Planning a Purposeful Thanksgiving Gathering

Planning a purposeful Thanksgiving gathering is something that almost any North American can do for friends and neighbors, no matter where he or she lives. Thanksgiving is an ideal holiday to invite friends of other cultures and backgrounds to celebrate, because many people around the world have seen Thanksgiving portrayed in North American media, but few have participated in such a celebration themselves. In addition, the less-religious trappings of Thanksgiving may make your secular or devout-but-not-Christian friends more comfortable participating in your gathering than they would be in a Christmas or Easter gathering.

Here in Germany, the state church has an event called Erntedankfest, which is a harvest-related church tradition that seems to not be very celebrated in the home. Even our well-travelled, English-speaking neighbors have never had a roasted turkey meal at Thanksgiving, and most of them are curious or excited about the idea! As a young family with no relatives nearby, it would be easy for us to roast a chicken, mash some potatoes, and call it Thanksgiving. That’s what I did the first year of our marriage. But once I realized that Thanksgiving presents a great opportunity to have a purposeful party with neighbors and contacts, the work of organizing a Thanksgiving gathering for guests suddenly seemed worthwhile! Here are a few ideas for how to plan your own purposeful Thanksgiving gathering, no matter how big or small, simple or complex. (Don’t let all the ideas overwhelm you — keep the purpose of your gathering in mind, and keep it really simple, if you want!) 🍂

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Planning whom to invite

A purposeful Thanksgiving gathering is all about serving your guests and giving them an opportunity to consider God’s goodness in their own lives and be thankful to Him. Prayerfully consider how many and which guests you’d like to invite. You can include new friends or neighbors in a gathering you regularly have anyway, or plan a separate event for people to whom you want to reach out. Try to think more broadly than you have before about who could sit at your table this Thanksgiving. Consider:

  • immigrants in your neighborhood,

  • people from your neighborhood whom you don’t know well,

  • international students and their roommates or friends,

  • single friends or neighbors who don’t have family nearby,

  • someone who is new to your city or your country, or

  • someone who has had a particularly difficult year.

It is often helpful to team up with other Christian friends or families to pull off a purposeful Thanksgiving gathering. Or you can invite another Christian along whom you’d like to expose to the idea of planning your Thanksgiving gathering around guests who don’t know the God to whom you are grateful. After they see you host a purposeful Thanksgiving gathering, they may be inspired to do the same next year.

If you’re reading this just days before Thanksgiving, don’t be afraid to invite one or two more people last-minute!

Planning a date and time

Run the possible dates and times by anyone whom you’d like to partner with before inviting the rest of the guests to your Thanksgiving gathering. You may also then want to ask two or three potential guests if a date works for them, before inviting everyone.

If your guests live in North America, it makes sense to invite them around the time of the Thanksgiving long weekend. Those can be the times when immigrants or internationals feel extra lonely, because they know that others are enjoying the holiday weekend with their families, while they are home alone. If you don’t live in North America, almost any date in the fall probably works. Try to pick a time of day that works well for people in your setting. Here Friday evening seems like a good option, because people are a bit less likely to be available than they are on Saturday or Sunday, but can stay up late because they don’t have to work the next day.

Inviting people personally is always nicer than sending out a mass message to everyone at once, if possible. If you have time, creating printed invitations can be a nice way to make the event extra special (and even a piece of memorablia for the guests) but you can use whatever invitation method seems most natural in your context.

Planning a location

Your own home is usually the best place to host meals, if you’re wanting to make a personal connection with your guests. However, if you don’t have a lot of space, not to worry! You can ask a friend if you can use his or her home, rent a party room, or ask your church if you can use their space. Claire, an American whom The Serviette interviewed earlier this year, organizes a 90 person Thanksgiving party for her contacts in her German community. She has a lot of volunteer help and hosts the dinner in their church hall.

Maybe you aren’t a party planner, but you have a friend who’d love to organize a purposeful thanksgiving gathering, and you have the space in your home and he or she doesn’t. Invite them to use your space for their endeavor!

Planning food and drinks

The food and drinks at your Thanksgiving get-together can be as simple or complex as you’d like it to be. After all, if many of your guests have never celebrated Thanksgiving before, they have no expectations! (OK, except that maybe they have seen a roasted turkey in movies.) The most elaborate way is, of course, to prepare a whole traditional meal for your guests. The simplest option is to invite people over for coffee or tea and North American-style pumpkin or apple pie. Or do something in between: ask people to bring a side dish (like a salad or hot vegetable) or a drink, and prepare the main or most traditional dishes yourself. If your guests are from other cultures, it may be hard for them to bring a side dish that suits a traditional Thanksgiving meal. In this case, maybe a few international friends can come early to help with food preparation under your direction. Being allowed to help cook may make your friends feel even more included in the event, and may help them get to know you and your family better.

If you have invited vegetarian guests, talk to them about how turkey is usually the main dish, and ask if that makes them uncomfortable. (Most vegetarians living in the West are used to seeing and smelling meat, but it’s not good to assume. Some are not so comfortable with seeing the whole bird, etc.) If you’re living in a place where most people are vegetarians, you might — gasp! — skip the meat altogether. In any case, make sure there are enough side dishes that your vegetarian friends can eat. If Muslim friends are coming, check if they eat only Halal and see if there is the possibility of serving Halal turkey (or chicken) to them so they don’t miss out. 🍗 If you have guests from more conservative cultures or backgrounds, it might be best not to serve any alcohol at your Thanksgiving meal.

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Planning decorations

If decorating is your jam, there’s lots you can do to make your space purposefully cozy for your Thanksgiving celebration. Nameplates for each spot at the table, thankfulness reminders on the walls, banners with Bible verses about thankfulness — there are lots of opportunities to use even the decorations at your Thanksgiving meal to share to Whom you are thankful. If decorating is not your jam, or if you just don’t have time, this is something you can easily ask a crafty friend — or crafty children — to help you with. I heard of a mom who gets her children to create centrepieces for the tables, giving them a fun way to be involved in hospitality.

Planning conversation and activities

Thanksgiving doesn’t have a directly Bible-related history like Christmas and Easter do, but the story of the pilgrims, and the whole idea of being thankful begs the question — to Whom are we thankful? Your Thanksgiving gathering is a natural time to include something about the One to Whom you are most thankful.

Here are a few ideas for incorporating meaningful elements in your Thanksgiving gathering. The ideas marked with an asterisk (*) were shared by Elizabeth, who regularly hosts Muslims in her home for Thanksgiving or other special events in the USA.

  • Tell the story of the first Thanksgiving in North America. Explain whom the pilgrims were thanking and why they were thankful. Use pictures, a children’s story book, or even a YouTube video to help you tell the story.*

  • Have everyone share something they’re thankful for. There are lots of ideas for how this can be done: some write something they’re thankful for on a leaf and hang it on a tree. Others write on multiple leaves, spread the leaves on the table, and have the guests read them off. If your guests do not know each other, this can also be a good icebreaker.

  • Pray before the meal and thank God for His goodness in the past year.

  • Read a Bible passage before or after the meal, maybe a psalm of thanksgiving, like Psalm 100 or 107.*

  • Put a Bible verse or thankfulness quotation on each plate as part of the decor. Have the guests read the verse or phrase before the meal begins.

  • Sing a song or hymn with a Thanksgiving theme (such as Great is Thy Faithfulness, We Gather Together or The Doxology).* 

  • Ask your friends some questions that may give you insight into their culture(s):

    • Ask if their culture has some kind of harvest or autumn festival or gratefulness day, and how it is celebrated.

    • Talk about the words “thank you” and whether they are used in your friends’ culture(s). (Some cultures don’t really say thank you! Ask: “How do you express gratefulness?”)

    • Ask your friends to share what thankfulness means to them.

  • Have a time for each guest to share ways God has been faithful in the past year.*

  • Ask someone to share a devotional of some kind about thankfulness.

At first it might sound cheesy to add some of these elements to your gathering, if you’ve never done something like this before, but I think you’ll find that most guests appreciate coming to a party that has some purpose to it. Consider this: many of the special events our non-Christian friends throw lack in substance or purpose. The events are centred around good music or fancy food, but in the end, they are a bit empty because there is no real takeaway or clear purpose. Your party can be noticeably different because your party (like your life) has a purpose and direction. Remember, you’re the host, and you get to decide what kinds of activities or conversations you’d like to encourage.

The appropriateness of sharing Biblical truths through your Thanksgiving gathering probably depends on the kinds of interactions you’ve already had with the guests who are present. For example, if you’ve never even mentioned to your guests that you are a Christian, and then you invite your pastor to share a half-hour Thanksgiving sermon with the guests while they’re eating pie, your guests might feel ambushed. But be gracious and truthful, and don’t miss the opportunity to connect thankfulness to the One Whom we thank! Depending on what you are planning to do or share, you can even tip your guests off ahead of time, for example, by writing in the invitation: “We will be sharing at our party about why we celebrate Thanksgiving”. Prayerfully ask God to direct the conversations and activities at your Thanksgiving meal toward Himself.

Following up after your gathering

Take pictures at your gathering and send a photo (digitally or printed) to your guests afterward to say that you are thankful they joined you for the party. Add a thankfulness Bible verse to your note if you’d like! This little bit of follow-up can remind your guest that you’re thankful God made them, and thankful for the friendship God has given you with them!

Here’s wishing you a joyful, purposeful Thanksgiving gathering! 🍁

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.

christian hospitality divider 1.png

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.

Table Games that Work Well Cross-Culturally

Hey, you! The one who likes to play table or board games. Have you ever thought about which games are best suited for friends who don't share the same mother tongue or culture as you? As we've played games with people of other cultures over the years, a few themes have stood out as far as games that are or are not fun for international guests. 

For example, some time ago, a kind, well-meaning German friend invited us for supper. We were having a nice evening — that is, until he pulled out Agricola, a German agriculture game that resembles Settlers of Catan, and asked us if we wanted to play it together. 😉 We knew he liked the game, so of course we agreed to play it with him. I'm already bad at these kinds of games in English (how should I know whether it's time to fell some trees or buy a new cow or make clay bricks?) But playing it in German just added another level of difficulty; I definitely lost.

Below you'll find a list that should help your guests have more fun than I had playing Agricola. I've played most of the games you'll see mentioned below, but a few I have not — those were suggestions from The Serviette readers (#crossculturalgames on Instagram). You'll also see a few quotes from the readers throughout, sharing how they've used these games. This list assumes that either you or your international friends are not yet fluent in your common language, and that you don't want to spend upwards of 20 minutes explaining the instructions! Please feel free to leave other ideas in the comments. Happy gaming! 

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Games that don't work well cross-culturally

  • Games requiring a lot of talking, reading, or advanced vocabulary, like Taboo or Malarky. 

  • Games with complex rules...like Agricola, Settlers of Catan, etc.

  • Games that require pop culture knowledge.

  • Games that might relate to taboo or mature themes: such as war or gambling-related games. Traditional playing cards can sometimes be offensive to people from conservative backgrounds because of their association with gambling. Or a game that involves hunting could be offensive to people in the New Age / Hindu / vegetarian crowd.

But the good news is, there are lots of games that work great in cross-cultural settings, you just have to remember to choose them!

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Games that do work well cross-culturally

First, as a general principle, the best cross-cultural table games have simple rules, because the rules can be one of the hardest things to communicate. As one of The Serviette readers told me, "Games that don't require tons of strategy or concentration, and have fast rounds are great with new friends." A bonus is that many of these games work well for kids as well as adults.

Number-based games

Some of these games are quite simple to begin with, but they can be made more exciting or challenging, as required. 

  • UNO - "I love teaching someone new how to play UNO and then letting him or her take that deck home."

  • Phase 10

  • SkipBo / SkipBo Jr.

  • Dutch Blitz / Ligretto

  • Rummikub

  • Yahtzee

  • Spoons

Image-, colour- or shape-based games

  • Set

  • Spot It - "While travelling through Sri Lanka, we were playing Spot It with our kiddos and the Japanese ladies sitting next to us — who spoke no English — picked up on the concept quickly and played with us. It was fun to hear them gasp and giggle when they found a match."

  • Go Fish

  • Jenga

  • Quirkle - "I played Quirkle the other week with a Japanese exchange student whose English was very limited, but she won! The game is just based on colours and shapes, in a similar game play to Scrabble."

  • Blokus

  • Farkle

Classic games

  • Checkers

  • Chess

  • Chinese checkers

  • Dominoes

  • Memory

  • Sorry

  • Jigsaw puzzles

which games work well for english learners

Language-learning games

As nerdy as this sounds, in the last year we started playing a German grammar game with some of our guests. We've played it both with German and international guests. Whether you and your guests are trying to learn the same language, or one of you is trying to learn the other's language, you can use:

1. Specialized grammar or language-learning games

  • Games like "Name that Word" - search your favourite online store or Google for "ESL games" or "language learning games" and you'll see some more ideas of this nature.

  • "Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod" is the game we use for learning German

2. Regular table games that help build language skills or vocabulary

  • Memory

  • Go Fish

  • Pictionary / Telephone Pictionary

  • Charades / Fish Bowl

  • Quiddler

  • Headbanz Jr.

  • Scattergories

  • Apples to Apples Jr

Playing a language-learning game might sound more like work than fun to you, but students or foreigners who are actively trying to learn the language of their host culture are often delighted to play these kinds of games, especially with native speakers. 

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I hope this list helps you find games that both you and your international friends can enjoy together!

Recipe: Butter Chicken for a Crowd

In our last interview, Karen shared some of her best tips for feeding big groups. I asked her to also share her recipe for Butter Chicken, since this is one of her favourite recipes too cook for a crowd. This recipe serves 30 people, but if you're serving fewer people, part of the sauce can be frozen before the chicken is added and used later. Please note that the chicken tastes best when marinated in the sauce overnight, so this is a great recipe to prep one day ahead.

I made this a few weeks ago and I served it with rice as well as this Super Easy Naan Bread (it was as simple as the title makes it sound) and Cucumber Raita (a no-fail cucumber and plain yogurt side dish). The naan would be hard to make for 30 guests (we just had 2) but the raita could easily be made on a bigger scale. I also used a mixture of chicken breasts and bone-in chicken, since chicken breasts are quite expensive here. Our guests thought it was great—and so did we! Thanks, Karen!

 Image by Peppergarlickitchen

Image by Peppergarlickitchen

Butter Chicken for a Crowd

Serves 30

2 medium onions, diced
10 cloves of garlic, minced
vegetable oil

1/8 cup cumin
1/4 cup corriander
1/4 cup curry

1.42 litres (50 oz.) of diced tomatoes
1 cup of butter

1/2 litre (17 oz.) cream
1/4 cup paprika
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/8 cup chili flakes
1/8 cup dry chicken soup base
salt and pepper, to taste

8 kg chicken breasts, diced

cilantro, for garnish
red chili powder or hot sauce (optional, on the side)

In a heavy-bottomed pot, sauté the onions and garlic in a bit of vegetable oil. Meanwhile in a small cast iron skillet, toast the cumin, coriander and curry (do not use any oil or liquid). Once the spices are toasted, add them to the onions and garlic mixture so that they don't burn in the skillet. Then add the diced tomatoes and butter to the mixture and simmer.

In the empty tomato can, combine: cream, paprika, lemon juice, cornstarch, chili flakes and dry chicken soup base. Mix and then add to the pot of tomatoes, spices, onions and garlic. Bring to a low boil and simmer, stirring often. Taste add salt and pepper as needed.

Now, dice the chicken breasts and marinate them overnight or as long as possible in the sauce. Saute the chicken on medium-high heat, and then add the remaining sauce. Put the mixture of chicken and sauce into the oven and cooking for about one hour. Right before serving, sprinkle with cilantro. Serve with rice—to a crowd!

Hosting Big Groups vs. Hosting Individuals

My husband and I regularly  host both individuals and groups in our apartment. Having guests takes considerable effort, and our hope is to invest that effort as well as we can. That is, we want to be intentional about whom we invite and how many guests we invite at a time. In some cases, it's practical to host a big group; other times it makes more sense just to have one person over. It depends on our goals with that particular meal or event. Here are a few thoughts on  when hosting big groups is better, and when it's better to host individuals. I'd love your input as well, in the comments!

 A group of ladies at a party I attended in India.

A group of ladies at a party I attended in India.

Hosting big groups in your home is good for... 

Getting more bang for your buck. 

Already planning on going to go to the trouble of cleaning up, buying food, preparing food, serving food, hosting, and cleaning up (again)? It's usually less work to have one group of ten over than to have two different people over, five different nights. (Unless perhaps you keep your small groups confined to one room so that they don't see the rest of the house, and only feed them popcorn!)

Touching base with a variety of people. 

Especially when we're hosting, I can't spend a tonne of time with everyone at a party. However, I can see a lot of people in one evening, and get a short update on what's going on with them. It reminds our friends whom we may not have seen in a while that we care about them and want a relationship with them, even if they or we have been unable to get together recently.

Connecting with friends of friends.

When we share Life with friends, we want to get to know their friends and family too, instead of singling just one of them out. Parties are great for bringing friends of friends in. People who might otherwise wonder "Why is this person inviting me along?" have fewer qualms when they know it's an event with a lot of people attending.

One of our Indian friends here in Germany recently commented that through us she has met "so many nice people." It's become a normal for her to plan outings or events with our friends even if we're not around. Friend #2 asked if she could observe an event at at her temple, Friend #3 invited her to learn to bake cheesecake with her, and Friends #4 and #5 helped her when she had back problems. These connections all happened because she got to know our friends at events we planned.

Giving people healthy socializing opportunities.

We've noticed that our friends invite particular people to our parties. If they're the heavy drinking, hardcore partying types, they know that our wholesome parties won't be up those friends' alley. So, the people our friends tend to invite are often people that we have more in common with anyway. Our more conservative international friends can relax more in a setting where there's no alcohol or meat they can't eat. And more hardcore party types, if they do come, can see that there are other ways to interact socially that don't involve hangovers the next day. 

Tag-teaming with others and letting them use their gifts.

If you're not a hugely social person (read: introvert) but you can cook well, you can create a setting where others can use their gifts by opening your home and letting them lead in socializing while you're making the food. You can ask a friend who loves games to lead a group game, or a friend who loves music to sing a song at your party. I like to plan and organize parties, but I'm not as bold or skilled as I wish I were about bringing up meaningful conversational topics. It helps when we invite a mixture of like-minded and differently-minded friends to our parties and let them converse. Almost inevitably I heard conversations about religion or philosophy when I'm running after more ice cubes or washing dishes.

Creative themes and decorating.

 A snapshot from a small Christmas party held in India.  This book  is helps you share the story of Christmas and Easter to people who haven't heard it.

A snapshot from a small Christmas party held in India. This book is helps you share the story of Christmas and Easter to people who haven't heard it.

I will admit it: I like theme parties. I've had Reformation Day parties, Christmas cookie decorating parties, colouring book parties, samosa-making parties or whatever else I can come up with. I certainly don't organize the expensive, over-the-top affairs that some people would, but I enjoy letting my creativity flow with theme parties. Usually the guests enjoy being invited to something a bit out-of-the-ordinary. Theme parties are another great time to invite friends of friends or to introduce new friends to old ones.

(Note: We have a small, one-bedroom flat. If we can throw events with 10-15 guests, anyone can! We actually find that people seem to enjoy being crammed into the living room—maybe it feels more personal and down-to-earth than when there's more physical room between us!) 

 Just one of many amazing snacks individually made for me by a dear friend in India.

Just one of many amazing snacks individually made for me by a dear friend in India.

Hosting individuals or small groups in your home is good for:

Follow-up after meeting someone in a bigger social circle.

A few months ago we hosted a farewell party for some international friends, and they invited many of their friends to come, too. Then we singled out a couple of guys who had been at the party, and invited them to come for dinner. When they arrived, they were quite surprised to be the only ones here, because they had expected there to be lots of guests again. I think they appreciated the invitation, because hosting individuals is also good for...

Making individuals feel acknowledged and loved.

During His ministry, Jesus spoke to crowds, but he paid frequent attention to individuals as well. He knew the power of speaking to a large audience, but also knew that public ministry didn't replace the power of speaking to one person at a time. We have heard of them: the woman at the well, the tax collector, the woman caught in adultery, the beggar, the prostitute, the thief. Inviting an individual to your home singles them out and says, "You matter to me. I want to know you better." Offering someone your time and attention is a love gift.

Understanding your friend's back-story.

We live in a culture where people are more and more disconnected from their heritage and history, with more migrants and movers than ever. Students and immigrants come and go from our city, and many are never really deeply known by anyone here. A one-on-one setting creates a place where we can learn more about our friends' backgrounds, experiences and worldviews. The more we understand about their heritage and history, the  better we can understand how to share Truth with them.  

Targeted conversation.

If there's a topic you want or need to discuss with someone and want to make sure it happens, one-on-one is best, of course. I think of Aquila and Priscilla and how they took Apollos into their home and discipled him. For a friend who is wrestling through some theological concerns or a friend who needs advice about her new dating relationship,  one on one is best.

When you don't have much spare time or energy.

During the past year my husband and I have juggled a heavy work load for him, quite a bit of sickness, and lots of transitional stuff because of job hunting and planning another move. Hosting a crowd takes more energy and more time than hosting one person. When we don't have a lot of energy or time to offer, we try last-minute, spontaneous invitations or we just invite people over for dessert or a snack. We can show we care without wiping ourselves out.

Parties and individual meetings are both important. You may gravitate to one kind of hospitality over the other, but be sure to consider both options. Jesus showed us that one does not replace the other; He had both kinds of events on His full schedule. When we think through how many people to invite and why,  we plan our hospitality with more intentionality.