My dad’s grandmother, Mary Louise (Squiers) Wheeler (1903-1987), was the embodiment of hospitality. Together with her husband, Donald Cook Wheeler (1893-1980), she raised her family of thirteen children in the tiny farming community of Wicklow, New Brunswick. She had no washing machine, no dishwasher, no indoor plumbing. But that didn’t stop her from creating a home marked by generosity.

When Dad was little, the family gathered at her house every Sunday– aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members. Gram was well-known for her ability to create a feast out of nothing, and she had a huge farmhouse table where there was always room for one more. During the week, too, Gram’s door was always open: Dad still marvels that even when his own mother was busy with work and family responsibilities, Gram always made time for him.

Gram’s hospitality extended far beyond her family. In those days, the train was a vital connector, and transient men often rode the rails as they crisscrossed the country in search of work. When they arrived in Wicklow, they would make their way to Gram’s house for a bath, a hot meal, and a warm bed. When she asked how everyone knew to come to her place, she was told that her name and address were written on the inside of the boxcars for anyone needing a safe stopping spot.

I’ve been thinking lately about Gram Wheeler and her boxcar guests. In church, we talk a lot about hospitality. We train Sunday morning greeters, we have a welcome centre in the building’s lobby, and we encourage everyone to seek out those who may be new or visiting, and to host folks in their own homes during the week. Most of the time, the focus is on being a good host, not on being a good guest.

When working with Indigenous peoples and settler Canadians, too, the theme of hospitality comes up, often to mixed reactions from settler Canadians. My Indigenous friends express a deep-seated belief that they have been entrusted by Creator to belong to their traditional lands and to host others from that position, something which they cannot give up easily.

When settlers first hear that they are guests on Indigenous lands, however, their first reaction tends to be one of confusion, disbelief, and even anger: “How can you suggest that I’m a guest? My family has been here for generations! This is OUR land.” At some point, many of them do concede that they are, indeed, guests. They start to see that perhaps European settlers have taken advantage of their hosts’ hospitality, which often leads to a sense of shame. We do not always know what it means to be good guests.

It’s true that being good hosts is part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus. But that is only part of the equation. My friend Jim Sequiera, a native Hawai’ian who makes his home in Oregon, draws from the wisdom of his elders when he says: “To give well, you must first receive well.” The biblical story of Naomi and Ruth is a great example of this. At the opening of the story, Naomi has become an unwilling guest in Moab, both because of famine and because of her husband’s decisions. As the guest of Ruth and Orpah, Naomi radically sets aside her own racial and religious prejudices, moving Ruth to pledge her undying devotion to her mother-in-law. When the two return to Bethlehem, it is Naomi’s turn to host, she guides Ruth in cultural protocols that save the entire family; Ruth, now the guest, goes to great lengths to ensure that Naomi would be cared for, too. Both women understand that they must take both roles. They also understand that being a guest is not a position of shame, but of honour; in return, however, guests must return honour to their hosts by being good guests. This brings further honour to everyone, including God. Together, Naomi and Ruth demonstrate this to their entire community– no small feat, given the political and religious tensions of the time. In doing so, they look forward to Jesus, the ultimate host and the ultimate guest, who gracefully took up residence in his own Creation.

Being a guest is a position of honour, and guests must return honour to their hosts by being good guests. Click To Tweet

The idea that we are to be both hosts and guests is inscribed in the English language, although it is now hidden: originally, the word “host” meant both host and guest. It’s related to the Sanskrit word meaning “to consume”, which speaks to the power of eating together at the same table. (Interestingly, it is also connected to the word for sacrifice/victim, an association with obvious theological connotations.) As followers of Jesus, we are called to be both hosts and guests, offering hospitality to others while recognizing the ways that we are hosted both by God and by others.

In many ways, hosting is relatively easy. As hosts, we get to stay in the comfort of their own homes. We get to decide what food to serve and how to serve it. We get to maintain control. It is more difficult to be guests, setting aside our own customs and preferences in favour of someone else’s. And yet, only by sitting as guests at someone else’s table can we learn gratitude and humility.

I learned this again when befriending a newcomer family from Syria. When our sponsorship group first met “our” family, they invited us to a party happening that evening at their hotel. Instantly, we were transported to pre-war Syria: there was lively music and traditional drumming, and men and boys danced in long lines while women and girls chatted and chased babies on the sidelines. Over the next year, we were hosted well and often by the family we were supporting. No matter what time of day, there was always a feast.

At first, we hesitated: should we really be eating their food when they might not have enough the next day? Gradually, though, we came to recognize that in order to be good hosts, helping them to navigate the tricky waters of Canadian life, we first had to be good guests, foregoing our way of doing things and instead following their cultural protocols. In my friend Jim’s words, to give well, you must first receive well.

I never really knew my great-grandmother, although I share both her name and her legacy of hospitality, and yet somehow the image of Gram’s table sticks with me. I would love to have made mincemeat or raspberry bangbelly with her, hearing about previous generations who poured into her life so that she could host others well.

I would also love to have met the men who saw Gram’s name on a boxcar wall and received not only food, but dignity and honour at her table. How did they respond? When times improved, did they remember her and host someone else who had it rough?

In my own life, how can I not only be a better host, but also a better guest who brings honour to my hosts and to God? And what does this look like in a collective setting, when we are together as a body of believers?

In my next blog posting, I’ll share some of the ways we’ve been doing this where I live. Stay tuned!