It is such a happy summer with the dear bunches of the natives about the place. And there is a spirit of love all about – either I get asked out to supper at one end of the house or the other, or a plate of stew is brought to us, or a hunk of watermelon in its wonderful crimson & green – or a sugar cake or two – or my bathtowels get carried off for a private washing & come back fragrant with a scented jessamine wreath folded in – all little precious tokens – & with them the glad light of the happy spirit of help & fellowship among each other. 25 August 1921
It was a magical evening. Neighbors gathered, nine-strong, on the house-wide back screen porch, almost other-worldly, canopied by branches of enormous live-oak trees. As we enjoyed our appetizers, the entertainment was provided by two downy owls – still babies – who flitted from branch to branch finally settling for their evening dinner just as we were called into the dining room for ours.
The table was laid in white linen, a centerpiece of tulips, in shades of pink, were set in a crystal vase, flanked by pairs of candles in holders that seemed cut from clear ice. I can’t recall the menu (but that it was good!) yet the evening was filled with animated conversation and laughter as we explored a wide range of subjects. The candles shortened as the evening lengthened. Our hosts’ next door neighbor brought the evening to a close with these words: “This is the view that I saw nightly from the outside looking in. Now I’m on the inside looking out.”
What a lovely and apt observation: A glimpse of a marriage, yes, but also of hospitality. For one shining evening, hospitality drew into community individuals whose primary common denominator was simply place: five cottages lining a brick-paved street. During that evening we learned more about each other – history and hobbies; opinions and beliefs – than 365 days of quick conversations over the proverbial fence or chance encounters at the mail boxes lining our street. We departed, that evening, to go our separate ways but with a new sense of solidarity, of being bound together with a knowing “We’ll be there for each other.”
Hospitality is a golden chain linking earliest childhood to my present life – first in receiving; then in giving. I remember the excitement accompanying the words, “Company’s coming!” and all that inferred to my child-heart. Hospitality has continued to minister to me (and mine) through all the years to follow, most profoundly at times of deepest need. Hospitality sheltered us through early years of marriage by older couples who took us under their wings, so to speak, or by peers who, like us, made do with the little our short lives had accumulated: roasting hot dogs in the fireplace of friends’ unfurnished new home; sipping hot chocolate as a young mom folded laundry at her dining room table. I, individually, and we as a family have been happily hosted at tables feeding off paper plates food contributed by the guests. We have been ministered to profoundly, being taken in for a weekend (or week!) by long-time friends and new, singles and families. We have been served by hostesses who clearly loved dressing up, pulling out fine china and silver and creating a stunning tablescape – and by others who favored the spontaneity of “come as you are to such as we are!” Little matter service or style: true hospitality, at once, embraces the guest and enriches the host!
Hospitality for Lilias was a primary means of connecting with people and embracing them in her heart. Within their first year in Algiers, Lilias and her colleagues opened the door of their small flat, in the French-speaking area of the city, for a New Year’s Day Tea for young Arab water-carriers with whom they made contact during their forays into town. She rejoiced when they moved into the Casbah, the ancient Arab city, where they could freely host national women and children in their home. During the years to follow, Lilias acquired houses along the coast and down into the southlands which she furnished comfortably – “native-style” – where people would feel at ease in familiar surrounds hosted by workers.
Dar Naama, “House of Grace,” located in the nearby suburb of El Biar, initially endeared itself to Blanche and Lilias with its spacious Arab courtyard and surrounding rooms – and the dream of hosting entire Arab families during the hot summer months. Lilias moved permanently to this home, after the death of Blanche, personally realizing that dream: it became shelter for workers and Arab friends that peopled her daily life and who became, in essence, her family – as indicated in the opening quote of her journal.
Many cultures, traditionally, place a high value on hospitality. The Polish have a saying, “Guest at home is equal to God at home.” The Greeks traditionally held that Zeus might appear in the guise of a stranger. The Chinese with their history of hunger, identified hospitality with food and food with life. Once you shared food with another you were bound as friends. The Old Testament Children of Israel were instructed to “love the stranger because you were aliens in Egypt.” Jesus was the frequent recipient of hospitality – Lazarus, Mary, Martha – and the first Christians met in homes.
Yet hospitality, for many, is daunting associated, unfortunately, with entertainment Martha Stewart-style. But it is, in essence, love in action: opening the doors of our hearts to our guests – however they are packaged (!) – as we open the doors of our homes. It is a Biblical mandate: “Be given to hospitality.” Moreover, it is a privilege and a blessing. It is a gift of ourselves – just as we are.
There are many challenges to our time and energy in our fast-paced, fast-food, often impersonal faceless culture. But let us pray that we be open to how we might use our hearts and homes to embrace friend and stranger. Just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can’t do something.
O God, make the door of the house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power. God, make the door of this house the gateway to Thine eternal kingdom. (Inscription above door of Saint Stephen’s in London.)
Painting: Travel Journal 1893
In Memoriam: Peter Chretien (neighbor)