberry jam or a butter-stained paper bag of warm cookies. These types of welcoming acts were performed again and again throughout my childhood—with friends passing through, distant relatives, and friends of friends.
As an adult, incorporating these rituals into my own home was second nature. But it wasn’t until I was on the receiving end, living as a guest in a foreign country, that I came to understand a deeper value of hospitality and the powerful force it can be in our lives.
I was 30 years old when I visited South Africa, one year after Apartheid ended with the peaceful election of Nelson Mandela. As I met more South Africans during my three-month stay, I came to notice a gesture of welcome that was extended to me on more than one occasion. Soon after entering someone’s home, the hostess would offer me tea or coffee. She would serve cream and sugar alongside it, and then while I chatted and stirred my drink, she would watch. She would notice whether I used one or two teaspoons of sugar. Whether I liked my coffee black or with cream. The next time I crossed her threshold, she would serve my drink exactly the way I liked it—strong, with a splash of cream—because she had studied me and knew one small thing about me. She had cared enough to say: Here is your pleasure, I remember, and I give it to you, regardless of your skin color, your country’s politics, or your age.
Through this intimate act, performed by a stranger, I saw that hospitality could be much more than a pleasant social custom. It can be a way of listening to another human, an attempt to dismiss real or imagined layers of distrust so we can get on with the business of connecting.
As I get older, I believe more than ever in that bag of warm cookies or jar of jam. Each time I offer or receive them, they restore my faith that the forces at play in our world are not just those of greed, disagreement, and people scrabbling for power. The simple rituals of hospitality remind me of what we each carry within us—the power to listen, to find common ground, and to create connections with each other, one relationship at a time.
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