Is it worthwhile investing in transient people like international students and immigrants?

Last night we said goodbye—yet again—to an international friend. 


I remember the first time my husband had him over for coffee, maybe a week or two after he showed up at our Sunday fellowship. We found out that a coworker in the city where he had done his PhD had often invited him to events where the Bible was discussed. While completing his doctoral work, he began to think that the faith he had previously mocked had some substance to it. When taking a post-doctoral position meant he needed to move to our city, his coworker directed him to our fellowship. I think he would say that he was not yet a follower of Jesus when he arrived in our city. But he was curious and close.

We knew he was transient, but we befriended him anyway. We shared our table with him, over and over. He graciously ate anything we served him, and visited with anyone whom we placed at the table with him. We celebrated milestones and grieved losses together. We met each others’ parents when they came to town, and got to know each others' coworkers. We watched him declare his desire to follow Jesus by being baptized, grow in his understanding of the Bible, and develop friendships with Jesus followers of all different ages and walks of life. 

Two autumns ago, we started a weekly gathering with him to eat, read the Bible, and pray. Some weeks we ate supper with 10 people, and some weeks we ate just with him. But if he was in town, he was at our table on Thursday night…even last night, before he flew out to his new job in a new country this morning.

Last night he emptied all the leftovers from his kitchen into mine. In my freezer are his leftover strawberries, in my fridge his German sausages, and on my counter his butter in his butter dish. There’s a tote bag in the corner which I think contains his vinegar, oil and salt.

He even left his umbrella in our umbrella holder, and said “I hope it’s not raining on the way home, so I can leave this here.” Standing in our narrow hallway last night, saying goodbye, my heart squeezed. Why do we do this? Why do we love when we know the people we love will leave? 

The scripture that comes to mind whenever I think about this is from John 13:1. “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He calls us to love and to love to the end. Christians are taught to “love one another deeply as brothers and sisters” (Romans 12:10). From the way our hearts were squeezed last night, I knew we had loved our international friend like the brother that he is. And it was only right to love him “until the end”.

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It is worthwhile investing in transient people like international students and immigrants because…

…God says it is worthwhile.

There are only two things in this world that will last into eternity: God’s Word and human souls. When I see the new life that flourished in our friend’s heart in his few years in our city, I am sobered to think what a loss it would have been for eternity, if that friend in his last city had never invited him to investigate the Bible’s claims, and if no one in our fellowship had noticed and welcomed this newcomer.

…you get the chance to invest in another corner of the world.

It boggles my mind to consider this: when one of our international friends comes to Christ (or even comes into contact with His Words), we indirectly have the chance to influence that person’s network, too. As our friend shares what he’s learning in another language, on another continent, in another culture, he reaches people we could never have reached ourselves. Last night our friend asked for prayer for his students and colleagues at his new job, a reminder that part of what he has learned here will affect how he influences others for many years to come.

...many people won’t.

There are many people who dismiss deep relationships with transient people because they don’t see what God sees in them, they don’t have a global vision for what God can do through that investment, or they’re too busy with the relationships they already have.

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When my husband first had our international friend over for coffee, we could not have known that he would become one of our best friends in this city. We took a chance on friendship with him, and our lives were enriched because of it.

We gain much more than we lose, by following God’s command to love the internationals and immigrants He brings into our lives. Today it feels like we lost: we lost our neighbour. But the net result of our relationship with him is gain: we gained a friend and a brother. We gained all the things we learned with and through him. Maybe we will gain more brothers and sisters through him. And someday we’ll eat together again in our Father’s house, and say no more goodbyes.

Interview #10: Passing on a Culture of Hospitality to your Children

One topic I’ve been wanting to explore in more depth on The Serviette is hospitality with kids. Children add an extra challenge but also an extra blessing to the ministry of hospitality. In this interview, I’m talking to a hospitable mother-daughter pair. Carol (the mother) and her husband have extensive cross-cultural hospitality experience, as American Christians who lived in Muslim-majority Senegal for much of their adult lives. Corrie (the daughter) is raising her little ones in the the southeast USA, and seeking to pass on the same self-sacrificing hospitality that she saw growing up. I hope you’ll enjoy reading and learning from their story as much as I did!

An illustration by Corrie’s four-year-old: Corrie and her daughter drinking steaming cups of coffee together. The door is open "so friends can come on in!"

An illustration by Corrie’s four-year-old: Corrie and her daughter drinking steaming cups of coffee together. The door is open "so friends can come on in!"

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Could you tell me a bit about your background in terms of hospitality?

Carol (mother): I grew up in a home where hospitality was a way of life. Sunday dinner guests were a given, and it was not uncommon to have planned and unplanned guests during the week. Giving up our bedrooms for overnight guests was expected. Probably most of the guests were fellow Christians, though I also remember times when my dad invited people he had met in town and brought home. People visiting our local church were usually invited to join us for Sunday dinner (midday). Cross-cultural workers were well-loved visitors as my parents had a burden for cross-cultural ministry. Hospitality, as I remember it, was just an extension of our family life. While the meals were always delicious, adequate and properly presented, they were not elaborate.

When you were in your twenties, you moved from America to Senegal, West Africa. What were the biggest adjustments you had to make in terms of hospitality?

Carol: Having people in our home while living overseas was such a wonderful means of really getting to know them. It was necessary to learn local customs, to understand what made people feel comfortable eating in our home and what was entirely awkward for them. That was no doubt the biggest adjustment. For instance, some local folks did not have experience eating around a table, but instead were accustomed to sitting on a mat or cloth on the floor and eating around a large bowl or platter. I didn’t attempt to copy their cuisine — I would have miserably failed; they are great cooks! But I would instead try to serve something recognizable to them, but with an American touch, and we’d eat around a bowl.

Seeking to understand the background of a guest is helpful and even kind, since as a host, your goal is for your guest to be comfortable and to enjoy your friendship. With our guests who were students and/or those who had traveled to some extent, eating around a table was just fine, and they enjoyed and appreciated American cuisine. After years in our home, some would actually ask for their favourite dishes.

I know you are someone who has learned to practice “impromptu” hospitality. Do you have some interesting stories about spontaneous hospitality in West Africa, when your kids were growing up?

"Hospitality needs to start with our attitude and be followed by action."

Carol: Hospitality needs to start with our attitude and be followed by action. In our American culture, more often than not, having dinner guests is a planned event. But in the Senegalese culture, hospitality is a way of life. Anyone arriving at a mealtime or at tea-time is generally invited to stay. Finding the balance for our family, and learning to be open-handed with hospitality came mostly by conviction from the Lord. In our early years in Senegal, cell phones were non-existent and even finding a working phone of any sort was often challenging. Visitors (other cross-cultural workers, but also national believers) who found themselves stranded for whatever reason or waiting in our northern town for a taxi to continue to their destination, needed to know that they could come to our door without calling ahead and they be welcomed. I quickly realized that welcoming these unexpected guests did much more than meet their obvious need, it often brought us the blessing and encouragement that we needed.

For example, our older son loved to study and learn, and could often be found reading through our encyclopedias. He loved to share with us what he was learning, but he would also ask questions for which I had no answer, and about which I had little opportunity to research in that pre-internet era! I remember telling the Lord that I wished we had a way to find answers for his inquiring mind. One day, we got a call from a family who lived in a remote area hours from us. They were traveling through our town and their car broke down. They asked if they could come over while they waited for the repair to be finished later that day, and their one-day stay stretched into three. We didn’t know this family well, but came to realize that the father of the family was the kind that knew a little bit about everything and was happy to sit and talk. I still have a picture in my mind of our son sitting there for what added up to hours, asking random questions and receiving detailed answers! I realized my prayer had been answered through our unexpected guests!

"So many of the people who passed through our home ministered to our three children and helped form them and prepare them for what the Lord had for them in life.

This story was not unusual — so many of the people who passed through our home ministered not only to my husband and I, but to our three children as well, and helped form them and prepare them for what the Lord had for them in life. I feel that we were more on the receiving end than the giving end of the blessings, through hospitality.

Corrie, what are your early memories of hosting guests in your home as a child? 

Corrie (daughter): I can’t remember not having people in our home: neighbors, seekers, believers in need of encouragement, random strangers, cross-cultural workers passing through our town, visitors from the USA, etc. There were always people dropping by for various reasons.

Carol, were there certain things you purposely made part of your children’ training so that they would learn to be more hospitable? If so, what?

Carol: It was important for our children to be involved in hospitality and in getting to know our guests. While sometimes they were allowed to leave the table (or floor!) after the meal, generally they learned to be interested in who our guests were, what they did, etc. Kindness and respect were required, but their presence at all times was not.

Making hospitality an extension — or expansion — of everyday life makes it seem like not such a big deal. Obviously, there were components to a meal with guests that we might not have had at every meal when guests were not present (like dessert), but mostly our mealtimes were just as they would have been with family only, but with added guests.

What’s the best way to pass on a culture of hospitality to your kids?

Carol: Let the Lord give you joy in practicing hospitality. When you approach hospitality as a privilege and joy, your children will learn by observing.

Why do you believe this is important? Why is hospitality good for children / families to be involved in together? 

Carol: The Word of God exhorts us to practice hospitality. Hospitality is a form of sharing and also of sacrifice. Schedules and routines are interrupted or changed in order to accommodate guests, both in the time it takes to prepare for their coming and in the actual hosting. Learning to give of ourselves with a good attitude is not usually something that comes naturally. Our children will learn from our attitude and will hopefully see the joy and blessing that comes from sharing what the Lord has given us.

We were also blessed by the hospitality of others as we traveled, which allowed our children to experience the blessing of receiving, as others hosted our family. I am thankful that all of our children enjoy and practice hospitality today. They all show a genuine interest in others. 

Corrie, how were you involved in hosting and serving guests even as a child? 

Corrie: Well, my room was the guest room, so that was one way! It was not abnormal to have friends (usually singles) show up unannounced late at night in need of lodging, or even to have complete strangers knock on our door and inform us that a common acquaintance had told them to look us up if they were in our town. 

From pretty early on, I can recall helping change sheets, mix up cakes, set the table, or entertain small children as part of our family practicing hospitality.

Do you remember it being difficult / easy to have guests in your home who were different than you culturally or religiously?

Corrie: Because I never knew otherwise, and because I grew up around so many different cultures, I don’t recall that being particularly difficult. However, I am definitely the type of person that likes my personal space, so I can remember just wanting to get away from people sometimes...regardless of their culture or religion!

“The true test of hospitality is when it’s not planned or even wanted, and you offer it anyway.”

One of the pithiest pieces of wisdom my momma ever gave me came in the mad scramble of putting fresh sheets on my bed for unannounced visitors: “The true test of hospitality is NOT when you’ve planned for it, or when it’s someone you’ve been looking forward to; the true test of hospitality is when it’s not planned or even wanted, and you offer it anyway.” I’ve never forgotten that...obviously.

From your perspective, what kind of “hospitality legacy” did you receive from your parents?

Corrie: My parents taught us — through their actions, even more so than through their words — to value other people above things, and even above ourselves. The reason I have such positive memories of all the crazy hospitality that went on in our home is because my mom and dad chose to have good attitudes about it. I now realize that if I welcome people with warmth and kindness — even when I desperately wish we could just have a quiet evening at home — my children will remember those awkward moments with fondness, and will hopefully grow up to offer the same in their own homes.

At the same time, my parents were very wise and kind in finding the balance between allowing us to set some boundaries when it came to our space and things, and not letting us grow selfish with those boundaries. I think that went a long way in keeping us from growing bitter toward or resentful to all the people that passed through our home.

On a practical note, Mom could make anything cozy. Give her some candles and a pressure cooker, and even the most homesick cross-cultural worker would feel restored and refreshed by the homeyness and yummy meals! I pray our kids will remember a mom who pushed herself, and therefore them, out of their comfort zone...yet never sacrificed them on the altar of “ministry”. And I hope all their memories will be lit by cozy candlelight! [smiles]

Even as an adult, what have you continued to learn from your parents about hospitality? 

Corrie: Hospitality is transposable to every culture and situation! For a TCK from West Africa who now lives in North America, the hospitality of my adulthood looks so different from the hospitality of my childhood! People don’t just show up spontaneously here. Our home is not a way-station for cross-cultural workers in need of fellowship in English, or Europeans who decided to cross the Sahara on a bicycle. But my parents didn’t practice hospitality because they were “professional Christians”; they practiced it because it is a Biblical command...and there are always, always ways to obey God’s Word, no matter where you live!

What do you think your kids have learned so far, and what do you continue to hope to teach them? What is their attitude toward guests or strangers in their home?

Corrie: I encourage the kids to invite other children into their space (currently, their rooms). When things have gotten broken or messy, we talk about the fact that that’s often the cost of obeying the Word of God. It is helping them learn to value the eternal above the temporal.

Our kids seem to genuinely enjoy having people over, and they’re usually the ones who ask if they can invite kids into their rooms, or share certain toys!

Carol, what stands out to you as the hardest thing about being hospitable with kids? 

Carol: There is a balance, for sure, and in order to enjoy hospitality together we must be sensitive to give the proper time for our family without guests. You can’t add guests to what you might call your normal family meal, if that is not a part of your normal family life. Unfortunately, I have seen negative consequences in families who major on hospitality and entertaining, but don’t give their own children proper time and attention and the comfort of being “just family”.

Some hospitality-themed lettering by Corrie’s six-year-old.

Some hospitality-themed lettering by Corrie’s six-year-old.

And Corrie, what are some of the challenges of having kids the age of your kids right now (4 and 6) when it comes to hospitality? 

Corrie: Honestly (like, super honestly!), the biggest challenge is when we have other families with young children in our home, and those kids just haven’t been taught to obey very well. When spending a whole day or evening with children who don’t listen well, our kids often find themselves getting sucked into those patterns of behavior.

As a parent, it hurts my heart to feel like I’m setting my children up by putting them with other kids who have little regard for authority and/or others’ property. It is so tempting sometimes to just not have certain people over, for that reason alone. But where better for my children to learn these life lessons, and to discuss things like self control, peer pressure, choices, and the power of the Spirit versus the flesh, than within the walls and context of their own home?

I allow them to tuck away particularly special things that might get broken or destroyed...but we talk about the difference between taking care of things, and just stashing things away because we don’t want anyone to touch our stuff. I remind them of house rules before friends arrive, and give them permission to tell friends what we do/don’t allow in our home, as well as permission to come tell us if someone is doing something deceitful, disobedient, or dangerous.

Are there certain things you are purposely now making part of your children’ training so that they learn to be more hospitable? 

Corrie: Really, I think it just comes back to teaching them the basics: obey your parents, be kind, share out of what you’ve been given, tell the truth...all centered around the Person and Work of Christ. Then you can take them into any situation, or have people into your home, and even when it’s hard, they have the foundation and reference point necessary to deal with anything that comes up. 

What tips would you give other young moms for getting their kids involved in hospitality? What’s the best way to pass on a culture of hospitality to your kids?

Corrie: It obviously starts with just practicing hospitality as a family! Have people over, and make room in your life for others. Have a cheerful attitude about it, even when you don’t like it...that’s not hypocrisy, it’s obedience!

"One of the biggest things I’ve learned, as I’ve struggled to practice hospitality in our own home, is that hospitality is good for me!"

I feel like a broken record, but whatever your life situation, whatever your personality, wherever you live...just do it! Somewhere along the way, the church began to speak of hospitality as a spiritual gift that some have received and others haven’t. Scripture doesn’t speak of it as a gift; Scripture speaks of it as a reflection of the fellowship we have with Christ. It is to be practiced by all believers, everywhere.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned, as I’ve struggled to practice hospitality in our own home, is that hospitality is good for me!

  • As an introvert, hospitality protects me from selfishness.

  • As someone who deals with a chronic illness, hospitality keeps me from focusing too much on my own pain and needs...whether real or perceived.

  • As a wife, hospitality bonds me to my husband, because our home is something that we have created together, and together we are welcoming others into that space.

  • As a mother, hospitality protects me from idolizing my children, because all of our hearts are exposed when we’re tired and weary of being around people! 

We sang the song I Then Shall Live at our wedding. The last stanza reads :

“Your Kingdom come around and through and in us;
Your power and glory, let them shine through us.
Your Hallowed Name, O may we bear with honor,
And may Your living Kingdom come in us.
The Bread of Life, O may we share with honor,
And may You feed a hungry world through us.”

[Gaither/Phelps, slightly modified for marriage purposes]

Sometimes when I’m tired and run-down, and don’t feel like opening myself up, I remember that I essentially asked the Lord at our wedding, in front of witnesses, to use our home as a means of extending the hospitality that I have received in Christ. That’s usually enough to reset my thinking.

This has been so encouraging, to listen to your thoughts about how passing hospitality to your children is really just an outflow of your relationship with Christ.

Let’s briefly address cross-cultural hospitality specifically. Carol, do you have any overall tips or pointers for hosting African guests or welcoming African students or immigrants in North America?

Carol: These are just a few random thoughts…

  1. Don’t be afraid to offer them your traditional cuisine. Just as we like to experience local cuisine, so do they (usually!).

  2. Learn a bit about your guests’ country. Your guest will appreciate it, and it will give you the opportunity to ask appropriate questions to increase your understanding and appreciation of their homeland.

  3. Show your guests pictures of your family; it gives them opportunity to talk about theirs.

  4. While it’s true that most African cultures live in community, they may very well feel overwhelmed while visiting your country. Don’t fill all their time (if they are your guests). Downtime may be very appreciated.

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It’s been a treat to learn from Carol and Corrie! They practice what they preach and have a lot of insight on the topic of passing on a culture of hospitality to your children. Do you have anything to add to their remarks? Leave your ideas in the comments. As we begin this year, may God refresh our hearts in Himself and give us joy in serving others — our children will take notice!

3 Biggest Surprises about Hosting "Strangers"

Opening our home to what the Bible might call “strangers” — or, people who have different backgrounds and whom we don’t know very well — has been a surprising adventure in many ways. Here are the three biggest surprises about gathering with people with stories so different than our own.

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1. I’ve been surprised how much even small gestures of hospitality mean to lonely or international guests. 

Once I invited a single immigrant girl over, and she told me that it was the first time she’d ever really socialized without her family along. A few years ago, an acquaintance and her husband invited a Libyan family over. They found out that the family had lived in the USA for six years and never been invited inside an American’s home! They didn’t know what was culturally appropriate to bring as a gift, so they asked a friend for help. They arrived with so many gifts: a homemade cake, a Libyan specialty dish of potatoes and beef, a European box of chocolates and a handmade crocheted table covering. Stories like this remind me that what seems easy for us, like having someone over for the afternoon, can be really meaningful to our foreign guests!

2. I’ve been surprised how well we’ve connected with people who might seem to not have much in common with us. 

One of our closest friends in our last city was a Muslim friend from the Middle East. He shared his story, wept at our table, and asked us to pray for him. I was surprised how dear he became to us as we shared many meals, conversations and prayers. We don’t see each other often any more due to distance, but when we do see him, it feels a bit like seeing a member of our family again — he’s always warm and open. These kinds of deeper connections cannot be forced — God must orchestrate them — but by opening our homes to strangers we provide a natural setting for connections to happen.

3. I’ve been surprised how openly we can talk about our faith with people of other faiths in our home. 

The opportunities are virtually endless to talk about our faith when people are at our table regularly. It comes up naturally, whether we pray before a meal, hang a verse on the wall, share a book from our bookshelf, or just talk about life through a Christian lens.

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Now it’s your turn! What has surprised you the most about hosting “strangers” (or should we just call them what they are — “potential friends”)?

7 Dos and Don'ts for New Cross-Cultural Hosts

Are you learning to extend cross-cultural hospitality? Are you feeling a bit nervous about having guests of other religions or backgrounds in your home? You’re in the right place — we can relate! We’ve been hosting guests of other cultures for quite a few years, but we still get a bit nervous about it sometimes, too! Here are seven dos and don’ts we’ve learned, that help us when we’re hosting guests from cultures different than our own. We hope these ideas give you, the new cross-cultural host, some direction!

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1. Do start with something simple. 

Too often, we don’t even get started with cross-cultural hospitality because we think it has to be complicated. Start with something simple — invite someone over for tea and a snack on a weekend or holiday afternoon, or just invite a neighbor to go on a walk with you in the neighborhood.

2. Do ask the person if they have any allergies or food restrictions before they come over for something to eat. 

As a general rule, Muslims cannot have alcohol or pork, and Hindus won’t eat beef, but many be completely vegetarian or also not drink alcohol. People vary a lot in their practices, so while you can do some Googling, it’s always good to inquire about food/drink restrictions before your guest comes.

3. Do ask lots of questions when your guest is visiting. 

Most people like to talk about themselves. Do a bit of research about the person’s culture or background before he or she visits. It might help to write down a few questions that might be interesting to ask him or her. If you’ve been to your guest’s country or known someone else from that part of the world, you can build some natural conversational bridges.

4. Don’t bring up sensitive subjects immediately or assume which views the person has without asking. 

Sometimes a person might be coming from a country which has experienced political tension with your country. Or, your guest might be less conservative than others from his or her homeland. For example, you don’t want to make a Muslim woman who does not cover her head feel like she’s a bad Muslim by asking too many questions about head covering on her first visit!

5. Don’t be discouraged if you just don’t click with a particular guest.

That’s normal even with people of your own culture, and if you keep inviting guests, you’ll find that some have lots in common with you, and some do not. We had a Middle Eastern guest over for cake one Sunday afternoon, and my husband pleasantly asked him if he and his new wife were planning to have children. He replied, “No! I hate children.” My husband didn’t really know what to say to that. He kept the conversation going, but we did not have that guest back again because it was a bit hard to keep a conversation going with him.

6. Do be prepared to be invited to your guest’s home. 

If you host someone from a traditional culture, often they will return the favor. People from traditional cultures tend to be much more hospitable than Westerners, although an exception to this might be when your guest is a student or is single and feels he or she doesn’t have a proper home in which to host you.

7. Do pray for your guest.

As God before, during and after your visit, that your guest would feel loved in your home. God loves your guest far more than you ever could, and wants to express His love through you.

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For more ideas for how to start a conversation with your cross-cultural friend or neighbour, check out this article: Making Conversation with Cross-Cultural Friends.

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! 🍁

Planning for Spontaneous Hospitality

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We’ve all heard stories of the spontaneous hospitality practiced many in non-Western countries. Some of us have experienced it when travelling far from home and being welcomed into strangers’ homes. But when those warm people who’ve always opened their doors spontaneously come to the West, they too often don’t return home with stories of spontaneous hospitality. In fact, in our Western world they often experience a “hospitality culture shock” of sorts.

This difference in our hospitality styles can be attributed to our cultural differences - relationship-orientation verses task-orientation. I live in Germany, a very task-oriented nation…which is filling with immigrants from relationship-oriented nations. A North African student recently talked about his experiences in Germany with me. “Most of my friends here are also North African. We can drop in on each other at almost any time. But Germans, no. The Germans are busy and protective of their time.”

“Busy.” “Protective of their time.” Would our neighbours, coworkers and friends describe us in this way?

When I hear comments like these, I wonder: how can we mix more spontaneity into our well-planned Western lives? We appreciate it when someone offers it to us, but it’s hard to make time for it in our own busy lives. As I look at our African, Middle Eastern, or Asian friends here in Germany, I realize: spontaneity is their language of friendship. A true friend will be available to you when you need them. A true friend will let you drop in on or call without making an appointment ahead of time. How can we be true friends to our warm, relationally-oriented friends?

My husband and I are learning a few ways that we can plan to be spontaneous — is that an oxymoron? In our experience…

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality means keeping our evenings relatively unscheduled. 

We don’t lock ourselves into a Monday night jogging group — we can jog on our own if Monday night is free. We have only one night and one morning a week that are virtually always booked, and a few days a month where we usually attend certain events. But otherwise, we keep a lot of our weeknights relatively open, which allows us to be free on short notice…because nothing says “I’m too busy” like having to book a simple dinner date six weeks ahead of time! In the past year, keeping our evenings relatively open has allowed us to be more spontaneous — to invite a friend who passed an important German exam out for dinner on the same night to celebrate, or to quickly find time for coffee with a friend going through a divorce.

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality means limiting certain friendships.

We could hang out with our Christian friends or church groups almost every night of the week if we wanted to. But in order to build deep relationships with people of other religions and cultures, we have had to decide carefully how many church commitments or relationships to take on. We sometimes have to also limit the number of new relationships with cross-cultural friends we pursue, so we can be true, spontaneously-available friends to the foreign friends we already have. When we can, we try to plan events where friends of a variety of backgrounds can spend time with us together.

Spontaneity in cross-cultural hospitality often means setting counter-cultural priorities. 

One of the main reasons that spontaneous hospitality doesn’t happen much in the West is because we are so busy with our “paid work” that we don’t have time for “unpaid work” like hospitality. It is good to regularly evaluate our standard of living and priorities, or to be willing to be counter-cultural in some of our decisions in regard to money, time and work. I am a freelancer, and sometimes people ask me why I don’t get a regular 9 to 5 job. “Wouldn’t you get extra benefits by working for an established company?” they ask. It’s hard to explain to them all the benefits we gain because my work-from-home schedule keeps me much more flexible.

You can foster spontaneity in hospitality by learning to:

1. hold your plans and schedule loosely,
2. keep a relatively organized, clean-ish home,
3. let people see your home even when it’s not organized and clean-ish,
4. always have something simple on hand that you can feed to drop-in guests,
5. offer guests simple fare or accommodations and not have to put on a show,
6. say “no” to some good things so you can say “yes” to the best things…
7. and much, much more….

The North African student I mentioned at the beginning of this post mentioned that one German student and his family have given him the gift he cherishes most: their time. That German student keeps in contact with him virtually daily. He invited the North African student to spend time with his family in their home. The North African student, who is a self-described “moderate Muslim” mused, “I don’t know if it’s because of their Christian faith that this German guy and his family take time for me. But they are the only Germans who have been so friendly and generous with their time.”

“Friendly.” “Generous with their time.” Could our foreign neighbours, coworkers and friends describe us in this way? Or are we busy running from task to task? Do they make the connection between our openness and generosity and our faith? Know that spontaneity doesn’t have to be as spontaneous as it looks. You can intentionally plan cross-cultural hospitality into your life by making some counter-cultural decisions. Let’s be known for our love — not our schedules.

This article first appeared as a guest post at Scraping Raisins on August 2, 2018. Follow Leslie Verner, the hostess at Scraping Raisins, and watch for her book about Cross-Cultural Hospitality releasing in 2019!

6 Easy Soups and Stews for International Guests

My husband jokes that he never sees the same meal on our table twice. That's not really true, but I do like to experiment. I especially like experimenting with different soups and stews, because I am not a super cook, but there's almost no soup that an immersion blender and a few adjustments here and there can't fix!

When we started hosting a weekly supper and Bible reading group for international students and English-speaking young adults at our home in 2015, we decided to make soup for the guests every week in the colder months, and salad for the guests every week in the warmer months. We started the same kind of group again in our new city last year, and are following the same meal pattern, which means that just last week we had our first soup of the season.

In our last city, our soups and stews were always vegetarian and sometimes also gluten-free, to accommodate the needs of the group. Right now, there is no one in our group who needs us to make either of these adjustments, but a lot of my soup recipes are vegetarian anyway. Put one of these six on the table with some cheese or butter and bread, and you've got yourself a healthy, easy and colourful meal!

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Apricot Lentil Soup

This Apricot Lentil Soup is something that I can often make with ingredients that I already have on hand. It's hearty and healthy. I usually follow the recipe almost exactly, except that sometimes I substitute the fresh tomatoes with canned ones. For South Asian friends who are used to eating lentils, it’s a different twist on something they’re familiar with.

Vegetarian Tortilla Soup

I served this Vegetarian Tortilla Soup at one of the first international gatherings at our home after we were married. It is a very likeable soup! You can add sour cream or plain yogurt on top. I find guests of almost any background can enjoy TexMex flavours, as long as anything too spicy is kept on the side.

Beef Stew

This recipe is everything a good beef stew should be: hearty and not too complicated. Please remember that if any of your friends are Hindu, you can almost assume that they don’t eat beef (but you can ask, if you want).

African Peanut Soup

I have served this African Peanut Soup multiple times and it's a lot of fun for guests who are slightly adventurous. And it tastes exotic without the ingredients being super exotic. I usually make it without celery and Berbere spice mix, to simplify it a little. I have also served it with peanuts with their shells on on the side. Guests have fun cracking the shells open and throwing their peanuts into the soup.

Potato Leek Soup

This creamy soup is simple — just five ingredients, or four if you make it halal! You can put in a few other veggies (like carrots) but really, on its own, it's already a yummy soup!

Vegetarian Chili

The ingredient list for this vegetarian chili looks long, but you can be flexible with the kinds of beans and veggies you throw in. I've probably never made it the same way twice. Some people aren't accustomed to — errr — digesting this many beans; you might want to cut down on the quantity of beans. 

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Recipe Adaptions

  • For a conservative Muslim guest: Use Halal meat (from your local Halal grocer — ask your Muslim friend where he or she buys meat) or make a vegetarian soup. If using meat-based bullion, that also needs to be Halal.

  • For a conservative Hindu or Jain guest: Use vegetarian ingredients. Some Hindus and Jains also do not eat eggs, garlic, onion, or various other things, but most Hindus and Jains living away from their home countries have loosened up on some of these requirements and hold mainly just to not eating meat. However, it still shows respect to ask your guest before they come, if there’s anything they prefer not to eat.

  • For a gluten-free guest: If using bullion or other seasoning, make sure it is gluten-free. If serving with bread or crackers, look for or make the gluten-free equivalent, or ask your friend to bring along his or her own bread.

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Whatever you serve, whomever you serve — your desire to welcome and accommodate the needs of your guests will speak volumes about the One who “came not to be served, but to serve.”

Interview #9: Welcoming a Cross-Cultural Roommate

As people in the USA think about heading back to school or university for the fall semester, I want to share this cross-cultural hospitality interview  from the American Midwest. A few years ago, Lisa spontaneously opened her home to an international student from Mongolia who was needing a place to live. What Lisa thought might be a two week or two month stay has turned into a more than two year stay, and a few months ago I got to ask Lisa about what it's been like sharing her home with a Mongolian roommate. Some of her answers surprised me, and most of them encouraged me! Lisa has such a gracious attitude about making room in her home and really in her whole life for Alyona. I hope you'll be encouraged by this interview with her. And maybe by the end, you'll be craving beef dumplings (and a meaningful conversation with an international friend) — I know I was!

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Lisa, I know you've had many different roommates over the years, but ever since I heard about your Mongolian roommate, I've been wanting to ask how you ended up sharing a home. But first I should ask, where do you live and what's your housing situation like? 

I live an a four bedroom, two bathroom house in the Midwest of the USA. Originally I was renting the house for a low rate, so I lived by myself and was really enjoying having so much space. The house has three bedrooms upstairs, and one downstairs — I made the downstairs one a guest room since it has it’s own bathroom. 

After I’d rented for while, my landlords offered to sell the house to me for a reasonable price. I hadn't really been planning to buy a house, but I bought it anyway, and at present I have two roommates, which helps me pay the mortgage a bit faster. One of them just moved in recently, and the Mongolian roommate has been here for two and a half years.

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How did you find a roommate of such a different cultural and religious background? 

I volunteer with an organization for international students. I had signed up to be a “friendship partner” to help new students settle into our city when they arrive. I had previously been assigned to various female students. It just happened that they were all from Africa — Benin, Togo and Kenya — and usually they were 18-year-olds who didn't speak a whole lot of English, coming to start university here.

Because of my involvement with that organization, I received an email in January 2016 at the beginning of the spring semester, saying that a girl from Mongolia was staying in a hotel in our city and looking for somewhere to live more permanently. I am not sure if you know this, but many international students in the USA don’t want to stay in a university dorm, and many come without a housing plan. They just expect to figure something out when they arrive in the USA, and this Mongolian student was trying to find a place to live. 

I wasn't really planning to have an international student roommate, but when I saw the email, a few things made me consider her: she had done undergraduate studies in the USA, then worked in Mongolia again for a few years, and she was back in the USA to do her graduate studies in our city. She had her own vehicle. Alyona, the girl the email described, was older and more mature than most of the students whom I had met through the “friendship partner” program. She didn't sound like someone who would need hand-holding. And I definitely had room in my house.

So you said, "Come on over"?

I told the organization that they could give her my contact information for us to talk about whether she could stay at my place. She texted me the same day at 5:30pm, and by 7:30pm she was at my door with a Mongolian guy who was helping her bring her vehicle to us from the state where she had previously lived and studied.

I showed her the space, and then the Mongolian man said to me, “In our culture, we’re really straightforward. We don’t beat around the bush. You can just tell us directly what the rules are and what the price is.” She asked if she could move in. I was still trying to think things through because it had all happened so quickly. I told her I didn’t want any guys staying overnight at our place, and I gave her a key right then and there. At that point, she really hadn't said much, as her friend had done most of the talking. So I really didn't know the person to whom I had just given a house key! 

The house was not at all set up for a roommate, and actually it was a bit of a mess because another family had used my house over Christmas when I was out of town. So a friend came over the next day to help me clean up and make space for Alyona, who was apparently now going to live with me. When I went to bed that night, she was not there, but by the next morning she was there, and by the next afternoon she had gone grocery shopping, put her things in the kitchen, and was cooking me dinner! I had not even given her any instructions about which cupboards to use or anything, but there she was with a bunch of meat and vegetables chopped, and she needed my help to figure out how to light the gas stove so she could cook everything! 

She was showing you hospitality in your own kitchen on the first night!

Yup, that’s kind of how it happened. And she’s been here ever since, for the past two years. To be honest, I never really thought she would live with me long; I was used to the African students who change housing often. But she’s often told me how much she loves living here!

Who stays in which room?

At the moment my new American roommate has a bedroom upstairs and shares my bathroom, and Alyona stays in the downstairs room with its own bathroom. The third bedroom upstairs is my office, and also has a twin bed in it that Alyona has sometimes used when she has a guest downstairs. Otherwise, my guests now stay on a mattress or on the couch in the living room. Or once in a while Alyona will come up and sleep on the twin bed and let people use her room and bathroom, like when a whole family visits us. And actually Alyona's mom and dad have both spent significant amounts of time with us in the past year.

I hadn't even thought of that, but I know that often when relatives from far away come for a visit, they come for a long time....

Yes, in Alyona's case especially because she's an only child and her parents are retired. Alyona's dad came for six months because he received a six month visa to the USA. Originally he was staying with some other people, but it didn’t work out, so she asked if he could stay with us. Because that downstairs bedroom area even has a door between it and its bathroom and the rest of the house, I thought it would be fine for him to stay at our house. 

Shortly after her dad left, she told me that — surprise!her mom had gotten a six month visa now. (The US government purposely staggers couples’ visas, to discourage them from overstaying, so her parents did not receive visas for the same period of time.) She asked if her mom could stay with us, so of course I said "Yes”. 

So at the moment, Alyona is sharing the downstairs room and a queen-sized bed with her mom. I offered to put a second bed down there for her, but she is content sharing the bed with her mom. 

Alyona is really happy that we have another roommate here now, because I travel a lot and she doesn’t like being in the house by herself. Her mom will leave again in a few months and she is glad that she won't be sleeping alone in the house at night. 

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Yeah, I think that’s cultural. "Warm culture" people like to have someone else around to eat with and are often used to sharing a room. What are the logistics around your house with your roommate? For example, do you eat together or who does the cleaning? 

We don’t eat together. Because when she first moved here she didn’t have a  job yet, she wanted to cook for me all the time. But we eat so differently — for example, I like eating salads and she eats a lot of hot meals, like beef dumplings. I told her that she doesn’t need to cook for me. 

Our schedules are different. I work from home and often travel overnight, and she's usually out of the house from 10am to 10pm at work and school but doesn't travel as much as I do. 

I told her that I would buy all the shared cleaners / detergents, etc. however, sometimes she buys those, too. She often asks me where I’ve bought something, and she buys the same thing when it needs replenishing. She’s also always happy to share her groceries if I need an onion or an egg from her stash. Sometimes for special events, like her birthday, and she made dumplings for us. Or if I’m having a party or having people over for dinner, she’s always invited to join us and sometimes we each cook a dish. 

Right now she has weekends off and on Sundays she often comes to church with me. She’s been doing that ever since she moved in. 

How is it having her parents there? Are they easy to have around? 

When her dad first came, it was a bit awkward because she’s gone for 12 hours a day and he had nothing to do. He was a smoker so he would spend a lot of time smoking on the back porch — something I hadn't even thought about before he came (laughs).  But at some point he got a temporary job, and then he was gone almost as many hours each day as his daughter. It was not a problem having him here.

Having her mom here has been a bit trickier, because she and I are both home all day. At first, her mom wanted to cook for me all the time, and she wanted me to be available to be fed at whatever time the food happened to be ready. I had to tell her that I usually prefer to eat my own food. Sometimes it’s also hard because I want to use the kitchen when she's cooking. (She sometimes spends five hours in one day making dumplings.)

Thinking about your house being overtaken by dumplings makes me smile! 

I’ve had to learn to make space in my kitchen for the dumpling pot and the rice cooker, the two tools that they use almost daily. And I’m a coffee drinker but we have tea everywhere in our kitchen now because Mongolians are tea drinkers. When I look in the freezer, it’s just full of meat. We don't have yak here, so they buy tons of beef — I think in the two years that Alyona has been here, she’s bought more beef than I’ve bought in ten years!

She doesn't expect me to entertain her, and I have to remind myself of that sometimes.

It’s taken some getting used to, having Aloyna’s mom around all the time. I want her to feel comfortable to use the common rooms or watch TV in the living room, but when she's not in the kitchen, she's usually downstairs in her bedroom. A couple of times if she's needed a ride somewhere or wants to go to the store with me, I take her along, as I imagine she must be a bit bored. But at the same time, I just have to remind myself sometimes that she chose to come for six months when she knew her daughter was working and studying full time. She doesn't expect me to entertain her, and I have to remind myself of that sometimes. Some nights when Alyona is still at work or school, I have taken her mom or dad along if I'm going to an international student gathering or game night where they might feel comfortable joining in. They don't speak much English.

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You sound very gracious and mature about the interesting situations that have come up, especially now with her mother there, but I know that often these situations are hard, not fun, at the time. Have you felt like you’ve grown in a good way, because of having this roommate who’s so different culturally?

To be honest, she’s been one of the easiest roommates I’ve ever had. She’s worked hard to do things the way I like them, and she notices when we’re running out of something or when the trash needs to be taken out. But I’ve learned that I don't really like to share "my space". It was fine to share the house with her when our schedules were totally different, but it's been tougher when her mom is here 24/7 and I can’t use the kitchen when I want to....

...and the air constantly smells of beef dumplings!

But I guess it’s surprised me how easy it has been, overall, having Alyona as a roommate. She asks good questions, and enjoys learning. She was surprised to see me eating lettuce straight out of the package without washing it, so I showed her on the packaging that it had been “triple washed”. I’ve since seen her buy the same lettuce. Or she buys random fruits and vegetables, not knowing what they are and wanting to try them out. One of her recent exotic purchases was a guava, and I explained to her how to eat it. She’s a fun girl. 

You mentioned her coming to church with you regularly. Were you surprised that she wanted to come to church with you? 

Well, one thing I’ve learned — and I don’t know if it’s just typical of her, or typical of her culture — but she never says “no”. She always says “yes”. I sometimes remind her, “You can say ‘no’ to me; you can tell me things directly.” But I don't think that comes easily. So when I’ve invited her to church, the answer is almost always "yes", but I'm not sure how much of it comes from her really wanting to be there, and how much of it is her being polite and wanting to not go against the flow.

What is her religious background? 

She did not grow up with any kind of formal religion. Her dad is Russian, and her mom is Mongolian. Both of her parents are well-educated professionals. I think she had some connection to Buddhist ancestor worship on the Mongolian side, but she would not say she is Buddhist. Growing up they just didn’t talk about religion or God at home.

At Christmas 2016, our first Christmas together, I had Alyona help me set up a nativity scene. When I looked at how she had set the it up, I said to her, “Oh, put Mary and Joseph next to Jesus!” And she said, “Who are Mary and Joseph?” She was in her late twenties, and had never heard the Christmas story. That blew me away. 

She had never heard the Christmas story. That blew me away.

I took her to a live nativity that first Christmas, with live actors and animals. It started with Adam and Eve and gave the whole background story to make sense of Christmas. She absolutely loved it — she was running from one scene to the next, like she couldn’t wait to see what would come next in the story. On the way home that night, she commented, “I can’t believe that all these countries around the world celebrate Christmas but they don’t know the real reason for Christmas.” Alyona spent Christmas with my family that year, and it went well.

Last year, her second Christmas with me, she and her mom helped me decorate the house for Christmas and then we went to the live nativity again. We had a really good talk on the way home, about Abraham and his faith and about how the story of Abraham and his son foreshadowed God and His Son. But I'm still not sure exactly how much she understands about Christ and His story. 

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It can be hard to measure, especially with your cultural differences.

Spiritual conversations had never been part of her home and life.

We have communion every Sunday at my church. I explained to her when she first came to our church, that communion is only for people who believe in Jesus and what He has done on the cross for them. She asked a couple of questions and for the first couple of months, she didn’t take communion. Then on Easter Sunday, her dad was there, and she said, “I'm going to take communion today.” It was one of those awkward situations where the service was about to start and I couldn't ask her much more about her choice to take communion. I quickly reminded her that it’s only for people who believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for their sins, and she said, “I believe in Jesus”. On the way home, I talked with her about it some more, and we had a special Easter lunch at my house and used "resurrection eggs" to talk more about what Easter means. We've had so many opportunities to talk about the Bible, a friend and I even did a Bible study series with Alyona. We’ve had some really good conversations about spiritual things and she is 100% open. I think part of the reason for this is because she had a spiritual void; spiritual conversations had never been part of her home and life. 

And she's come from that spiritual void into a home and relational network where spiritual conversations happen every day. 

I often have to back up and find a way to talk about Christianity or faith in a way that is more basic than what I'm accustomed to.

She doesn’t feel comfortable praying or asking a lot of questions about our faith. Sometimes even the way Christians pray or talk can seem so foreign to her. Alyona has made comments before like, “You have such a close relationship to God” or “I like hearing how you talk to God, but I don’t know how to do that.” In living and talking with her, I have realized that as someone who grew up in a Christian home and has been so surrounded by Christian input and friends for over 40 years, I don't even know what she doesn't know. I often have to back up and find a way to talk about Christianity or faith in a way that is more basic than what I'm accustomed to. 

She recently even took a membership class at our church, but she said she does not feel ready to be baptized. She’s still processing that. I can't know what's going on inside of her. When I’ve read about Mongolia, they said that they’re quite accepting of all religions there. They seem to live relatively peacefully with Muslims and Christians, etc. in the same country. So she’s open to talk about Christianity, but I don’t know if she would also be open to becoming a Muslim or joining another religion, or if she senses that this is something unique and that God is calling her out in particular to follow Christ.

Have your friends taken an interested in Alyona or gotten to know her?

Yes, they have. I go to a super white church. They want it to be diverse, but it happens to be in an upperclass, white neighbourhood so — guess what — it’s a white church. But I don’t think she feels awkward there, which is great. A lot of the people have sought to make her feel welcome. One couple in particular invited her over and gave her a Mongolian Bible as a gift. 

My friend group has also been really good about including her. Even when I’m travelling or gone, they often try to include her in things they're doing. She comes to our small group and often commutes to church with our group. When her parents are here she doesn’t do as much with us. But everyone has been encouraging and supportive and friendly. In a group she is not particularly talkative, but one on one she’s friendly and outgoing. I think I’d probably be like that too, in another culture...

Yes, my husband and I are totally like when interacting in German, too — way quieter in group conversations than in one-on-one. It’s hard to follow everything that's going on in a group conversation, or to contribute something to the discussion when it takes you longer to formulate sentences. 

If Alyona were to move out, would you try to invite another cross-cultural roommate? What’s some advice you would give to someone who is looking to do something similar?

I would definitely consider having an international roommate again. I don’t mind answering cultural questions, like explaining how the flag on the mailbox works or why I can eat my lettuce without washing it first. But what’s important to me is that I don’t have to babysit my roommate. With how much I travel for work, I could not take on a roommate who’s 18 and has never lived in the USA before she lands on my doorstep. I would do it again, but only with a mature roommate like Alyona. 

Maybe it’s just God’s graciousness that it’s worked out as well with Alyona as it has. It’s good to be clear from the beginning about expectations, for example, to talk through expectations about food, meals, or cleaning. 

This has been an enlightening conversation. I expected that having a foreign roommate would be more complicated than a roommate of the same culture, and in some ways it is, but in some ways it has been easier, because Alyona expects you to be different than her, and so she wants to learn to do things the way you do them. Whereas an American roommate maybe just does things the way she’s always done them, without noticing that you might want some things done differently. 

Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but she’s been so great about noticing things I do or that need doing, and doing them with or for me. Even better than many roommates of my own culture. I hope that someday I can visit her and her family in Mongolia.

If you do that, you'll probably have some “Aha!” moments where you’ll finally understand something about how Alyona and her family lived when they were with you!

Yes, and if I visit them there, I will eat what they cook...not my "cold food" as Alyona's mom refers to my salads!

Making Conversation with Cross-Cultural Friends

When you are wanting to make friends with someone of another culture and background, sometimes it can be hard to find commonalities with that person. So often our friendships are built around a common interest or a common history. These friendships come naturally—but sometimes a genuine friendship with someone so different than you seems like it will have to come supernaturally. (Not a problem, we believe in the supernatural at The Serviette! 😉) What about when your international neighbour or coworker seemingly has nothing in common with you?

When I lived in South Asia, it amazed me how my American neighbour Harold made natural small talk with anyone from the man who cleaned the building or the driver of his taxi, to multinational business managers. Harold is in his fifties, but he befriended people of a wide variety of ages—taking men in their twenties or thirties out for breakfast or supper and chatting about sports scores, or visiting an elderly man in his home and reading with him.  

Talking comfortably with people who seem very different than you may not be a skill that you yet have. But it's a skill you can develop. Harold grew up in a very white, very rural American community and has learned over the years to converse with people of any and every background. I asked him to contribute ideas for this post, on how to build intentional cross-cultural friendships — both the basic conversation stage and the going deeper stage. I picked his brain for some thoughts about topics that are better to avoid, too. As I was creating this post, I got some reader input from our Instagram, and have sprinkled a few of your ideas throughout as well. I hope you'll find this post helpful! 

(Note: At The Serviette, we recommend that one-on-one relationships be with friends of the same gender. This can be especially important when interacting with people from conservative cultures. If you meet an international individual of the opposite gender that is needing friends, consider how you can introduce him or her to friends of his or her own gender, or invite them to events or gatherings where both genders will be present. If you don't have a "team" you can work together with to reach out to others, or if you have already started a relationship that you need to step down a notch, pray about it and involve some wise Christians.)

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Ideas for making cross-cultural conversation

  • Ask good questions and find something you have in common: Harold finds a topic he can discuss with someone and uses it to build conversational bridges. Some of the topics he often talks about are: soccer, basketball, cars, politics, weather, physical fitness, family, travel, or languages.

  • Talk about current events: Read the news and talk with people about a headline you saw, whether funny or serious.

  • Talk about family: People are often happy to talk about their family background, especially if they come from a warm culture.

  • Ask about cultural similarities and differences as they come up: foods, gender roles, clothing, celebrations, parenting....

  • Take up a new hobby or do an activity together: Maybe you've never been a gym person, but going to the gym might help you connect with people with whom you'd never connect otherwise. Sometimes when it's hard to find things to talk about, it's best to plan to do activities (like cooking, biking, crafting or hiking) together. Start making memories together and you'll suddenly have more in common!

  • Find something you can do for your new friend: If you have a skill or ability that you could use to help your friend, offer to help them. Maybe your friend needs a ride to the airport, or needs to borrow a tire pump.

  • Find something your new friend can do for you: If you are living in another culture, often asking someone from that culture to help you with something that comes easily for them (like translating something or helping you with an errand) is a way to develop the relationship.

  • Learn to listen and show a genuine interest in people: Ask about something they mentioned the last time you talked. It may sound nerdy, but you can even take notes on what you discussed so that you can remember and bring it up another time. Remembering a comment from two months or two years before, or remembering a preference or allergy, shows that you are paying attention and care about the relationship.

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Ideas for transitioning to deeper conversation

Some people are great at small talk (here's looking at you, North Americans) but they have a hard time turning those conversations into more meaningful conversations. As Christians, we know that life is much deeper than talking about jobs, family or hobbies. What are some tips for taking an everyday interchange and making it more meaningful?

  • Pray before you meet your friends, and during your meetings with them, for opportunities to talk about deeper things. Sometimes these kind of conversations happen on the first meeting, sometimes they happen on the twentieth.

  • Pray before a meal. If a meal is at our house, we almost always pray before it. If it's at a friend's house, we don't (unless they ask us to). If we're eating out with friends, we feel out the situation and decide whether it seems appropriate to ask to pray before the meal. I often wonder what our guests think about us praying before meals, and one of the rare pieces of feedback we got was this — one of our international guests told me that her husband went home and said to her, "We could pray before our meals like they do, if you want." They both come from culturally Christian homes and don't pray before meals, but had seen it done before.

  • Post Truth on your walls or in conspicuous places. If it's appropriate, talk about it. Harold would often read verses he had posted on his walls with his guests. Recently we had a guest who kept turning his head to read a verse on our wall, and a few weeks later my husband had a great spiritual conversation with his girlfriend.

  • Begin a habit of reading the Bible after each meal. Some families or individuals have this as a built-in tradition, that after a meal they always read a passage together or pray together. If your guest doesn't feel comfortable with this aspect of being at your house, I suppose they can find excuses not to come again, but most people are respectful if this is your tradition.

  • Share answers to prayer or ask to pray with your friend. When someone asks about something that has happened in your life, don't be afraid to mention praying about it or seeing God answer prayer. Or at the end of your visit, ask if you can pray with your friend for something you've been discussing.

  • Learn to ask deeper questions. These kinds of questions might feel funny coming out of your mouth at first, if you're not used to asking them, but if you practice them, they'll start to come out more naturally. At our house we have a cup full of interesting questions and sometimes we ask a guest to pull out a question and we discuss it around the table. A couple of ideas for spiritual questions are:

    • What do you think is the purpose of life?

    • Do you believe in life after death?

    • Where do you get your ideas about life and death?

    • Have you ever read Jesus’ teachings?

  • Pull out your smartphone. Yeah, normally we don't recommend using your smartphone while visiting with friends. But if you have the Bible on your smartphone, Harold suggests that it can be an opportunity to share a verse or story that relates somehow to your conversation. In some apps you can even show your friend the verse in his or her own native language, or in two languages side-by-side.

  • Invite friends to celebrate Christian holidays with you: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving and other special holidays with Christian ties can be a great springboard into spiritual conversations through shared traditions like songs, readings, skits, or stories.

  • Share your personal spiritual journey: We have a friend who always encourages Christians to share with anyone about their own journey to faith in Christ. As he says, people don't ask for permission to share their story about how drunk they were last weekend or how fun their vacation was, so you don't have to ask permission to tell the story of how you found the One who gave your life purpose and meaning.

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Conversations to (perhaps) delay

There are some topics that are not usually best for a first conversation. Most of these will be obvious. However, take these thoughts with a grain of salt; they're not necessarily taboo topics, but perhaps areas in which to tread lightly until you see how your friend reacts. God has made people with such a wide variety of temperaments and interests — some talk about these sensitive topics from the first five minutes of the conversation, and some would never bring them up. 

  • Social status or finances: From your conversations and interactions, you will likely start to get a feel what financial or social level of society your friend comes from. But let them initiate any sharing of information about finances or social status. You'll usually start to get a feeling as you learn about the person, whether they're scraping pennies together for groceries and wearing the same two T-shirts, or talking about their private school education and flying to their home country several times a year. (I'm pretty sure I insulted a refugee friend by offering him some dishes we were getting rid of, because I eventually realized he is a wealthy man and hates receiving hand-outs!) But don't be too surprised if an international friend asks you direct financial questions; depending where they come from, they might think it's normal.

  • Religious background: It may be obvious right away which religion a new friend belongs to (hello, headscarf) but if it's not, you don't always need to ask. Sometimes I've found out after a few years that someone grew up in a Catholic or Buddhist home, that someone's mother was an angry ex-Jehovah's Witness, or that a person follows the Waldorf philosophy. Finding out these details often does help understand where they're coming from. But you might want to be cautious about how directly to ask about these topics. Harold suggested that a roundabout way of finding out what religion someone belongs to might be to ask what their favourite holidays or foods are, or what kinds of hobbies they have or clubs they belong to. (On the other hand, people from other non-Western cultures are often accustomed to discussing religion and it might be a topic that comes up in your first conversation — that is also OK.)

  • Political topics: People from Eastern cultures may be much more accustomed to talking about politics with new friends than we are. But sometimes even our different nationalities can make these topics sensitive, like when a Syrian hears that America bombed Syria last night, and is having supper with an American the next night. We have noticed that our Chinese friends have a wide variety of opinions about the Chinese government; the perspective you hear in Western news might be the opposite of what they're hearing from Chinese news sources. Be sensitive and tread carefully; don't burn relational bridges for the sake of a political opinion.

  • Dating / marriage / sexuality: In some conservative cultures, dating is not a thing, marriages are at least semi-arranged, and homosexuality is hidden. With anyone, these topics can be sensitive - maybe your new friend is divorced but many people don’t know about it, or maybe his family is pressuring him to marry and that’s why he moved abroad. We have an atheist friend who is probably involved in a homosexual lifestyle, but since he's never directly said so, we've never directly asked; it doesn't affect how we relate to him. Many of our friends or Harold's friends have shared really openly about these topics, but the conversation has usually started at the friend's initiative.

  • Children / fertility: In many cultures, a lot of pressure is put on couples to have children and to have no heir is virtually the worst possible fate. You know a person's ability to give birth is not what gives them value, so don't add to that pressure by asking too many related questions upon first meeting. Whether your friends have chosen not to have children, cannot have children, or have lost children, let them choose when or if they want to talk about it.

  • Weight: Did you know that in some cultures, your weight is a common topic of conversation? Not cool. Even if a friend is from a culture where weight is commonly commented on, I would not encourage you to comment on his or her weight. And please don't ask if a lady is pregnant unless she brings it up. I have one international friend with whom I talk about weight, and that's because he's been very open with us about his goal to lose weight, and I encourage him when I can see that he's slimming down. But that would never have been something we would have discussed at the beginning of our relationship.

Learning new styles of conversation

An interesting point that came up in the conversation on Instagram was that even the way we converse with our cross-cultural friends and what we consider "normal" in conversation may need to flex to accommodate our international friends' cultures. For example: 

  • What might seem to you like an awkward silence in the conversation might be completely normal to your new friend. Not everyone is accustomed to there being ongoing conversation for the whole visit.

  • If your new friend doesn't ask questions, this might also be a cultural difference. You can learn to share unprompted and not have to wait for a question to discuss a new topic.

Be aware that asking too many questions or talking too much might be overwhelming to your new friend. 

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Conversations with friends of other cultural backgrounds can be challenging. But not always! We have friends of completely different backgrounds who are much more comfortable to be around and talk with than people of very similar backgrounds. A kind and genuine way of living and speaking will be used of God as you begin to

  • make conversation,

  • go deeper in conversation,

  • avoid undue offence in conversation,

  • and learn new styles of conversation.

I hope you will find what Harold has found, what my husband and I have found, and what many others who have made friendships across cultural barriers have found: deep, supernatural conversations and friendships that transcend the boundaries of what seems naturally possible.

"Do not pay attention to every word people say"

It happened when we lived in our first apartment, shortly after we got married. As a friend was leaving our home, she asked why we had two last names on our mailbox at the front door. I teasingly stated the obvious, "Because my husband and I have different last names." Then I explained that I had not yet legally changed my name to my husband's, due to moving abroad eight days after our wedding, and not wanting to start something that might be tricky to finish before moving internationally once again.

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My explanation was not good enough for her. "Well, in Germany, if there are two last names on the mailbox, people will think you're unmarried but living together. It's not a good testimony to the neighbours." I tried to explain again that I understood her concern, but that with various pieces of paperwork pending, it would not be wise to start on a name change process. "Besides," I told her, "Anyone who comes to our house will see our wedding pictures in the living room."

She didn't pester me any further, but I was surprised how much her words bothered me for the rest of that day. Did we have a poor testimony with our neighbours (who virtually never talked to us anyway) because of a label on our mailbox? Did I not explain our reason well enough? Had we made the wrong decision in delaying my name change? I had felt funny about having my maiden name on the mailbox too, but because individual apartments here don't have numbers, the mailbox and doorbell had to reflect both names, in case we received mail in my legal name.

See, I'm still trying to justify our decision to you several years later.

On that day, I realized how easy it is to allow one person's comment to make me second guess something we did in good conscience, and virtually out of necessity. That same week, I came across Ecclesiastes 7:20-22, where Solomon instructed:

"Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous,
no one who does what is right and never sins.

Do not pay attention to every word people say,
or you may hear your servant cursing you—
for you know in your heart
that many times you yourself have cursed others."

By opening our home to people of all kinds of different backgrounds, we open ourselves to their comments, too. In the past five years, I've been told by international friends that my hallway is dirty, that my kitchen cabinets are cheap, and that the food I've made is not as good as my guest's wife's food. And yes, that I dishonoured Christ by delaying my name change.

Usually there's an element of truth in the comments. But as a person who has always been a bit too sensitive to other peoples' remarks, I'm trying to learn to process the truth in the statement (dirty hallway duly noted) without overthinking or second-guessing.

Solomon's reason for telling us not to take others' remarks to heart is perhaps not what we'd expect — he reminds us that we've all made comments or had thoughts about others that weren't right. Humility lets us overlook others' awkward or even sinful remarks, remembering that we are no more righteous than they are.

I breathed a sigh of relief when the paperwork was completed and we could finally remove my maiden name from our doorbell and thereby declare even to the mailman (who's never seen our wedding photos) that we are truly husband and wife. 

But now that the name label is fixed, I'm sure other disconcerting remarks are not far away, as long as we keep opening our doors to people of different opinions, cultures and backgrounds. Cross-cultural hospitality requires the wisdom to balance humbly paying attention to any kernel of truth in our guests' statements and yet humbly not paying attention to every word people say. 

Showing Hospitality While You're Suffering

The Biblical text about hospitality that has stood out the most to me in the past year is Peter's admonition: "show hospitality to one another without grumbling." You probably know the verse, tucked away in 1 Peter 4:9. This command caught my attention not because I had never seen it before, but because I suddenly noticed the context: 1 Peter is written to people who are going through intense suffering.

From a human perspective, hospitality seems like something to be done out of a place of strength and success. Hospitality is to be shown when you get the new dishes that match and buy that big table you've been eyeing, or when you move into your "forever home". The world teaches us that hospitality is for people who have an overabundance of money, food and time. Hosting is for people who are successful and have something to show off to their guests.

Hospitality doesn't seem like something to be practiced when you're broken, or when your home or your life seem like nothing to be envied. Not when you feel you might start crying while you're serving up soup, have little energy due to health problems, or don't feel like getting out of bed because you got some life-changing news the day before.

"God turns our way of seeing hospitality upside-down and calls us to serve others even in the midst of difficult circumstances."

But God turns our way of seeing hospitality upside-down and calls us to serve others even in the midst of difficult circumstances. In fact, hospitality is a tool God has given us to help both us and others during times of suffering. Here are three reasons why I think God commands us to show hospitality even in the times when we feel weak...and I am sure there are many, many more! 

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1. Showing hospitality while you're suffering helps turn your focus off of yourself.

When we are going through difficult circumstances, it's easy to become focused on ourselves and our problems. I realize now that during some of the hardest days of my life, one of the best things for me was having a guest living with me full time. Needing to cook supper for her or serve her helped my focus to not become too inward. Some of our guests may not care a whole lot about our problems, but it's OK to have that God-given reminder that the whole world doesn't revolve around us and our struggles. Knowing that someone will be appearing at the door expecting supper might be just what you need to help motivate yourself to get groceries, cook, and get through another day — to reinforce to you that you are living for a kingdom far greater than your own personal kingdom. That your "forever home" isn't built of brick and mortar.

2. Showing hospitality while you're suffering opens others to share their stories with you as well. 

When you are in the midst of what Peter calls a "fiery ordeal" and feel like you're almost smelling like smoke, it may seem strange to invite others to come eat with you. When your furniture or food isn't as trendy as your friends' or neighbours', it might be hard to invite guests in to see the simple way in which you live. But on our broken planet, no one's life is free from suffering. You'll be surprised how letting guests see your life as it is, even when it is difficult, often opens your guests up to share about their own trials, and leads to spiritual conversations.

One of my foreign friends literally said to me a few months ago, "Since you have shared so honestly with me, I will tell you something, too..." and proceeded to share about her own difficult experiences. A new friend told me recently that sharing about her struggles and losses has opened the most conversational doors with Muslim women. Showing hospitality even while you're suffering allows your relationships to get deeper, faster. 

3. Showing hospitality while you're suffering lets your guests see your hope up close.

Yes, there are days when we truly need alone time or a break from inviting others into our homes, when we are dealing with intense personal trials or grief. But for a Christian, keeping our doors closed during suffering should not be the norm. I hate to break it to you, but suffering, in some form, will always be with us until we leave this earth.

Consider this: if we hide ourselves away when we suffer, and then invite others in only when we're feeling comfortable, they don't see the strength of our hope. If we wait to tell others how hard our trials are until we burst into some sunny success story on the other side, they don't get to witness real hope in the midst of distress. And how can our friends better see what we are going through, and how we are going through it, than by being in our homes? Just the fact that you are thinking of others when you are going through difficult times is unique, and evidences that your inheritance is in heaven, as Peter writes, and "can never perish, spoil or fade." No earthly suffering can remove your hope, and your guests will notice that. A stylish house, a delicious meal, a well-dressed and healthy family around the table — there's nothing wrong with allowing guests to your home to see these things. But none of them can compare to inviting your guest into your house when your circumstances are difficult, and allowing them to see the eternal hope in your heart.

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These are just three ways in which I've seen Peter's command to hospitality that comes out of a difficult place make sense! And even when we can't see the results of obey His commandment of hospitality, there is blessing in obeying Him. We can count on that! God wants us to bring others into our homes and lives in the midst of our own difficulties, and not let our hard times stop us from helping others in their own hard times. How else have you seen hospitality during suffering benefit you and others?

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PS - Remember, there are always ways you can also show hospitality without opening your doors!

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.


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.

10 Things (about Cross-Cultural Hospitality) I Didn't Know Last Year - 2017 Edition

BBC News has an interesting column on their website called "10 Things We Didn't Know Last Week" where they feature some of the most interesting tidbits they learned in the last week. At the end of this second year at The Serviette, I wanted to do what I did last year on the same day — share ten things I didn't know last year, but that I learned this year through hospitality or through The Serviette. I hope you learn a few things from this list, too! 

hosting guests of other religions and cultures
  1. Partnering with other Christians in your hospitality efforts is a thing. We're learning to invite others along to help us with a meal or party, if they're interested, or to accept offers of help. Just having one extra like-minded person along to assist with preparing, serving, or cleaning up after a meal can make such a difference. Sometimes partnering with others is almost a necessity, such as when singles want to reach out to entire families of Muslims, it's best to partner with a family or group where both genders are represented.

  2. Speaking of which, this year I noticed that the best way to teach cross-cultural hospitality is to invite others along to be part of what you're doing. That Christian friend who says, "I don't think I could ever host a Muslim for dinner" is (perhaps) a friend you can simply invite to the table with your Muslim friend. So much of what we learn about hospitality simply comes from being hosted. It's fun to think about how to "'pair" guests of different cultures who might otherwise never eat a meal together.

  3. Your international friends might not know the difference between Good Friday and Black Friday. Hosting someone at Easter can give you the opportunity to answer this question and others!

  4. Most people from other nations eat their potatoes peeled; they may not be big fans of eating the skin like we often do now in North America.

  5. Chinese guests often enjoy being asked to help with a meal. A Chinese reader of The Serviette offered this explanation to what I had observed about our Chinese guests: "Chinese people show affection primarily through actions. So preparing a meal together is one way to express that, especially given how central food is in relationship building. Preparing a meal, eating together, and pitching in to wash up is how you show care. It's how my grandma taught my mom, and how my mom taught me."

  6. Reverse hospitality, or offering to take a meal to someone else's house, might be just what a friend needs when it's harder for him or her to get out. This year a friend offered to bring over homemade pizza dough and toppings and make pizza at our place, and it hit the spot.

  7. Games that require knowledge of pop culture are usually not so fun for internationals.

  8. “God has made forks and spoons, pans, pots, and plates weapons of war against the darkness" - read more here.

  9. Having an outsider live in your home with you (for real life, not just vacation) is one of the best ways to go deeper with that person and have an impact with them for eternity. Having a full-time guest in your home can also be challenging, but I'd encourage you to consider it. The eternal pros often outweigh the temporary cons. For example, this year my husband met a German man who became a follower of Jesus through living with a Christian host family in America.

  10. Prayer about specific hospitality ventures works! Maybe I knew this before this year in theory, but in 2017, we saw several potentially-difficult situations resolved even better than we could have expected. God can work out the details of your hospitality ventures, if you pray about them.

Thanks for being part of this growing community of hosts and wannabe hosts who are learning to share our lives with people of other cultures, religions and backgrounds! Our ongoing conversation about the ins and outs of welcoming new and different people into our homes always encourages me. I look forward to continuing to learn along with you in 2018!

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 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!

Showing Hospitality When You Can't Open Your Doors

Although I regularly advocate for opening our doors and practicing hospitality in our own homes, there are situations that make opening our doors impossible. You know the kind of stuff I'm talking about — illness or overtime, a busy stage with little children, a spouse who's not on the same page about hospitality, a home that's too small or inconveniently located to host guests — and the list could go on. Or maybe a person you're trying to love on is unable to come to your home due to his or her own challenges or location.

Here are 8 ideas for how you can practice heart-felt hospitality — every day, even — when you can't open your doors. When these kinds of activities come out of a caring, generous spirit, they are hospitality — just on different turf. 

(Keep in mind that depending on the culture of the friends to whom you are showing hospitality, some of these gestures might be more or less appreciated. But it usually doesn't hurt to ask if you can help your cross-cultural friend in one of these ways anyway, and see what kind of response you get.) 

1. Pray, and let your friend know you are praying. 

Maybe you feel like "all you can do is pray". Well, that's the best thing you could do for your friend anyway! Sometimes it's appropriate to tell your friend that you're praying for them, too, so they know that they're not far from your thoughts. Don't be too hesitant to tell a friend of another worldview or religious background that you're praying for them — even if they don't believe in prayer, they usually don't think it can hurt, either!

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2. Write a letter or a thoughtful email. Or call.

In this world of instant, brief and trivial communication, a kind and thoughtful letter in the mail or even a personal email means a lot. In the time it would take you to prepare your house and a meal for guests, you could probably write and send 4 or 5 letters to people who'd appreciate them. I know several elderly people who don't have guests into their homes very often, but write longhand letters faithfully and consistently — they are expressing a hospitable spirit! If you usually communicate by text or email, giving someone a call can also be a kind way to show you care.

3. Hang around longer than usual.

If you're a church-goer, you probably know that there are the attendees who always rush out the door as soon as the service is over, and the attendees whom you almost always have to kick out of the building because they stay so long. I am always happy when I see the latter — people wanting to linger and spend time with each other. It's a good sign. And in a culture where "time is money" or individuality is prized above community, your decision to stay a little longer at a gathering you're attending and simply chat with guests and make them feel welcome is a precious gift. Maybe you can't invite them to your house for a meal, but if possible, setting aside your rush or loosening up your tight schedule to give people time to share what's on their hearts — that's hospitality, no matter where it happens. 

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4. Offer to visit your friend at his or her house instead of yours.

This is not something that everyone will take you up on, but you might be surprised how many people prefer to have you visit their houses than not to see you at all! 😊 In many Eastern cultures, people are more honoured to host than to be hosted, so your visit is an honour to them! If you want to suggest to someone that you'd like to drop by, try asking if you can come at a time that is clearly between mealtimes, so they know they don't have to cook, and even say specifically that you don't need to be fed anything. Or tell them you'd like to bring food with you (see #8, below). I always remember a single friend of my mom's who cooked a meal and brought it to our house when we were kids — her out-of-the-ordinary gesture (because she lived in a small house) stood out to me because it was so kind but unusual.

If your friend is from a cold culture and you think he or she might be worried about how long you'll stay, you can even give a timeframe, like "Could I drop by for half an hour on my way to the store?" If your friend is from a warm culture, he or she might be happy to have you drop by spontaneously.

5. Send flowers or a surprise gift.

If your friend is local, you can drop off a gift at his or her door. But through the internet, you can usually easily get a gift to your friend's door, no matter where you or they live. This costs a bit more than sending a letter, but if you can afford it, it can be extra fun for the recipient. (This is just my weird sense of humour, but the idea of surprising someone a stuffed organ after a surgery makes me laugh. Warning: may not be considered funny in some cultures. 😊)

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6. Offer to help someone with tasks they need help doing, or to loan them objects they need so they don't have to buy them.

Internationals often need help with documents, finding housing,  or other various tasks before their language and cultural skills are up to par. People who are sick, elderly or particularly busy (like with small children) can often use help with a few random tasks around the house. Lots of people won't ask for help, but if you make a specific offer (like "Next week I have time to go the immigration office with you. Do you want me to help you?") they may take you up on it. Also, international students sometimes borrow odds and ends like tools or gadgets they don't have from us. A friend of mine has been cleaning her elderly neighbours' toilets regularly for years — a sort of reverse hospitality — and having occasional meaningful conversations with them as a result. This year, her neighbour started reading the Bible!  

7. Offer to drop off / pick up someone at the airport, or drive them somewhere they need to go.

Singles, internationals, or people without a vehicle — OK, or basically anyone — can be especially glad for this kind of hospitality. If you hear someone is coming or going and you have time to drop them off or pick them up, ask if they could use your help. It's always nicer to have someone ask if they can help, than to have to ask for the favour. And airport parking or taxis can be really expensive. 

8. Find creative ways to share or provide meals. 

Take someone out to eat, send food to them, or sign them up for a meal service for a few meals at your expense. I've seen people who don't like cooking or can't cook regularly due to their schedules offer to take their friends out on their own tab — always a kind gesture. You can help cook or serve a meal somewhere other than in your home: at a friend's house, at a soup kitchen, at church. Parents of young children have commented that it's a treat when friends bring food to them, and eat with them at their place, so that their children can be in their normal environment and/or have naps at the usual times.

These are just a few ways I've thought of to show the generous, giving spirit of hospitality even if it's not in our homes. Do you have any more ideas you can add to my list, especially of things that don't necessarily take a lot of time, but show that you care? 

Hospitality Without Complaining

Recently some acquaintances had us over for the first time. As we settled into the living room, my husband kindly remarked that our hosts have a cozy apartment. The hostess’ instant response was to tell us why they don’t really like their apartment. Apparently the heating system is weird and the apartment is sometimes too cold, sometimes too hot. Later we also heard that the roof is not insulated. So much for cozy, I guess.⠀ ⠀

It struck me as unfortunate that instead of just responding with a “Thanks, I’m thankful for what God has provided for us! We do have a cozy apartment!” our hostess, whom we hardly knew, started off by telling us the problems with the apartment. ⠀ ⠀

hospitality complaining christian.jpg

But then I realized that too often I do the same thing. When someone tells me they like the older style of our apartment, with its high ceilings, more often than not I tell them how expensive it is to heat in the winter or how chilly it is in December and January. Instead, I could just say, “Thank you! We like the high ceilings too - they make the apartment feel so much bigger! God saved this apartment just for us. We wanted something with a big common room and in the middle of the city, and when we saw this, we thought it was a great fit. And somehow the landlord picked us as his new tenants, even though he got about 100 responses to the ad.“ (True story.) ⠀ ⠀

After all, my guests aren’t usually asking me for a heating estimate for an old apartment, or wanting to hear complaints. They’re just trying to pay a compliment. I’m not sure if I somehow feel that I am being “down-to-earth” or “humble” by complaining about what I have when I receive a compliment?⠀ ⠀

If your first response to a compliment is also to complain about problems in your house or neighbourhood, maybe you can challenge yourself with me to stop complaining about your home's quirks to your guests. Instead mention to them how thankful you are for your nest! Thankfulness sets a much better atmosphere, and gives us a natural opportunity to praise God for His goodness!

As Paul wrote, "But if we have food and shelter, we will be satisfied with that!"

Understanding Cultural Differences in Hospitality

In 2014, this Canadian/Brazilian moved from India to Germany. The extreme differences between Indian and German cultures was quite an adjustment for me! For example, in my apartment building in India, neighbours would meet me in the hall and invite me to come over for tea. But most of our German neighbours at our last apartment barely looked at us, let alone spoke with us. (One even reprimanded my friend for talking to her son when he was going out the front door. "I've taught him not to talk to strangers.") Indians expected a reply to text messages within minutes of sending the message; but Germans sometimes don't reply to a text message for a week. Indians would spontaneously ask me at 11pm if I wanted to go out for coffee, but if we invite Germans spontaneously to do something, 80% of the time they turn down the offer. Hosting and being hosted looks very different in Germany than it did in India. Cultural differences can range from entertaining to frustrating, but one thing I'm learning is that it helps to have a framework for understanding our differences.

After arriving in Germany, I finally read Foreign to Familiar, a book recommended to me by several people. The author, Sarah A. Lanier, has lived and worked cross-culturally for many years and in her book she lumps typical cultural traits into two categories: "hot culture" and "cold culture". I found her generalizations to be helpful in giving insight into relationships I have had or currently have with people of other cultures.  

Being able to identify which culture a guest (or potential guest) is from and adjust your hospitality accordingly can be very effective! For example, Foreign to Familiar encouraged me to drop in spontaneously on my friends of certain cultures, but to plan ahead with my friends of other cultures. This post will cover a few of the main ideas of her book, with the intention of applying it in the context of cross-cultural hospitality. I've broken up the post accordingly: 

  1. What are “hot” and “cold” cultures?

  2. What are the key differences between hot and cold cultures?

  3. Tips for people of cold cultures hosting people of hot cultures

  4. Tips for people of hot cultures hosting people of cold cultures

Of course, these cultural observations are not an excuse for getting to know your particular friend or neighbour and learning his or her preferences. People are unique! But if this article helps you to ask better questions sooner, and learn how to show love to your friend or acquaintance faster, I have accomplished my goal.

What are “hot” and “cold” cultures?

Lanier categorizes everyone into either "hot" or "cold" culture categories. The main difference is that for hot (sometimes rural/tribal) cultures the ruling value is relationships, while for cold (sometimes urban) cultures, the ruling value is efficiency. These cultural differences may have developed because of the weather and economies of various parts of the world. In areas where the weather was warm, people lived off the land and were very interdependent. In areas where the weather was colder, people developed a more task-oriented, independent nature and more industrialized economies. In any case, there are many distinct traits that bind these cultures together worldwide.

Hot cultures include:

People from the southern USA, South and Central/Latin Americans, Israelis with a Middle Eastern background, Russians, indigenous Alaskans, people of the Andes and Himalayas, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Pacific Islanders, Africans, Mediterraneans (except Jewish Israelis), Middle Easterners and most of the rest of the world not included in the cold cultures list.

Cold cultures include:

People from the Northern USA and Canada, Israelis of European background, Swiss and Europeans living north of the Swiss, Caucasians from New Zealand, Australians, southern Brazilians, South Africans and areas largely settled by Europeans (like Argentina).

Are you from a hot or a cold culture?
Was your last international guest from a hot or a cold culture?

What are the key differences between people of hot cultures and people of cold cultures?

Relationship orientation vs. task orientation

People from hot cultures tend to build their lives around people and relationships, while people from cold cultures tend to plan in terms of tasks and timelines.

Indirect communication vs. direct communication

People from hot cultures tend to prefer indirect communication and don't want to harm a relationship by giving an answer someone does not want to hear. Cold cultures tend to prioritize direct communication because it "gets the job done"!

Group Identity vs. Individualism

Hot cultures raise children who see themselves  as a part of a larger group (family, school, church, etc. ) People from hot cultures will often maintain very close contact with their extended family, often living inter-generationally under the same roof throughout their adult lives. Cold cultures tend to think more individualistically—"I'll do it my way"—and raise their children to live on their own and make decisions more independently. 

Inclusion vs. Privacy

Because of the group mentality of people from hot cultures, they automatically expect to be included or include others in whatever is happening in their presence. People from cold cultures tend to be more individualistic, meaning that they expect to be given a measure of privacy or to be asked if someone else can join the group. 

Tips for people of cold cultures hosting people of hot cultures

If you're someone from a cold culture who's seeking to bridge gaps and make friendships with people of warm cultures, these ideas may help. 

  • Small talk is important in relationships with people of hot cultures. “Getting straight to business” is the cold-culture, task-oriented way of visiting with someone, but hot culture people prioritize a feel-good atmosphere.

  • Your hot culture friend will be willing to flex his schedule or time for your relationship, and will likely expect the same in return.

  • Good hospitality is best offered in your home, because a restaurant is impersonal (there may be some exceptions to this rule — Chinese people often take guests to a restaurant). An overnight guest from a warm culture may feel hurt if you put him or her up in a hotel instead of at your home.

  • Feel free to spontaneously drop in on your warm culture friend, but don’t expect that he will necessarily drop everything he is doing when you arrive. He may just invite you along to do what he was already doing (going to pick up the kids, watering the garden, cooking supper) when you dropped in.

  • Avoid yes/no questions to avoid embarrassing your warm culture friend in any way. Being friendly is essential, as is phrasing questions in a way that they don’t offend by their directness.

  • Hot culture guests may value making you feel good more than telling you the truth. It might be difficult to tell when someone of a hot culture needs to say “no” but is saying “yes” because he or she wants to preserve your relationship. People of hot cultures will almost always say “yes” to a direct question because they feel rude saying “no”. One way to overcome this and find out the truth about a situation may be to ask indirectly — go through another person to ask indirect questions around a topic that needs discussing. (See Lanier's book for more ideas on this subject.)

  • People from hot cultures often enjoy having someone with them at all times. Lanier wrote about being hosted in Africa, where the hostess purposely put another guest in the room “so you won’t have to be alone.” I have noticed this with Indian friends too, that eating meals on their own is very difficult for them — they would much rather eat with someone else. The loneliness of a hot culture person living in a cold culture can be overwhelming, because he or she is not used to living life and making so many decisions on his or her own. Being aware of this can help you to offer companionship or help in ways your hot culture friend really appreciates.

  • A longer-term guest from a hot culture who is staying with you may assume he or she is included in anything that is going on, and may expect that everything will be shared or done together. Be careful — your guest may feel slighted if you mention something you’ll be doing without intending to invite him or her along.

  • Food in particular is seen as something be shared. Taking food along to share with people of a hot culture (even if that is just taking food to share in the lunchroom with your Filipino or Indian coworkers) builds relationships. In a hot culture, Lanier generalizes that “no one is left out, no one is lonely.” Possessions are often shared in hot cultures; it’s not “my” bike, it’s “our” bike.

  • People of hot cultures may appreciate being included, even spontaneously and even by a stranger. The author wrote about how she was eating alone at a restaurant, saw a Mexican family eating at a nearby table, and asked if she could eat with them. They thought it was completely normal to eat together and were in fact happy that she had asked to eat with them. Asking someone of a warm culture for a ride if they are going where you are going is almost expected — they would think it strange for you to go somewhere on your own, anyway!

  • Usually in hot cultures, the host takes care of his overnight guest’s expenses, and the guest brings a gift. As a cold culture host of a warm culture guest, you might even consider giving your guest some spending money if he or she is coming from another country.

  • In most cultures, when you invite someone out to eat, it means you’re paying the bill.

  • Whole families are usually included in events outside of the workplace. People from warm cultures don’t really understand “adults only” events in the same way people of cold cultures would. When you invite your hot culture contacts to spend time with you outside of working hours, know that they might assume they can bring their families along.

Tips for people of hot cultures hosting people of cold cultures

Probably most of the readers of this blog are coming from cold (ie: Western European or North American) cultures rather than hot cultures. However, here are some points for you, the hot culture host, to consider when hosting someone from a cold culture.

  • Usually a friend from a cold culture feels respected when you honour his or her time by being punctual. Your friend probably thinks in terms of tasks to be completed that day, and may have other things on his or her schedule.

  • Cold culture guests appreciate planning and advance invitations. Their refusal of an invitation may not be because they don't want to come — it may simply be because your last-minute invitation for Saturday lunch interfered with their efficient Saturday plans prepared days in advance.

  • What your host or guest considers honest communication, you may consider too direct. Try not to take offence, and be grateful that your cold culture friend is telling you what he or she truly wants! If you ask a preference, you may not get the answer you hoped for, but you will usually find out the truth.

  • If your cold culture guest is staying with you overnight or for an extended period, he or she may enjoy having some time alone. People of cold cultures generally appreciate privacy and/or a private room to sleep in when possible. (I will always remember how a Brazilian friend asked me to stay with her while her husband was away, and then assumed I would sleep in her bed with her. I politely asked if I could stay in the guest room instead. She did not mind my request, but in her warm culture way, she had assumed we'd sleep in the same room and same bed.)

  • It’s good to preface any questions that might be taken as intrusions with words like “Do you have a minute?” or “Is this a good time for a question?”

  • People of cold cultures may or or may not include family members in invitations to socialize outside the workplace. Be sure to indicate whether spouses and children are also invited to parties you are hosting.

  • If you are staying with a cold culture hosts, be aware that in cold cultures, hospitality is often seen as something that takes the host’s full attention, whether it is for an afternoon or for days at at time. For this reason, asking to stay with a cold culture host for an extended period of time might sound overwhelming to him or her.

I hope that some of what you have found here will be helpful in your next encounter with a guest or host of a different culture. Even as I edited my notes again today, I thanked God again for His grace which can cover our cultural foibles. I realize how "cold" some of my attitudes must have seemed in warm India, and yet God allowed me to develop deep relationships with Indian friends even with little formal cross-cultural preparation. Tips like these can help, but when your heart is filled with God's love for bringing the stranger in, people will sense that no matter your level of cross-cultural savvy. I thought of Jodie's wise words when she shared about Hospitality to Chinese Muslims

"I think humility in cross-cultural relationships is realizing that we are always capable of making mistakes or being misunderstood, but refusing to let either of those concerns stop us from building relationships anyway."

May these thoughts remind us to be humble and open to other cultures' ways of relating to one another. May they simply help us to express His love more clearly and more understandably to people who are on the outside needing love.

Four Ways to Make Serving Meals Easier

Last year I wrote a post about Showing Hospitality Without Cooking because serving meals is not the only form of hospitality. However, we do talk a lot on The Serviette about sharing meals because it is one of the most effective ways to get to know others and to let them get to know you. Plus, everyone has to eat each day—why not do so together? 

My husband and I have months when we have lots of guests, and then months when we find ourselves juggling more responsibilities than usual and have fewer guests over for meals than we'd like. It's easy for me to make excuses as to why we can't have guests on a particular evening. However, here are four ways I'm learning to make serving meals to guests more doable, even on a weeknight or with short notice.

Intentionally make a simple meal.

When it's just the two of us, sometimes I try time-consuming things like making my own tortillas or stuffing my own cannelloni or putting six bowls of toppings on the table. But when we're hosting more than a couple of people or when I don't have a lot of time, I try to choose one-dish meals or at least one-course meals which are easy to scale. You can buy canned (gasp!) instead of fresh, or buy ready-made instead of making your own, if it makes the difference between you having the energy to have guests or not. And am I the only one who thinks soup with a hearty bread and cheese side counts as a full meal? I even serve frozen or boxed pizza to guests once in a while. We often serve chocolate with coffee after the meal, which gives our guests something sweet without us having to plan a dessert. Fruit can be another easy "dessert". 

Let your guests help you.

Depending on the culture of your guest, he or she may offer to bring food along or to help you clean up after the meal. If you feel comfortable doing so, take your guest up on his offer! You can chat over vegetable chopping just as easily as you can chat over coffee in the living room. We had one friend in our last city who came over regularly and was particularly good about noticing what needed to be done. If she walked in and we hadn’t set the table yet, she started setting it. I tried to learn to make the best of her help by keeping the dishes or disposables consistently in the same places so that she felt comfortable opening the cupboards and lending a hand. And speaking of disposables...

Do what you can to reduce clean-up time.

Last year we started using disposable dishes for parties or large groups because we realized that some nights after guests left, we were spending over an hour cleaning up dishes. For us, going to bed an hour earlier was surely worth the extra cost of simple paper plates and cups. In Germany most everything can be recycled, which makes us feel better about using disposables from time to time. This year, we moved to a bigger apartment and were able to buy a dishwasher, and this has significantly shortened the clean-up time after guests and we buy way fewer disposables. Another way to save on clean-up time is to wash the dishes together while the guest is still with you. Sometimes if we have a guest who stays extra long, I get up and start cleaning while we're chatting. (I think sometimes it's OK to show your guest that it's getting late and you have things you need to do.)

Remember why you're serving the meal.

The true heart behind hospitality isn’t to impress your guests, it’s to love them. When you have the right heart attitude about what you’re doing, you’ll be surprised how much easier the rest gets.

Interview #7: Showing Hospitality to Muslims in the United States

Last year when I heard about Elizabeth, a Christian who lives in the USA and regularly hosts Muslims in her home, I immediately hoped I could talk to her and learn more about her experiences. I was pleased to be able to connect with her, and have her graciously share about her experiences being a friend to Muslims in the USA. I hope you are as encouraged as I was by Elizabeth and her husband's love for people who are culturally and religiously different than them.

Elizabeth, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your family?

Sure. I am a follower of Jesus and love to teach the Bible. I have an international background: I was born in Canada, lived in the States, moved to Singapore for my middle and high school years and then returned to the States for university. My husband and I have been married for ten years and have three sweet, bright kiddos ages eight, six and three. Before our kiddos were born, I taught ESL for adult refugees with a refugee resettlement agency. Now I homeschool our little people and as of last fall, I’m teaching ESL on the weekends—now, for Muslim women fleeing political persecution.

From hearing a bit about your background, I can imagine that you probably met people of other cultures as a child and developed a natural curiosity about other religions. But I still don’t hear every day about Christians who regularly have Muslims in their homes. Is this something both you and your husband have an interest in? How did you get started hosting Muslims?

Before we met, my husband and I each came to know and love Muslims. My husband spent a year studying in a Muslim country. During college, I went to Paris, France for part of one summer where we gave away French-Arabic Bibles and films about Jesus in Muslim immigrant quarters of the city. The diverse reactions of people to Scripture struck me: some women eagerly tucked copies of the Bible into their flowing robes, one man angrily threw it into the gutter, some children’s eyes glowed while holding onto a Jesus movie. God used these interactions to make my heart eager to provide folks in communities like these with an opportunity to learn what the Bible says about Jesus.

My husband and I met while doing our master's degrees and we soon realized we shared a similar passion for loving folks from other cultures. One of the ways my husband and I got to know each other was by attending the parties we each threw as single people! We loved people, we loved providing spaces for folks to get to know one another, we loved celebrating life—we loved parties! So, it was natural when we married for us to host Muslims in our new home. 

For our first Christmas after we were married, we hosted a large dinner with Muslim and Christian friends. We learned a lot that season—about providing separate spaces for men and women, about different cultural views of time, about making preparations, and about the stress hosting puts on a marriage! Since that first Christmas party, we’ve developed family rhythms that have reduced our stress and blessed our times hosting Muslim friends.

When you were living abroad in Muslim countries or Muslim neighbourhoods, I can see that you would naturally meet Muslims. But now that you live in the USA, how do you meet Muslims? Have you intentionally chosen to live in a Muslim-dense neighbourhood or city for this reason? 

We do live in a part of the States with large communities of Muslims. Our neighborhood, however, is primarily African American and Latino. My husband and I have met Muslims in many ways: at the library, at swim lessons, visiting Muslim-owned businesses, attending events, inter-faith gatherings and classes at mosques or Muslim community centers. In addition, I taught English for a refugee resettlement agency and many of my students were Muslim. Both my husband and I partnered with a friendship center in a South Asian part of our city before we married. At the friendship center, we helped tutor Muslims in English; my husband also led the kid’s summer program. 

"Our genuine interest in our friends’ cultures and backgrounds opens doors for us to invite them into experiencing our holidays and beliefs."

We always are eager to attend community events that our Muslim friends host—Ramadan dinners and other holiday celebrations, henna parties, cooking classes, plays, etc. Our genuine interest in our friends’ cultures and backgrounds opens doors for us to invite them into experiencing our holidays and beliefs. We know of some churches who discourage their members from attending events at Muslim centers. However, we believe all humans are created in God’s image and therefore every culture has parts that reflect this beauty of God’s image. Delighting in those beautiful parts of our Muslim friends’ cultures has been an important way to develop mutual trust.

As Westerners in our home country, we have a unique opportunity to welcome Muslims who are immigrants or refugees. As one of my Muslim friends said, “When you come to a new country, you can figure out where to get food and shelter, you can figure out how to speak the language; what you can’t get by yourself is welcome.” 

Is it ever hard for you to find something in common with your Muslim neighbours or guests? Do you have to kind of “work at” having things in common, or does it come fairly naturally? 

Yes, there have been times when conversations have been awkward. But that’s ok! People can tell whether we’re treating them with kindness and respect. Even if there are challenges in communicating, they can tell if we’re interacting out of love. In those awkward times, I often talk about food and ask how to cook something from my new friend’s culture. [Laughs.] 

"In most cases, I find I have a great deal in common with Muslim women."

In most cases, however, I find I have a great deal in common with Muslim women. My Muslim friends are very concerned about the moral environment in which their children are growing up. They feel the press of the Western culture around them, pushing their children towards choices against God’s ways. I feel that same concern and have many opportunities to share about how our family intentionally seeks to build wisdom and love for God into our children. Muslim friends are interested to hear how we teach our kiddos the Bible, to pray, sing and memorize Scripture. Our Muslim friends intentionally invest time teaching their children to read the Qur’an and pray. This concern we share for our children has been the catalyst for many significant conversations. 

Other good conversations can arise from talking about holidays—either explaining my Christian holidays or asking questions about my Muslim friends’ holidays. Listening well to my friends and asking good questions about their traditions and beliefs can lead to excellent conversations in which I am able to contribute truth.

This is a wonderful website with helpful conversation ideas for speaking in particular to Muslim women.  The author, Joy, is a wise, loving woman—I recommend everything she writes!

I love the thought and planning Joy puts into conversational topics, to try to lead regular conversations in a more meaningful direction. Thank you for sharing this resource! Would you say that you have close Muslim friends? How is a friendship with a Muslim different than other friendships that you have?

I have one particularly close Muslim friend among some warm friendships in a Muslim community. This woman is a thoughtful, bright, hospitable, accomplished woman who is zealous for justice. She is a leader in her community who spurs others to action. She loves her family and community. We have much in common. We both have voiced how precious and important our friendship is to one another. 

"I do not criticize my Muslim friend's religion. I do, however, ask lots of questions. And, I always try to offer her beautiful truths about Jesus."

Because we share similar passions, in many ways I am just as at home with this Muslim woman as I am with close Christian friends. A difference would be that I long for her to know the freedom and joy of trusting Jesus with her life. I long for her to be sure of her place in Heaven by asking Jesus to make the way for her. Whenever we are together, I am listening for places in which I can share encouragement, comfort and truth with her from God’s Word. As I do with my other friends, I listen carefully to her burdens and tell her I’m praying for her. I share with her the ways that God is working in my life, guiding me and answering my prayers.

I do not criticize her religion. I do, however, ask lots of questions. And, I always try to offer her beautiful truths about Jesus. 

christian meals for muslims

How often do you have Muslims in your home? What do these occasions look like? What’s your preferred situation or ideal size of group for hosting? 

We generally have Muslims in our home for holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, July 4th. We’ve also hosted baby showers, tea parties and birthday parties. Occasionally we’ll have one Muslim family over for dinner. 

The sizes of these events have varied widely. We’ve had small gatherings, we’ve had over 40 of my refugee students and their family members packed into our townhome for holidays. Most often, our gatherings will range from 10 to 20 guests including kiddos. 

I think because of the importance of community for most Muslims, it is most comfortable for everyone if there are three or four families present. However, some of my most tender moments with Muslim women have been when we are alone together—perhaps the other guests have left or we’ve intentionally met one-on-one. Therefore, I think that there isn’t necessarily an “ideal” group size. 

Are you usually the only Christians at these gatherings, or do you invite a mixture of Muslim and Christian guests?

We like to have a mix of Muslim and Christian guests. We are careful to invite Christians who are sensitive to folks from other cultures and love Muslims. It is important for Muslims to not only experience Christian hospitality, but also to see how people in the Christian community interact with one another in unity and love.

I spoke with someone recently who said that he knows some Westerners who are afraid of having a Muslim in their home. Do ever think there is reason for fear? How would you encourage someone who has never hosted a Muslim before and is feeling a little uncertain about doing so? 

As a fellow follower of Jesus once said to me, “We have a choice; we can choose to have fear or to have faith.” Our Western cultures shout at us to fear Muslims. Yet, the Bible is clear: “Perfect love casts out fear.” We must choose: will we go on the path of fear or will we go on the path of faith that the Bible is telling us the truth and Jesus really meant for us to love our neighbors as ourselves? 

I love hearing about how you and your husband love your Muslim neighbours together, but many Christians don’t have a spouse or at least don’t have a spouse who wants to host people of other religions with them. What are your suggestions for people in these situations?

One important aspect of loving Muslims is understanding gender relations. When we are seeking to befriend Muslims, it’s really important to remember that men befriend men and women befriend women. A Western woman who pursues friendship with a Muslim man will be viewed as promiscuous. A Western man who pursues friendship with a Muslim woman will be viewed as dishonorable. There really is no gray area here.

Therefore, if a husband is not interested in hosting Muslims, it would be very natural for the wife to host Muslim ladies in her home. The ladies could have afternoon tea parties or a mid-morning cooking exchange together. This single-gender invitation is very natural to Muslims. For a husband who does not have a wife who is interested in hosting Muslims, his best choice would be to find a “third space”—a restaurant or coffee shop—to meet with his male Muslim friend. 

For singles who would like to reach entire families who are Muslim, it is important that they partner with other Christians—ideally families. For example, we have had single friends partner with our family in hosting Muslims. They have helped in significant ways to prepare for dinners or events by bringing food, providing rides to Muslim friends or helping our kiddos. Once our Muslim guests arrive, these single Christians have spent time with Muslims of their respective gender in our home. Partnering with a Christian family protects the honor of the single Christian people by preventing any miscommunication about their intentions. Since our Western culture is so saturated with promiscuity, it is imperative that Christians demonstrate great modesty and care when interacting with Muslims of the opposite gender.

Can you talk a bit about your children’s involvement in your hospitality?  How much do you involve or not involve them in events you host in your home?

Our kiddos have played different roles at different times in extending hospitality. Since our children are generally outgoing, they usually are enthused to have folks over—especially if the families have children their ages. At our parties, we like to have activities that children enjoy, so our kids are simply having fun alongside the Muslim kiddos. Decorating Christmas cookies, sharing our family Advent calendar, opening a present, having an Easter egg hunt, distributing Easter baskets, singing a Thanksgiving song—all of these things are parts of parties that our children love and share with Muslim kiddos. 

When my daughter was four, she wanted to share the Christmas story with some Muslim guests. With my help, she cut out Christmas card pictures and wrote out the Christmas story for our guests. They were delighted to hear her telling the story and we were thrilled that she was so eager to share the amazing miracle of Jesus coming to earth! 

"We encourage our kids to join us in hospitality to Muslims, but we do not require their enthusiastic presence."

That said, we do not force our kids’ participation. Another year at Thanksgiving, one of my sons was feeling bashful. When guests arrived, he hovered at the top of the stairs. By the time appetizers were finished, he had made his way to the bottom of the stairs; and by the time guests left, he was giving out hugs. We encouraged him to join us, but we did not require his enthusiastic presence. 

We want our hosting times to be delightful to our children, not a burden. We invite them to be our partners in hospitality and encourage them with how important their role is, but we do not try to force them to be involved.

An important way we help our children is by having another Christian family or couple present with whom they feel comfortable. There are times during a dinner or party when my husband or I are in deep conversation or busily slicing pie and cannot be as accessible to our children as usual. Having another set of loving Christian adults present for them gives them safety and comfort (and gives me peace of mind!) while simultaneously allowing my husband and me to invest in Muslim guests.  

You often invite Muslim guests to your home for Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas and explain to the group the deeper meaning of the holiday, through a reading or a song or a short talk. I think that some Christians might not even be aware that Muslims would be open to these kinds of conversations or presentations. Have you ever had guests who were not willing to listen?

We have learned that inviting our Muslim friends into our holiday celebrations provides very natural pathways to sharing truths from the Bible. We simply are sharing our traditions with our friends and this does not offend them. They know it is just part of what our family does and that we are opening our home to share it with them. 

For example, my husband always reads a passage of Scripture and prays in the name of Jesus before the meal. Of the many, many Muslim guests in our home over the years, only one woman felt nervous about this until her husband told her he didn’t mind. Then this woman was happy for my husband to read from the Bible and pray. 

At Christmas parties and teas, I have taken one symbol from our Advent calendar and explained its significance in the Old Testament and how it points to Jesus. (I created an Advent calendar for our family that is very intentional in tracing how events in the Old Testament were teaching important truths about Jesus.) Even when we haven’t shared an explicit devotional from our Advent calendar, it has sparked excellent conversations since it hangs prominently in our living room. As Muslim friends have asked about its significance and what the different symbols mean, we have been able to explain beautiful truths about Jesus. 

Another tradition we have at Christmas parties is to give gifts. This provides a lovely opportunity to explain (often to an eager group of children with parents looking on) about the wise men visiting Jesus as the reason we give gifts. Hearing about the wise men can be very precious to some Muslims since the magi may have come from their home country. 

At a couple of our Easter parties, we have shared from the “Resurrection eggs”—a tradition we sometimes use with our children to retell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Again, we are opening our home to invite our friends into our traditions and they are interested to hear. At one Easter party for my refugee students, we invited an African Christian friend to share the story of Easter in a language spoken by many of the refugees. When our friend began, one Muslim man and woman left the room because they did not want to hear. However, they were not rude nor did they try to stop anyone else from listening. They simply left for a few minutes and then returned to enjoy the rest of the party when the Easter story concluded.

"Our experience has been that most Muslims respect Christians who take their faith seriously."

Our experience has been that most Muslims respect Christians who take their faith seriously. They see a commonality between us. They hold their holy book in high esteem and try to learn to read it in Arabic. We hold the Holy Bible in high esteem and diligently study it. They strive to pray five times a day. We pray many times a day. They are deeply concerned that their children stay on the straight path. We are deeply invested in guiding our children on the path of blessing through introducing them to Jesus, teaching them the Bible and how to pray. Our Muslim friends are concerned to give gifts to the poor. We serve and love our neighbors and those in need. Our Muslim friends see something of their religious concern in how we live and rather than our different religions driving us apart, it gives us a deeper understanding and empathy for one another. 

Have you ever been turned down when you offered to pray with a Muslim friend?

One of the most beautiful ways we can show our relationship with God is by praying for our Muslim friends. One of my favorite memories with Muslim friends was at a baby shower for two beloved Muslim mommies. I shared a devotional with the ladies about love from I Corinthians 13. It was such a joy to share these amazing truths with these ladies—many of whom had never heard how God loved them this way and could give them power to love their children this way. At the end of the devotional, I prayed a special blessing over the guest-of-honor mommies. The Muslim women were able to hear how I talked with my loving Father in Heaven; how I was able to come to him without fear, full of confidence that he was listening to my requests. By praying for my friends in their presence, they heard first-hand what my relationship with God was like. This is a wonderful way to bless our Muslim friends. Over the years my husband and I have only been rejected a handful of times when we’ve offered to pray for our Muslim friends. 

I love hearing how God has given you such great opportunities to love Muslims right in your own city in the States. To conclude, what’s your favourite memory of opening your home to Muslims?

There have been many memorable times—like the July 4th party water fight my husband and a Muslim daddy had with all of the kiddos in the backyard, or the Christmas party when we discovered our guests’ children trying to sled down our stairs on our snow disc or when one of our guest kiddos sneezed on most of the Christmas cookies while decorating. Besides fun (and funny) times, we’ve seen times when God has opened the way for deep conversation, prayer and blessing. One of my most precious memories is of a Muslim friend who was struggling with her identity and in her marriage. When other guests had left, she poured out her heart to me. With tears in our eyes, I was able to share with her from Scripture how God viewed her—that she was created in His image, that she was intentionally knit together by His hand, that He loved her. This is what we live for—to be channels of God’s love to those around us. It is a beautiful privilege when God allows us to be his hands, his feet, his voice to share this love with others. 

I'm so glad Elizabeth was willing to take the time to share with us on The Serviette. Hearing her stories and insights taught me new things about purposefully, intentionally opening our homes to people of other faiths. Whether you're married with small children like Elizabeth, or in a totally different season of life, I hope you can pull relevant ideas and truths from her experiences and reach out to Muslims with a spirit of love, not fear. I hope you're inspired and see that God can give you, too, deep friendships and meaningful conversations with Muslim neighbors, coworkers and friends as you show them hospitality. 

Reader Tips for Hospitality in 2017

As part of our year-end giveaway at The Serviette, we asked our readers to give their best hospitality tips. Here are some of their top ideas on hospitality:

  1. Act now: If you keep telling God you're waiting until you have a bigger or nicer house to practice hospitality, it's not likely that you'll start hosting guests even when your physical circumstances have changed. Hospitality is a matter of the heart. What's most important is not your house or your cooking; it's your heart to obey God and love people. Don't wait until everything is perfect to show hospitality, because there will always be a reason to not have someone over.

  2. Be brave: Pick up the phone, send the email or whatever it takes to conquer your fear and invite guests before you can change your mind. Hosting guests can take courage, but it's always worth it!

  3. Keep it simple. Simplify the menu while being respectful of cultural and food preferences. Simple is easier for you and makes people more relaxed! You don't have to have people over for a full meal; no one objects to being invited over for coffee or dessert. Use paper serviettes instead of cloth ones. You want your guests to feel loved and cozy, but that doesn't mean you have to make hosting complicated.

  4. Make it a group project: It's OK to have everyone bring some food to share. It's easier for you, and everyone sees at least one thing on the table that he or she likes to eat! Or, have everyone bring an ingredient and cook the meal together. One hostess wrote that she's been amazed at the conversations that develop and barriers that are removed by cooking together, as opposed to just eating together.

  5. Clean up ahead of time: Any extra preparation you can do before planned guests arrive, like washing up pots and pans, makes you freer to enjoy your time with your guests.

  6. Be culturally sensitive: When hosting people with little experience trying new foods, it's also OK to order food from a restaurant that serves food they are accustomed to eating. This shows honour, in that you thought about what your guests would like, and reduces potential stress, because you don't have to try to replicate a dish that you won't make as well as they do. If you live in a culture that is not your own, learn how locals show hospitality, but also consider adding your own twist when you host them. For example, one reader wrote that her neighbours always serve coffee, so when they come to her house, she serves them coffee from her home country—a little twist on what they're accustomed to.

  7. Watch your tongue. Be careful how you talk to your guests, or what you talk about with your guests. You can set a gracious atmosphere in your home by how you choose to use your tongue.

  8. Let your pretty be practical: Don't use anything tall in your table centrepieces, so your guests' view is not blocked. Making the house smell nice doesn't have to be expensive. One reader says she boils cinnamon sticks and cloves in water on top of the stove before a party, to fragrance the air!

  9. Have someone over at least once a week: it's an excellent motivator to clean the house every week and then to keep it neat and tidy! One hostess with three small children wrote that even though sometimes it feels like cleaning up and hosting once a week is a huge job, once it's done, she's never regretted hosting guests. Once the guests leave, she starts thinking about whom to invite the next week. That way the house never gets too disorganized before she has to tidy up again!

  10. Encourage drop-in guests: Have an open door policy, especially with your neighbours. The more chances you have to practice hospitality, the easier it becomes and the more you want to do it. Allowing drop-in guests helps you realize that it's OK if the house isn't spotless or if you don't have great food on hand. Spontaneous guests help you become more comfortable and allow to develop a more natural hospitality style.

What stood out to me the most about these hospitable people's responses is that they make opening their home to outsiders a regular part of their routine, but they know it doesn't have to be a grand affair every time. Many of them focused their tips on how to simplify hosting so it can happen more often. Remembering the heart and motivation behind hospitality makes all the difference, so you don't get overly distracted with the details of meal planning or clean-up. What worked well for you in your hospitality world in 2016? How will you change up your hospitality routines in 2017? Here's to a year full of open doors, which lead to open hearts!