Interview #6: Hospitality for Introverts

Today's interview is with a dear friend of mine, Esther. We met in 2004 and in the years since, Esther and her family have often given me and many others a place to belong in their home. Theirs is a home that is routinely—sometimes even daily—"given to hospitality." But it was only after I had known Esther for many years that I realized that she considers herself an introvert. Since introverts usually talk about needing alone time, I asked Esther if she would talk with us about why she has chosen a lifestyle of lots of others time and not so much alone time. Here's an excerpt from our conversation.

Esther, first could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a wife (to a farmer / financial consultant), a mom (to three daughters and one son) and grandma (to two, soon to be three, little boys). I'm a Canadian with German roots, and we live in Alberta. I enjoy cooking, baking, and quilting. I've always considered my children and grandchildren to be my main focus of ministry. I enjoy both studying the Bible and getting others interested in studying the Bible for themselves. Growing up, I was extremely shy and uncomfortable around other people. It was hard for me not only to interact in large groups but even to carry on one-on-one conversations. God has helped me to grow a lot in that area, and I guess that's why we're having this conversation today!

You told me once that you consider yourself an introvert. So, why do you have guests in your house almost all the time?

Really, it started with the man I married. God is all wise, and He gave me a husband who is super extroverted. Since the beginning of our marriage it was this way: my husband would go out and invite people in, and because of this, I needed to learn to welcome those people into our home. 

"As much as I didn’t like opening our home at first, after the fact I was always really glad that I had."

We have been married for 32 years now, but for probably the first half of our married life, I somewhat resented his bringing home so many guests. I was always nervous and self-conscious. I was a very independent person and I didn’t want people to get close to me. In fact, sometimes I would feel like people didn’t even want to get close to me. Looking back, I can see that as an introvert, I needed that push from my husband to learn to have more and deeper relationships. 

God used my husband's open door policy to help me realize that I need other people much more than I realized when I was younger! Instead of focusing on myself (and my discomfort in being a hostess) I have tried to focus on others (and how I could encourage them). I've learned that some guests want to have a meaningful conversation, and others want to just lie on the couch and rest. We want our house to be a place where both types of guests can come; where people can just hang out and be themselves. 

As much as I didn’t like opening our home at first, after I did it I was always really glad that I had. Through hospitality I’ve gotten to know people on another level. Even people who used to seem aloof or distant have somehow become closer after coming into our home. They've opened up and shared their struggles. Hospitality makes strangers into friends. 

Do you remember a distinct time when your attitude about having guests changed, or do you think your heart about having guests has just grown as you've grown in understanding and obeying God?

I think it was the latter. Sometimes I was very selfish with my own time. I have become more aware of my own selfishness and God's desire for me to be a servant. It wasn't a sudden change so much as growth in this area over time.

I remember a conversation at your house in which one of the other guests said that he doesn’t like to call himself an introvert because he doesn’t want to make excuses for being rude or avoiding people. Do you think there’s something to that—does avoiding labeling yourself help?

God doesn’t operate based on the labels we assign. God definitely does give us different personalities and strengths, but all of life is about balance. There’s a danger in swinging too far in either the typical extrovert or the typical introvert direction. People time and quiet reflective time are both important to all people. An extrovert’s spiritual life can suffer when he or she doesn’t take time away from people, just as an introvert’s spiritual life can suffer when he or she isolates himself too often from other people. Christ wants to pour into us during those moments we have alone, so that we can outflow to others when we spend time with them. But we need to balance alone time and time with others. The important thing is that we not use our labels as an excuse for sin. 

How do you think regular hospitality has affected your marriage?

It has been good for us because it’s something we can do to serve others together. However, early in our marriage we had a lot of overnight guests and I realize that was not healthy; we did need some time just as a couple. It’s possible to do too much. 

My husband and I have such different strengths and have learned to work together in hospitality situations. My husband’s strength is meeting lots of people, but connecting with people on a deeper level is more my strength. My husband can work a crowd and seems to talk to everyone in the room, whereas I just talk to the person next to me. I have to remind myself that whoever God puts next to me is the person He wants me to connect with, and I can't worry that I’m not connecting with everyone in the room like my husband is. 

What would you say to someone who says, “I’m an introvert and therefore I just can’t have people over because it’s too stressful. When I’m at home, I need my me time”?

Well, it's important to remember that hospitality looks different for different people. It’s not necessarily about having big groups of people over. It could just be inviting one person over, and just serving them tea. 

Again, there is a time to be alone, but we have to be careful that we don’t use excuses to cover selfishness. The Christian’s life is about giving of oneself and making sacrifices. As an introvert, maybe Christ is asking me to sacrifice my “me time.” 

God knows that I am an introvert type, but in the last five years, I’ve had no “me time” to speak of. It’s just the way my life has been orchestrated and I can’t really change that unless God changes it. But He does give the strength for each task He puts in front of me, and He can do the same thing for others as well.

Your story shows how our personalities should always be conforming more to Christ’s personality as we grow in Him. For a Christian, the goal should not be to do things the way an introvert would do them, but to do them the way Christ would do them. 

"I've definitely seen a lot of growth in what I can handle hospitality-wise. Having 'extra' people in our home doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to."

Yes, and I've definitely seen a lot of growth in what I can handle hospitality-wise. Having "extra" people in our home doesn’t bother me as much as it would have when I was younger. Last year from July until September, we had overnight guests in our home every day except for about four. We were joking about our house being a hotel, but I was able to just wash that morning’s bedding because tonight someone else would be needing it, and roll with whatever came. I was tired, but I didn’t resent the guests or get upset about having to think about cooking for six or eight or ten people day after day like I might have when I was younger. 

What are a few pointers that might be helpful to people who are trying to learn to have guests, but don’t feel confident hosting yet? 

  • Don’t worry about having everything picture perfect. People don’t expect that and they don't expect a big, fancy meal. They just want to feel at home. 
  • However, if the house is messy, chaotic or disorderly, guests feel uncomfortable and have a hard time relaxing. Establish some routines to keep things generally clean and in order so that it's not hard to spontaneously invite someone in, but don’t be a neat freak. Again, balance is key.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask guests to help you clean up. By letting people help you in your kitchen, you make them feel like you’re equals. There’s also something about working together that opens up a different depth of relationship. When working side by side, like washing dishes together, people tend to move into deeper conversation than if they're looking at each other face to face. 
  • As an introvert, I find it helpful not to think too far ahead, but just to live in the moment and do what God has put before me that day. That way, I can enjoy some alone time when I get it, but I don't get upset if another guest arrives and I don't get my evening to myself. 
  • Lastly, my daughter says that she learned from me to always keep cookies—or some kind of dessert—in the freezer. [Smile.]

How has having an open home affected your kids?

Our four kids grew up with many godly people coming through our home, and this had a huge impact both on them and on us. They have always said that they loved growing up with so many people around. It was essential for our kids to see older Christians (other than their own parents or relatives) who loved God but were also normal, balanced people who enjoyed life. Their friendships with our guests were a huge part of their spiritual formation and influenced a lot of the decisions they made. We are close to our blood family, but through hospitality we have acquired this other "family" made up of many people who are near and dear to us.

What I see in your story is the blessing of obeying God. As an introvert, you may never have wanted this life of having so many guests, but you did it out of obedience to God. And you’re reaping the benefits.... 

Perhaps that is a good summary of our conversation. As an introvert, I would not have naturally opened my home. I was full of fears and tiredness and lack of desire. But God knew that I needed those people in my life, and that my children needed them, too. Seeing my children choose to follow Jesus in their adulthood, partly through the influence of guests in our home, far outweighs the uncomfortableness and the loss of “me time.” Having kids who walk in the Truth is much more important to me than a quiet, predictable home and schedule. 

Obedience to God through hospitality has so many good ripple effects. When I host guests, I am just passing on what I have received from Christ, from you, and from others who showed me what it was to establish a home which is open to outsiders. 

It's so true. Sometimes I think, “I'm just here in my home in the country and I’ve never done anything for the rest of the world.” But it’s beautiful to think that when someone is refreshed in our home and is then able to turn around and host someone else in his or her home, in a sense God is using us to bless their friends and acquaintances too, whom we have never met. I hope my story shows that God is so good, and knows what is best for us—even when He commands introverts to show hospitality! The blessings of obeying God's command to hospitality flow much farther than we will ever realize in this life. 

Interview #5: Tips for Feeding Big Groups

In our last post, we talked about being intentional about how many people you invite to your home at one time. Depending on what you're trying to achieve at a particular event, big groups can be ideal! 

Today we're talking about hospitality to big groups with Karen, who cooked for many years at the Bible college I attended. Karen seemed to always have a smile on her face despite many early mornings and repetitive tasks. I hope you’ll enjoy learning from her experience both with cooking for large groups (pro tips coming right up!) and using her kitchen as a place for life-changing conversations.

Karen, I know you as a great cook, but I don’t know how you got there. Could you explain how you started cooking for big groups of people? 

Serving people through food was something my mom always did. She often packed up the leftovers from our meals and took them to a shut-in lady from our fellowship, or left cookies for the mailman in the mailbox at Christmas. She and I worked together well in the kitchen; we’d make hearty meals and put away garden produce. Loving people by way of food was her thing and I learned much of what I know from her. As a kid, I thought every family appreciated food as much as my mom taught us to, but later I realized that my upbringing was fairly unique!

"Our pastor could see that hospitality came easily to me, and told me that."

My parents were really diligent also about having church workers or cross-cultural workers over for meals. When I was fourteen and helping prepare and serve a dessert, our pastor commented to me that I had the gift of hospitality. He could see that it came easily to me, and told me that. 

It’s neat that he pointed out your gifting. Sometimes when you do something naturally, you don't realize that others don't. Did you receive any formal training in cooking?

When I was a teenager, I worked in some food industry jobs, although I did not work as a cook. My husband and I attended Bible school in New York, and when we heard that the Bible school was opening an extension in Ontario, Canada (where we are from) and only had one cook, we decided to move to the area so that I could help in the Bible school kitchen. I still don’t have any formal training in culinary arts, but other than learning from my mom, at the Bible school I trained under two other experienced cooks. Eventually I became the head cook in the Bible school kitchen. A few years ago I had to give up my full time role in the kitchen due to health problems, though I still help there sometimes. My younger brother, who went to culinary school, took over the kitchen manager role at the Bible school—God worked that out perfectly!

What are some of your best tips for feeding large groups?

The first thing that comes to mind is to make sure you have the right tools, like a sharp chef’s knife. You get a lot more done with the proper equipment. In our case, having an industrial dishwasher made a huge difference in our ability to feed large groups.

Secondly, choose recipes that expand well and don't have to be individually portioned. Chili, sloppy joes, spaghetti and meatballs are are few examples of meals that can be stretched and served from one pot.

Keep the meals simple. Trying to make something finicky for a crowd is tough. Or, if you want to make one part of the meal more complicated, make the complicated part something you can prepare ahead of time, because at the last minute you can’t do detailed work. For example,  if you want to serve a dessert like homemade pies,  prepare the pies early and allow them to sit until suppertime, when they can be served up quickly. 

What were some of your favourite meals to serve to large groups?

Butter chicken is a meal that goes a long way and pleases a lot of people. Keep the chilli, peppers or hot sauce to the side so that people can make the sauce as hot as they like. 

“Build-your-own-" meals: I enjoy preparing make-your-own-pasta,  -potato or -fajita bars. Put the pasta, potato or tortilla at the beginning and let people choose their own toppings or sauces. (When I make fajitas, I sauté the peppers with the chicken, to make the chicken last longer.)

For desserts, squares work well (such as brownies, apple bars, or Skor bars) because they don’t have to be individually portioned, and portions can be cut bigger or smaller as needed. Squares can be eaten on a napkin, with no need for a plate.

Do you have any advice about the actual serving process, when you're putting out food for large groups?

Portioning out the food for the guests can be helpful, so that you know you’ll have enough. If people are choosing their own portion sizes, sometimes one person will take a lot more and then someone else won’t get enough. Portioning the first serving can help to make sure everyone receives something. Then people can get second servings if there are leftovers. 

For meals with strong ingredients that some might not enjoy, it can be good to leave a few of the ingredients that people may be pickier about off to the side. For example, recently we served a Greek salad but separated the raw onions and feta as optional toppings, so that the guests could choose whether or not they wanted to include them.

Do you have any thoughts on accommodating food allergies or preferences?

We ask people to let us know if they have allergies before they come to our property. Sometimes we ask them to bring their own products along to swap out for things they’re allergic to. So, if they bring along their own gluten-free bread or dairy-free milk, we make their food using their special ingredients. Children can be quite sensitive to a change in their food, so it makes sense for them to bring along a brand of bread or milk that they’re used to drinking or eating. You could do something similar when hosting guests in your home if you want—ask them to bring their own bread or milk if needed.

We see it as part of our responsibility to cater to legitimate needs, but we don’t ask about particular preferences that are not medical needs. In planning the menu, I try to think about what people of a certain age group might like. Picky eaters can choose what to put on their plates (that’s why “build-your-own…” meals are great). Having a tray of vegetables is always good for extraordinarily particular eaters, so that if they don’t like the entrée at all, they still have something healthy to eat.

Since this blog is mostly about cross-cultural hospitality, I wanted to ask: did you ever suit meals to students from other cultures or other backgrounds?

We often had students from Korea, and they’re used to having rice and kimchi at almost every meal. We had a rice cooker and provided rice daily just for them, so they could add a scoop to their meal if they wanted. We’d often keep a jar of kimchi nearby for them, too.

Can you recommend any resources for people planning meals for big groups? 

I have often gotten inspiration from a TV show called Carnival Eats. The foods they feature have to be prepared quickly and served out a food truck window in individual portions. Watching what they prepare gives me new ideas for serving portioned foods in a way that is easier and quicker. If you enjoy cooking and feed big groups, check it out sometime!

What are your thoughts about how physical food and spiritual food (or physical work and spiritual work) are connected? For example, how did you see your work in the kitchen as connecting to the overall work of the Bible school?

There’s definitely a connection between physical and spiritual food. I have observed that people usually won’t come to hear the Word if there isn’t something to feed their bellies. We see this tendency acknowledged in Scripture as well, such as at the Feeding of the 5,000, when Jesus made sure people’s physical and spiritual needs both were met. There’s something about eating around a table that makes people feel cared for.  When they leave a meal to hear a lecture or study with their physical hunger satisfied, I believe that they are more prepared for spiritual food as well. 

I also realized that the kitchen itself is a great environment to demonstrate or develop character. I worked with many student assistants and when we ran out of tomatoes and had to make last-minute changes to a recipe, or spilled a pail of grease and had to clean it up, those were opportunities to help one another instead of getting frustrated. In the kitchen there are so many opportunities to practically live out what God’s Word says about serving one another.

During the last few years you’ve been spending less time in the kitchen and more time in a counselling setting. How do you think that your interest in cooking intersects somehow with your interest in counselling?

It was actually in the kitchen that I first “counselled”. For many years the kitchen where I worked was attached to the Bible school’s lecture hall and students would come into the kitchen between classes to chat. Other students worked in the kitchen with me and we would talk as we worked. Through these conversations, I became more aware that formal teaching and Bible classes are great, but people also need one-on-one advice.  

Eventually someone in authority at the school pointed out that I loved counselling and asked if I’d ever considered studying it more formally. Until he pointed out that gifting (just like my pastor had once pointed out my gifting in hospitality and cooking), I had only counselled informally. Through his encouragement, I decided to study Biblical counselling. People need someone to guide them through how the Word applies to their lives and to provide accountability. The kinds of conversations we used to have while chopping onions are now taking place in a spare room at our local fellowship, but they’re happening because of what happened in my life in the kitchen. 

There have been seasons of my life where I’ve been asked to do mundane tasks, and I’ve often really struggled to accept them. I was encouraged in talking to Karen, seeing that her “less spiritual” work in the kitchen turned out to be very spiritual after all. If she had refused the messy, sometimes-sweaty task of showing hospitality to large groups day after day, she would also have missed hundreds of meaningful kitchen conversations, and may never have had the opportunities she’s having today through counselling. Thank you, Karen, for sharing your hospitality insights! Watch the blog for Karen’s Butter Chicken For a Crowd recipe, in our next post.

Interview #2: A Canadian-Taiwanese Friendship

For this second interview in our series, I spoke with Marie. Marie is in her sixties and has always lived in the same city in Canada. During the past few years, she has built a good friendship with Lee, a forty-something Taiwanese neighbour. I asked Marie to share her story because it illustrates that anyone can cross cultures and share love—no special training or plane tickets needed. Marie met Lee as she was going about her regular life, and in befriending her, Marie found out that ordinary acts of kindness can make a big difference to a newcomer. —Julie
(Please note that we've changed the names in this story for privacy reasons.) 

befriending an international immigrant.jpg

I have heard you talk a bit about your friend from Taiwan. Could you explain how you met and became friends?

I met Lee at the elementary school where I have been working as a lunch aid for several years. Lee started working at the school as a lunch aid as well, in the classroom right next to mine. After talking to Lee, I found out that she lived close to us. Lee wanted to learn conversational English better. She asked if I would help her, and I said I would. I talked a lot to Lee at the school, and also invited her to our home for tea so we could talk more. She is an eager, quick learner, and very outgoing and friendly. 

I think it always helps a lot when a person lives or works near you! It’s so much harder to maintain regular contact if you don't see each other often. Have you gotten to know Lee's family as well? 

Yes, we've spent time with her whole family. I got my husband Ron involved, which made it easier for us to connect with both Lee and her husband Jack. We have had Lee and Jack and their two daughters (ages 11 and 13) over many times, and we've also taken them out for meals. They have adopted Ron and I as their grandparents! Jack and Lee like to try our Canadian food and learn about Canadian customs.  

Sometimes it is difficult to understand Taiwanese immigrants' English, and Jack has been extra challenging to get to know and understand because he has a severe stuttering problem. However, because my oldest brother had a stuttering problem, I was familiar with his situation. I didn't feel uncomfortable with his stuttering. 

How have you been able to help Lee and her family in practical ways?

From time to time, they ask for help with something. Maybe a plumber needs to be let into their house while they are both at work. We have a key to their house, and Ron will go over and let the plumber in. Often Lee will phone with questions about Canadian culture. 

Was it hard for you to find things in common with a friend from such a different culture? 

I have never lived in another country, but I found Lee easy to get to know because she was so friendly. Lee is very happy to teach us about her culture. She has us over for meals and even invites us to join them in their Chinese New Year celebrations. We have had endless Taiwanese dishes delivered to our house for us to try. (Admittedly, in some instances we were glad Lee was not present to see our reaction to the taste and unusual texture!) 

How long had Lee been living in Canada when you met her? Has she ever talked to you about her impression of Canadians or mentioned any difficulties with transition?

"Most Canadians give up on befriending Taiwanese immigrants because of the language barrier."

When I first met Lee, I think she had been living in our city for about one year. She and other friends of hers from Taiwan have found it very difficult to make Canadian friends. She said that most Canadians give up on befriending them because of the language barrier—as I mentioned before, their English can be difficult to understand! Lee said that most of her Taiwanese friends no longer make an effort to make Canadian friends; they just spend time with other Taiwanese friends. The hardest things about her transition have been the loneliness, having no caring Canadian friends, the cold weather, and learning both the language and culture.

Have you gone deeper with her, and gotten to talk about values, life, or God?

Lee is not a Christian and does not talk about spiritual things. However, we've been able to invite her and her daughters along to some things we were doing. For example, when our church has ladies’ events, I have sometimes taken Lee along and she always seems to enjoy that. We have driven her daughters out to a Christian day camp for one week in the summer for a couple of years. Recently Lee and Jack have been going through some serious marriage problems. Lee has felt comfortable enough to talk with us about her problems. She has spent many hours at our home crying and talking to us, and we've prayed with her.

What would you say to someone who isn’t sure about reaching out to an international neighbour?

You always take a chance when you reach out to someone from a different country and culture—there's a risk you'll be misunderstood. But I would encourage people to reach out to international neighbours and coworkers, you never know what good friends you will make!

Do you have anything else you want to add?

"This past Christmas Lee said, "Winter here is very cold, but without you both it would be a lot colder."

This past Christmas, Lee said, "Winter here is very cold but without you both it would be a lot colder."  We pray for Lee and we ask the Lord to be in this! Lee has become a very good friend!