Interview #8: Vulnerable, Intentional Hospitality in Germany

In October of last year, we were visiting a new friend, when he told me about Claire. He said, “Claire is crazy.” I asked him, “What do you mean, she’s crazy?” and he replied, “Well, she has tons of contacts, she has all kinds of people over, she has theme parties and she hosts big Thanksgiving dinners....” Our friend didn't know about The Serviette, and didn't happen to know that the “crazy” that he was describing was the kind of crazy I write about. I got in touch with Claire, who is an American living with her (also American) husband in Germany. Her husband co-pastors a church plant made up of people from a wide variety of different backgrounds and cultures. Claire kindly agreed to share some of her experiences with this “crazy” life of hospitality to strangers.

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Claire, from the first moment that I heard about you, I heard how hospitable you are. Is this something you learned from your parents?

No, not at all. My parents divorced when I was two and I grew up in an all-girl household, with my mom and my two sisters. I did not learn about hospitality from my mother—I only ever remember us having guests over for a meal one time when I was a child. My mom worked all the time and did not have time for company.

I do remember a situation impacting me when I was a little older, though. We had a family reunion weekend every year which brought 50 or 60 people together. One year, my aunt and uncle's sun room was being installed, and the crew kept working through the weekend of the reunion. My aunt just included them in the family reunion, like “Y'all want something to drink? You get yourself some corn on the cob....” I had never seen someone show spontaneous hospitality like that before, and it made such an impression on me. I remember telling myself, “I want to have company even if the whole house is pulled apart....”

My own first experience with reaching out to foreigners with hospitality happened when I was 22. My sister and I couldn't go home for Christmas, so I invited all the foreign students I knew to come over for Christmas. I didn't know anything about halal cooking (cooking foods that Muslims are permitted to eat). I think I served pigs in a blanket, and wondered why my guests didn't eat any. I also learned about hospitality when I later taught English in Pakistan.

That's a funny story about the pigs in a blanket—live and learn. Would you say that hospitality is a big part of how you reach out to others as a pastor's wife in your international setting?

We used to have tons of guests in, until I realized that it was stressful for my sons. Now I still have company over, but I do it more in the morning when my boys are at school. At that time of day I can focus on friendships with other moms, who tend to be freer during the daytime. Then on the weekends when the dads are freer, sometimes we still have groups over.

We've also switched over to having a few big parties, like 90-person Thanksgiving gatherings, as some of our main hospitality endeavours. Because Thanksgiving is an American holiday and something that most have not celebrated before, it's a perfect opportunity to reach out. We've also done similar things at Christmas and Easter. This year we have quite a few people helping us throw our Thanksgiving Dinner for our community.

Did you manage to buy a halal turkey last year? This is something I've wondered about.

For last Thanksgiving, I didn't need to. There were only two Muslims in attendance and there were lots of vegetarian dishes for them to choose from.

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Is there anything in particular about cross-cultural hospitality that you want to be sure to share with our readers?

Yes. When I was preparing for this interview, I looked at your interview with Elizabeth, who hosts Muslims in her home in the States, and I basically agreed with everything she said. When I lived in Pakistan before I was married, I learned about hosting Muslims, too. As I was preparing to talk to you, I was thinking, what else could I share with your readers? I thought we could talk about “What if you want to be hospitable and your kids don’t like you being so hospitable? What do you do then?”

First, I should tell you a bit more about our family dynamics. I’m 48, and we’ve been living abroad as a family for 13 years. Our oldest son was four when we moved here, and now he is 17 and away at boarding school. Our younger son is 12 and lives at home. I am an extreme extrovert; I got a 98% on the Myers Briggs test, and my husband is not my complete opposite, but he has worked really hard to be more sociable and I pull him along. [Smile.] But our oldest son is an introvert and I've had to learn some lessons the hard way with him. Maybe I can share some things I wish I had done differently with him.

In preparing to talk to you, I sent a message to my 17-year-old and asked him “What did you think about us hosting people in the past?” I kept the question kind of vague, so he could answer however he wanted to. He told me: “It was annoying. I hated it.” I texted him back: “Was it hard for you because of how stressful it got when we had to clean up the house before the company arrived?” We can talk about this too, but my house is usually messy. And most of the time, if I knew guests were coming, I would become a crazy woman that morning, yelling at everyone that we had to clean up "because we are going to serve people for Jesus!” My son replied, “Yes, your stress before the company would come was bad, but mostly I just didn’t like having other people in our house.”

You are brave, to ask your son those direct questions, and listen and learn from his answers.

Another problem arose partly because we started our church in our dining room. My oldest son's computer was in the living room and on Sundays he just wanted everyone to go home as soon as possible after “church” was over, so he could do stuff on his computer. By the time our formal meeting was over, he had had enough, but of course others wanted to stay and talk.

Worse than that was probably that I often had ladies’ Bible studies, tea parties, etc. at our house, and if the children started getting loud or we wanted to get them out of the room, I would just encourage the kids to go up to one of my son’s rooms and play. I didn’t realize how awful my kids felt that was. Basically, there were no boundaries—I encouraged my friends' unruly kids to invade my sons' rooms and my sons felt totally violated. The visiting children would do things like ruin my sons' Lego constructions—my younger son's Chinese Lego warlord was stolen or lost and five years later, he still brings it up occasionally.

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What have you learned through all this, that you can tell other parents, about setting boundaries with your hospitality endeavours?

I tell other young moms that their kids need to have spaces and times that they can be sure will be theirs, without invasion from outsiders. They also need to have some place where they can keep their precious objects safe from guests. Maybe you can have a big box or special cabinet where your kids’ favourite toys can be stowed before company comes. I could have had a corner in my bedroom, maybe, where the guest’s children could have played, instead of encouraging them to go into my boys' rooms.

What do you think the balance is between telling your kids that you believe that God has called you to share your home with these strangers, and realizing that your children aren’t necessarily going to be into the same things you’re into? 

I think it depends on the phase of life your kids are in and on your kids’ individual situations, too. When I had small children, I needed an older woman to come along and tell me to just slow down on the others-centred events and give my kids a break. An older lady once suggested that I should  be involved in no more than two “ministry” type events per week when I had a baby at home. I really needed mentoring as a young mom; getting her feedback was the beginning of me learning to cut down on the outreach stuff when my kids needed me. It was hard, because I’ve always been the extrovert who meets the people and helps us to make contacts, which in turn has brought new people into our church family. So, I try to pass this message along to other young moms who mean well but are taking on too much for their children's stage of life.

I hope that your honesty here about what you learned will encourage our readers, many of whom also have young children. Let's go back to your messy home and the effects of it on your family and hospitality, as I know that's something you wanted to share about. The weird thing is, I was just at your house last week and it didn't look messy to me at all.

Well, here's the back-story. I’ve never had new furniture; our furniture has always been embarrassingly old. I actually hated the furniture in our home. In one of our early homes, no one wanted to sit on my couch because they couldn’t get out of it. It was that bad. 

But five weeks ago, I got new living room furniture. My husband had inherited some money and we decided that we wanted to invest some of it in furniture that we actually liked. One of my girlfriends from America came over specifically to help me buy new furniture. When she was leaving, she said “Maybe when you get new furniture, it will be easier for you to keep your living room clean.” My first thought was, “How rude of her to say that!”

But probably she realized that when you have something you’ve spent a lot of money on and really like, you'll probably care for it better.

Exactly. And that's why, when you were at our house the other day, and the living room was not messy at all. I do feel much more peaceful and joyful with my living room the way it is now. Or when I've paid friends to come help me clean or throw things out, it has been worth every penny. But I just have never been a clean and neat person; it's been a life-long struggle. However, my messiness has also forced me to be more vulnerable with my friends and acquaintances. Honestly, my messy house is my biggest shame, and letting people know that about me—letting them see my messy house—is about as vulnerable as I can get.

Sometimes when a surprise guest drops by, I greet them with “Come in if you can get in” or “If you won't judge me harshly, I'll let you in.” I've had several too-honest Germans say, “Aww, I feel better about myself after seeing your messy apartment.” Or I found out once that my Austrian neighbour had told her coworkers about me, because it was so unusual to her that I would allow people to see my home when it wasn't perfectly clean.

In a way, maybe my openness about my messy house almost sifts some people out of my life. I have noticed that for example, Turkish women believe that a messy house is a sign of a problem in your relationship with God. I've had Turkish women talk harshly to me or gossip about me because I haven't cleaned well enough or because I sometimes feed my family frozen foods or something from a can. However, I've had other Turkish single friends who just loved that they should stop at my house at any time, because they knew I would just stop whatever I was doing and invite them to sit down. Tea time could be anytime; I would just wash the mugs for them if they were dirty.

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I suppose that in a way, it's a measure of how superficial your relationship is, if your acquaintances can't look beyond a messy kitchen and see into your heart.

Yes. Maybe subconsciously I sometimes let people see my home in it's normal state because I want them to decide from the beginning if they like me or not. I have dealt with a lot of shame in my own life, and I've learned that people appreciate vulnerability. I'm not the greatest cook or housekeeper. I've served guests frozen pizza. I've literally had parties where the ironing board was in the living room because I didn't get it put away in time. But despite my vulnerability and messiness—or maybe sometimes, because of it—God has given me countless meaningful relationships over the years. 

What you're describing reminds me of a lady I knew when I was a teenager — she was so warm and laid-back and friendly that her home was still somewhere guests loved to be, even when it was messy.

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As someone who hosts guests regularly, what do you think keeps others from hosting guests?

I would say that people are too busy. Or they're apathetic. One time, I asked some friends in the USA, “How many friends do you have that speak bad English?” They had none. I think that shows that they just aren't trying to befriend foreigners. 

An expat here in Germany recently told me that she has no friends, and she said she cannot be friends with people who are not Christians—that someone who is not a Christian cannot know her heart. That was hard for me to understand, because my two closest friends here are a German Catholic woman (who is more Buddhist than she is Catholic) and a 30-year-old Syrian woman who is a Muslim. My Syrian friend wears a headscarf, has four kids, didn’t finish tenth grade, and lives on public assistance. We have virtually nothing in common. But we love each other, and help each other. She's funny, a fantastic mother and she's a great friend.

I have experienced the same thing, of having deep and meaningful friendships with people who are not Christians. What keeps your friend from making friends with people of other faiths?

I don't think she is being intentional. She has never had many friends; she just had one or two friends as a child, and one or two friends in college. She doesn’t feel she needs more friends. After our last conversation, we concluded that I need to spend less time with people and clean my house more, and she needs to clean her house less, and go out and meet people. 

People might say it’s your personality that makes you able to make friends with people who aren’t Christians or people who are different than you. Someone just recently said to me, “Maybe hosting people of other faiths or backgrounds just comes more naturally to you because of the way you grew up....” For one thing, there were never Muslims or Hindus in my home when I was growing up. But I also felt like asking, “Have you ever tried to have a Muslim over?” I was nervous the first time—actually still am, sometimes. It's not that we just do this because it's a ton of fun every time, we do it because we believe what the Bible says. How can people be more intentional about practicing hospitality?

My best solution for practicing intentionality with hospitality is to carry your calendar with you. Take it with you to church or school or wherever you’re going, and make it a goal to set one or two appointments to see people. For example, right now I know there’s an Afghan student in my son’s class. I want to reach out to that student's mother. I knew Afghan people in Pakistan, there are Afghans in our church — it would be a good connection. The best way to do this is to get out my calendar, walk up to her, and make a meet up with her.

So that’s what you mean when you say intentionality, is not just saying, “Wouldn't that be nice if we could help an Afghan family someday?” but physically getting out your calendar, walking up to the Afghan mother, and inviting her to come for coffee.

Yes, that's exactly it.

When I was in college, I sold books door to door to pay my tuition. I knocked on over 10,000 doors…and I paid cash for my bachelor's degree. Even though I'm an extrovert, I hated knocking on doors. I was scared before every single one of those doors. I thought I was going to throw up, but I did it anyway. What I learned was that when people would say they didn’t have time, I would make an appointment with them to come back at a time that was convenient for them. That helped me to get out of bed in the morning, and made me feel good that the person I was going to try to sell to that day was expecting me. That’s when I learned the benefits of being proactive and intentional by putting something on my calendar.

When I taught English in Pakistan, I did the same thing. I would take my calendar to class and make plans with my students to do things with them outside of class. It helped me get over depression; it helped me get out of my apartment. Having a calendar and a plan has helped me so much to be intentional about relationships.

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What do you think of picking regular dates on your calendar when you will have guests, like every Tuesday, or every Wednesday and Sunday, and regularly filling those nights with guests?

Yes, absolutely. And you can get your kids involved by asking them to contribute their skills in areas they are interested in. We've seen this lately with our older son who likes technology and computers. When our church moved out of our house and into a building, our son got involved in doing the PowerPoint presentations. He had access to my Amazon account and ordered whatever he needed for the church sound board through my account. That gave him a sense of responsibility and a feeling that he was part of things.

There are probably lots of ways in which you could also incorporate your kids' interest in cooking, or crafts, or kids into your family's practice of regular hospitality. Could you share a bit more about the combination of you and your different personalities? How does that work with your hospitality?

My husband is a pastor and his work in Europe has been with starting new churches. He needs me, the extrovert, to help him with making contacts with people. Earlier in our marriage, I was the one who was making friends and bringing them home, but I was also the most responsible for the kids, the meals, and the house. My husband had to learn that in order for us to sustainably host guests and maintain relationships, he needed to help more around the house. I don't mean that he would stay home and take care of the house while I was out socializing, but just that he needed to learn to do tasks that might usually have been mine, so that I could have time, as an extrovert, for those relationships. This is something that has gotten a lot better over the years, and he is super thankful because he has seen over the years that I connect with women, I get to know them and their kids, and then through the connections I make, he gets to know their husbands, too.

My husband and I had never lived in the same time zone before our wedding, we had to learn after we were married how to serve others together. We made a deal that if we were in a situation where were were talking to man about faith, he would do most of the talking and I would pray. If we were talking with a woman, vice versa - I would do most of the talking and he would pray. But the longer I have been married to my husband, I have realized what a deep thinker he is, and how great he is at sharing Bible truths with people who may not know much about the Bible. He’s so calm, thinks linearly, and answers people’s questions without getting distracted. Now, I get people in the door, and “pass them off” to him or to others who can talk about deeper things well with them. When we are sitting around the dinner table with people, I’m happy to make sure everyone has food and drinks, and to let my husband steer the conversation. But my husband is also really good at asking me to give my perspective.

I think it’s admirable how you have each learned to respect each others' differences, and draw out each others' strengths. Thank you for sharing that.

I think we have learned to complement each other in that way, and I think I’ve also learned to see my husband’s gifting and appreciate it. It’s taken years, but I think we work really well together now. It took me a long time to learn that we are on the same team, and that I am different than him, and I don’t need to overcompensate because I feel he's being to quiet or too slow to speak. I finally realized that he's going to get the job done, and get it done much better than I would, if I will just shut up and get out of the way.

Sounds a lot like my husband too. I joke that he can do everything better than I can. But if it needs to be done quickly, that's where I shine. [Laughs.]

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Do you pray with your friends of other religions or cultures? How does that go over?

I do pray with people. At the beginning in Germany it was always hard for me; I was ashamed to pray in German because the grammar structure is different and difficult. But I think it's worth doing, even if it's not in our mother tongue. Non-Christians are often surprised to hear how personal a Christian's prayers are. My Austrian neighbour cried when I prayed with her for her sister who was struggling with alcoholism. She said, “No one has ever prayed for my sister before.”

As far as praying before a meal, if we are eating at our house, we usually just introduce the prayer by saying something like, “Usually before a meal, we pray.” We’ve never had anyone say they don’t want us to pray, but we also don’t ask their permission. Sometimes one of our boys will pray before the meal, if he wants to. If we are eating on our friends' turf, of course, we don't force our prayer tradition on them.

I think that most people think that at least there’s no harm in having you pray, or if they’re lucky, it will do something for them. Other than asking someone if you can pray for them, do you any typical approaches you use to turn conversations to spiritual topics? Some people are good with having guests over for a meal, but then they don’t know how to change the tone to anything spiritual. I heard someone recently say that the very things that we North Americans are told to not to talk about with people we don't know very well — religion and politics — are the very things that many of our Eastern friends are accustomed to discussing.

I often tell a friend that something she just said reminds me of a Bible story. For example, some Syrians believe that if something bad happens to you, you must deserve it. One day when my Syrian friend mentioned this, I told her the story of the man born blind. She called her kids into the room to make sure they heard the story, too.

Or a lot of topics come up situationally. One of the best conversations I ever had with my Syrian friend was when we saw some drunkenness at a Christmas market here in Germany. Those types of moral problems are often great bridges for discussion with friends from conservative cultures, because we share some common values. We had a long conversation about how Germans are not just Christians because it says so on their birth certificates.

Do you have any relationships with people who are so secular that you feel awkward to bring up religious topics? I notice that I’m a lot more comfortable talking about God or prayer with a Syrian friend, but when it’s with a well-to-do, atheistic German friend, I feel more intimidated.

In my case, because my husband is a pastor, people almost expect me to be “religious.” But I do think it's important to be open about what we believe and why we believe it, from early on in our relationships. If we are friends for long periods of time without ever talking about our faith with them, someday they might ask us, “If what you believe is so important to you, why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

Is there anything else you'd like to share that is directly related to cross-cultural hospitality, as we wrap this up?

Yes! It has been very important to my Syrian friend that I cook “halal” for her children. Some Muslims will eat anything, as long as it's not pork. But that's not true “halal”. Halal meat (such as chicken or beef) has to be slaughtered in a particular way for it to really be halal. Regular marshmallows and gummy bears are also not halal.

Yeah, I found that out the hard way. 

I make sure that anything I serve to my Syrian friend and her kids is truly halal, which means I buy meat or gummy bears and marshmallows from the Turkish grocery store and don't use bouillon cubes that might have non-halal meat in them (I use vegetarian bouillon instead). The other day my German friend told me that it didn't matter if we just used non-halal bouillon, because our Muslim friends would never be able to tell.

But it's really important that a Christian keep his or her Muslim friends' trust, that the food we feed to them is what we say it is. I feel honoured that they trust us when we say the food we are serving is halal.

My Syrian friend tells all her friends, “Claire knows what halal is and always makes halal food for us.”

Obviously, it means a lot to her. I've also realized Arabic men usually like their meat. They don't really want to be fed vegetarian food; they want meat, but they want it to be halal. But vegetarian food could work, in a pinch.

Yes, and in the West you usually do not have to go so far as to separate your pots and pans and have pots and pans that have not touched pork or non-halal foods. I know some people who have done that, to be able to feed conservative Muslims, but I haven't run into it in Germany. But if I had a friend who wouldn't eat with me unless I cooked out of a pot that had never touched non-halal meat, I would buy a new pot.

It really has been wonderful talking to you and hearing your enthusiasm for sharing meals and hope with people of any culture and any background. Thank you, Claire.

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I think Claire's comments on halal cooking are a good note to end on, because they summarize what we try to focus on here at The Serviette: extending God's welcome to friends of other cultures and religions, and learning to accommodate their needs and preferences so that they can truly feel welcomed — even when it comes down to little details, like which kinds of bouillon to use in our cooking. God went to great lengths to reach out to us and welcome us, and we reflect Him when we go out of our way to welcome others, too. I hope Claire's insights give you new ideas as you love the stranger in this new year.