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!