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!

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.

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. 

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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. 

Safe Sundays in Korea - Sharing Hope through Hospitality

Today we have a cross-cultural Sunday hospitality story from Kara, whose American style of hospitality has been stretched as she has practiced hospitality in China and now in Korea. In Korea she's seeing how simple hospitality gives people the opportunity to open up about their hurts and find hope. Her story provides insights for anyone seeking to connect with a Korean friend or a friend of another culture at a deeper level.

"Kara realized that Asian hospitality is more formal than American hospitality."

Kara grew up in the middle of America, where hospitality was casual and comfortable. Meals were plain and desserts weren't fussy. The important thing was simply that people were always welcome around the table. Moving to China after college to teach English, Kara realized that Asian hospitality is usually more formal than American hospitality. However, she carried her more casual American style of hosting with her to China, often inviting students over to her tiny apartment to speak English and eat platefuls of brownies or banana bread. (Hint: both desserts are almost always a win in any culture!)

When Kara married her Korean husband Peter, whom she met in China, they wanted to create a home that would be open to people needing a safe place to talk, to laugh or to cry. Their first home together was in China and later they moved to her husband's home town in Korea, where they started both their family and a small English service at the church next door. 

Peter, Kara and their children

Peter, Kara and their children

Korea is a place of great beauty, as seen in the rolling hills, in the art of the traditional food and in the faces of the gorgeous people. But the beauty of Korea is often weighted down by what Kara describes as a photo filter that increases the shadows, darkening everything. It took a while for Kara to put her finger on the overwhelming oppression in Korea. In fact, it was only when she felt the oppression come over her, too, that she recognized it for what it was. There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over the country. Kara sees it on the subway, on the street and on the playground. Hopelessness peers out from under forced smiles and concentrated faces.

"There is a deep, undeniably heavy hopelessness that hangs over Korea."

This hopelessness stems from the stressful everyday life of Koreans. From the time children are able to walk, they are placed in a school environment and shoved into literacy and achievement. By high school, students study from morning to midnight. It's a gruelling schedule that seeks to open up opportunities to attend the best universities, and therefore to get the best jobs in Korea. Once students graduate, they are pushed into an even more gruelling workforce where most people work 12 to 14 hour days, 6 days a week, just to make ends meet. This hectic schedule means families rarely see each other. There aren't many alternatives to this extreme way of life.

A Korean church building

A Korean church building

You would think that for churched Koreans it might be different, but unfortunately for many, the church has become a place that increases stresses instead of providing a refuge from them. Competition and deep hierarchical divisions from outside the church are perpetuated in the church as well. Many churches are more like social clubs than places of worship. For some, church attendance is another guilty obligation. For others, church is an unsuccessful formula for a happier life. For most, church doesn’t offer a real solution to the hopelessness.

"In Korea's honour-based culture, being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved."

Koreans tend to consider pastors (including Peter, since he is an ordained pastor) as more holy and elite. In contrast, the Bible says that Jesus Himself “came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The implications of Jesus’ example of servanthood are profound for people of any culture, but for Koreans, whose society is based on understanding honour, being served by someone who is above them in the hierarchy carries a deep significance. Being served can be an especially powerful way to feel loved in Korean culture. 

A Korean church steeple

A Korean church steeple

Kara and her husband have found that inviting people from church into their home helps to break down hierarchical barriers. When church friends come into their apartment and see her husband playing with their kids or doing their dishes, it powerfully illustrates how Jesus turns human ideas of hierarchy upside down and calls believers to serve each other. Eating and sharing mundane aspects of life with a pastor's family has a powerful effect on guests, and puts them in a safe place.

Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Peter and Kara's entryway on a Sunday afternoon

Almost every Sunday,  Kara and Peter invite the small English congregation to join them for food and conversation in their home after their 2:00pm service. Ten to fifteen people slip off their shoes and gather around the table. Peter and Kara joke that they are "boring" people, and that their intention is not to entertain or impress anyone with their hospitality. They simply want to provide a safe place to serve and be served. Their goal is to have conversations that offer hope.

A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

A Sunday afternoon gathering at Peter and Kara's apartment

"Using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors."

The conversation in their home on Sundays is in English, although most of the guests are Korean. Interestingly, Kara and Peter have found that using English as the common language opens unexpected conversational doors. This is because the Korean language is deeply tied to the cultural concepts of hierarchy, age and status. It can be difficult for Koreans (Peter included) to talk freely about deep, heart matters in Korean. But around their table they've noticed that guests often over-share when speaking English. Speaking English with Koreans in their home breaks down barriers.

For Kara, one of the most significant Sundays so far was when a new church friend sat at their table and shared with her husband that he doesn't believe in God. It was not faith but obligation and habit that had led him to serve in the church. In Kara and Peter's home he finally felt comfortable enough to admit this. Through simple hospitality, he found a place to unload, disarm, and just be without needing to impress people or compete for attention. He continues to come regularly to the Sunday service and to the fellowship time afterward.

Hopelessness still hangs heavy over Korea, but Kara and Peter are learning how Christian hospitality provides hope to the oppressed. Cross-cultural hospitality doesn't take fancy desserts or a fully adapted cultural understanding. It doesn't even require fluency in a common language. There is something significant about welcoming people into what seems insignificant: our everyday lives. Sometimes the most powerful way to bring hope into hopeless situations is simply to open our doors and let people in. 

Interview #3B: Receiving Hospitality from Chinese Muslims

On Tuesday we started this interview with Jodie, an American who spent 4.5 years in a Muslim minority region of western China while her husband was doing ethnology research there. In Part A of this interview, Jodie talked about showing hospitality to Chinese Muslims, and we learned about some of the food preferences and customs of Muslims. In Part B, she's sharing about the hospitality they were shown by Muslims, and giving some ideas for having deeper conversations with Muslim friends. Thank you, Jodie, for sharing your story and pictures with us! —Julie

Jodie with two new friends at a wedding

Jodie with two new friends at a wedding

When we started talking about showing hospitality to Muslims, you told me that you were a guest of Chinese Muslim friends more often than you were a hostess. How would you describe the hospitality you were shown?

We felt very honoured as their guests. Whenever we visited someone, we were always served tea and something to eat, even if it wasn't a meal time. Sometimes I had to let my best friend in the village know that I would really rather talk with her than eat, as I would stop by to visit and she would spend most of the time in the kitchen cooking for me! They are very generous, servant-hearted people.

You talked about a large festival or group meal that was held in the village. Could you tell us more about that festival and the meal it involved?

Yes, that was the most interesting experience we had being hosted by Muslims! To give you some background, the population of the village where we were staying was about 2,000 and almost all of the residents are of the Bonan Muslim minority group. They are Sufis (Muslim mystics) and have a highly revered shiek for their spiritual leader. The current shiek is the fourth generation of shieks in that village, and the way people treated him reminded me of how people must have treated Jesus! The residents of the village believe the shieks have power to intercede on their behalf to Allah, and therefore the biggest events in the village each year are memorial festivals held on the anniversary of each of the previous shiek's deaths. Besides the 2,000 regular residents of the village, about 3,000 people from outside the village would attend the festivals, too—it was like the Chinese version of the feeding the 5,000!

Preparations for the festival would begin days before with the slaughtering of lambs and cows by the men, and the making of steamed buns by the women. It was amazing how everyone in the village knew what to do, without anyone clearly being in charge.

Preparing baozi buns for the festival

Preparing baozi buns for the festival

Stirring large pots of beef before the festival

Stirring large pots of beef before the festival

Women preparing meat for the festival

Women preparing meat for the festival

There seemed to be a general understanding and acceptance of each one's role in the festival. The young men prepared the first course of the meal (small plates of dried fruit and nuts) and they served all the courses of the meal. The older men served the tea and refilled the cups with hot water several times during the meal. We learned that keeping tea cups full is a very important part of taking care of guests! The next course was steamed buns with a sweet filling. Then plates with slices of tender cooked beef, and sausages made from lamb intestines. After that, steamed buns with beef and carrot filling. Then a bowl of beef noodle soup, followed by another bowl of soup made of miscellaneous lamb organs—nothing is wasted! After the meal every person recieved a plastic bag with a large round flat fried bread and a slice of beef to take home. 

Young men filling bowls of dates

Young men filling bowls of dates

Dried fruit and nuts

Dried fruit and nuts

The Feeding of the 5,000, western China style

The Feeding of the 5,000, western China style

Bread and meat to be taken home by each guest

Bread and meat to be taken home by each guest

Were you considered guests at the festivals or could you also get involved in preparations?

After attending several festivals and learning the routine, our family was able to participate in the various serving roles and then eat in the last meal, with the extended family of the shiek. It was nice to be able to serve them and not always be the foreigners receiving special treatment. 

Filling cups of tea to serve

Filling cups of tea to serve

You were also hosted various times by the revered shiek himself. Could you tell us a bit about that?

The shiek was a few years younger than my husband and me, and had three children almost the exact ages of our children. We connected with him right away and appreciated how welcoming he was to our family. He loved to laugh and we enjoyed both significant and lighthearted discussions with him. Sometimes he invited us to his “upper room” for tea, sunflower seeds, dried fruit and nuts and hand-pulled mutton. Once he invited us to a picnic that was definitely a big step up from our Western-style peanut butter and jelly picnics! A crew of five men accompanied us to do all the cooking, serving, and washing. We enjoyed large pieces of meat, noodle soup, fruit and steamed bread in a beautiful setting.

Picnic with the shiek

Picnic with the shiek

One of the cooks at our picnic

One of the cooks at our picnic

Did the shiek expect any particularly special treatment from you because of his position? 

Maybe other shieks would be different, but he always made us feel very at ease around him. One thing we noticed is that people in the village would never turn their backs on him. If they approached him to request a blessing for their children or to give him money, they would back away from him as they were leaving. We tried to be aware of that, too. The shiek told us that his job was to take care of us while we were in the village, and our job was to let people outside of China know about their village and their people. So thank you for giving me a chance to do that through this interview!

One of the things I've noticed is that you have the attitude of a learner. Were there any hospitality customs that you learned in China that you incorporated into your own practice of hospitality?

We noticed that the youngest son in the family had the responsibility of filling the tea cups of the guests. So that was a task our youngest son (before we adopted two more) took on and did very well. Younger people treated their elders with a lot of respect (both in Muslim Chinese and Han Chinese culture). At the festivals, children would run to find pieces of wood for their grandparents to sit on around the tables that were just a few inches off the ground, and the adults would put food on their parents' plates for them. When my dad came to visit us in the village, they made him feel like he was a king. We tried to incorporate that custom by honouring our elderly guests in a special way as well. 

Eating watermelon with our host in the courtyard of his home while Jodie's dad was visiting

Eating watermelon with our host in the courtyard of his home while Jodie's dad was visiting

How can humility make us better able to host and be hosted by people of other cultures? 

I think humility in cross-cultural reationships 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.

Could you give an example of a time when you learned from a cultural mistake?

One time we were visiting some Muslim friends and the husband, who was an imam, beautifully recited the Koranic passage about Mary's virgin birth. When he was finished, I asked the wife if I could see the Koran. She held it, but I reached out and touched it. She was horrified and rushed out of the room with it. When she came back in, the Koran was carefully wrapped in a towel. I apologized and felt really bad about defiling their holy book. But at the same time, I believed that my friend could forgive my mistake. I have never made the same mistake again, and actually that incident helped me to appreciate how much they value the Koran. (In many homes it is displayed on a special stand.) I have become more aware of how I take care of the Bible. We don't have it on display in our home, but before Muslim friends come over, I make an effort  to be sure it isn't on the bottom shelf of our coffee table or underneath a stack of other books, so that they are not offended.

Boys in the village

Boys in the village

Have your Muslim friends been interested to talk about spiritual things? 

Just as our Muslim friends have a wide range of devoutness in following Muslim practices, so they also have a range of interest in talking about spiritual things. Some are interested, some are not, but you can't know unless you ask a few questions in that regard.

What might be some interesting ways to initiate deeper conversation with a Muslim friend?

Asking Muslims about the meaning of their names can be interesting. Many of them are named after prophets and they enjoy discussing that person, whom they may or may not know much about. We met people named Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Jonah, Zechariah,  John (the Baptist) and even Jesus. They might want to know about the origin of your name, too, or how you chose your children's names.

"Asking Muslims about the meaning of their names can be interesting."

Another conversation opener for us was simply discussing the topic of my husband's PhD—“people of faith together seeking the blessing of Allah.” Sharing this topic with friends and asking them what they consider to be His blessing and then how they believe they can receive it also led to interesting discussions. Maybe you have something similar in your life that is a simple lead-in to a deeper conversation.

We would share with friends stories of how Jesus related to people and parables that He told, and ask for their reactions. One time my husband shared the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the man who was overseeing the construction of the big prayer hall in the village. Every other time my husband had discussed this parable with people (in the USA or in China), the listeners identified with the early hired workers who felt cheated when the landowner paid all the workers the same wages. But this man in the village responded, “What a generous, compassionate landowner! He takes care of people according to their need, just like Allah takes care of us.” My husband was really surprised by this man's unusually insightful response to that parable.

Do you have any final encouragement you'd like to give to Christians with Muslims friends or acquaintances?

There is a strong message in our world right now that Muslims are our enemies. Our experience has proven that to be so untrue. I would encourage you to seek out and get to know some Muslims in your area. May God bless you as you step out in faith and build friendships with some of the most beautiful people we have come to know.

Interview #3A: Showing Hospitality to Chinese Muslims

Many people don't know that there are Muslims in China. Today's interviewee remembers a time when she didn't know that either. Jodie, who originally hails from North Carolina, learned a lot about Chinese Muslims when she lived in a Muslim minority area of China for 4.5 years with her family. I hope you'll enjoy reading about her adventures (and misadventures) eating with Muslims, and learn cultural cues that will help you when you host or are hosted by Muslim neighbours. —Julie

Jodie and her best friend in western China.

Jodie and her best friend in western China.

Could you tell us briefly how long you lived with Chinese Muslims, and why?

We had been living in eastern China for about 15 years before we moved to western China for 4.5 years while my husband worked on his PhD in Ethnology, with a specific focus on Chinese Muslims. During those 4.5 years we lived both in the Muslim district of a large city, and then in a much smaller Bonan minority village for shorter periods of time, for my husband's field research.

Jodie's husband looking over the village.

Jodie's husband looking over the village.

What foods are people from western China accustomed to eating? Were you ever fed something that you were unable to swallow?

Noodles were the staple in western China (instead of rice, like in eastern China). There are many different types of noodle dishes and noodle shops. Across the street from our apartment in the city there was a huge statue of a bowl of beef noodles, which is what our city was most famous for.

Once a friend treated me to a Muslim specialty dish of fermented rice when we were out shopping together. I was having a really hard time eating it, so I told her I wanted to take it home to share with my children. That got me out of having to eat all of it in front of her!

Noodle soup and a very tall stack of steamed buns!

Noodle soup and a very tall stack of steamed buns!

In this interview we want to focus on showing hospitality to Muslims. What kinds of guests did you have in your home while living in western China?

In the city we had the opportunity to host a variety of guests: some of my husband's classmates and professors and their families, imams (mosque leaders) and their families, neighbour kids, a Muslim friend I met while on a walk and her family, and a group of female Muslim college students I met when I was taking a Saturday women's class at the mosque on our street. In the village we were shown hospitality but were not able to extend it as much, as we were guests in a host family's home.

Was it hard for you to learn to extend hospitality to people with such different customs?

After being on the receiving end of Chinese Muslim hospitality it really was intimidating to try to extend it. I was always thinking that I needed to fill the table with a huge variety of dishes like they do. Cooking has never been my forte. But I came to realize that being present with my heart was more important to our guests than an impressive meal.  It also helped when I realized that our whole family could be involved in meal preparation, taking some of the pressure off me.

Hosting a Thanksgiving meal for Jodie's husband's classmates in the city.

Hosting a Thanksgiving meal for Jodie's husband's classmates in the city.

Most people know that Muslims don’t eat pork, but were there other restrictions affecting food or mealtimes that you learned about through interacting with Chinese Muslims?

There was quite a range of what our Muslim friends were comfortable with as far as food goes. We would always let them know before they came over that our home was Halal ("clean" - meaning that we never cooked pork in our house). Some friends had no problem eating the chicken that we served when we told them that it came from the grocery store with a Halal sticker on it. Others told us that they would only eat chicken that was bought from a Muslim butcher at the market, to give them confidence that the proper prayers had been said when the animal was killed.

We learned that Chinese Muslims distinguish themselves from Han Chinese (ie: non-Muslim Chinese) by not celebrating Chinese ("pagan") holidays like Chinese New Year. They also don't celebrate birthdays, like we had been used to doing with our Han Chinese friends. The Muslim holidays like Korban (commemorating Abraham's sacrifice) and Ramadan are their big events. When we were with Muslim friends during their holy month, we didn't eat or drink in front of them to honour their daytime fast.

We learned that in group settings, men and women often ate in different rooms. However, when just our family was invited to an imam's home, we ate all together. So, when that imam's family (in addition to other guests) came to our house for a meal, we set up a table for the women to eat in my daughter's bedroom so the imam's family would feel at ease.

"We learned that in group settings, Muslim men and women often ate in different rooms."

Sometimes guests wanted to say their prayers during the prayer time that occurs around dinnertime. We offered our daughter's bedroom for them to pray in, as it was in the best location facing Mecca. We offered blankets for the them to put down on the floor, or sometimes they used their own jackets. We also removed all pictures that would be between them and the window while they prayed, as that is forbidden.

Jodie and her family eating a meal with their Chinese Muslim hosts.

Jodie and her family eating a meal with their Chinese Muslim hosts.

Did you have any hospitality disasters or disappointments in trying to host Muslims?

Yes, a few! Once when my husband and sons were out of town, I invited a group of female Muslim college students over for lunch and my daughter prepared a Halal lunch, so we were very surprised when they politely refused to eat our food! They didn't even drink the tea we offered them, saying it was because we weren't clean. So, they had a spiritual discussion with us for about an hour, and then they said they needed to leave.

I had thought “being clean” meant the food we were offering them was clean, but I realized later that when we had entered our apartment together they did not see me wash my hands, and I didn't offer them a place to wash, either. A friend I consulted afterward helped me to understand the importance of washing my hands so guests could see, and the need for me to offer our guests a place to wash.

Another time, I cooked spaghetti for our host family in the village. It was a disaster because they really don't like tomato sauce! After that, they declined my offers to cook, saying that they “didn't have the same taste as we did”. My daughter enjoys cooking and learned from our friends how to make some noodle dishes that we served to neighbours. It helped when we learned to make things they were already accustomed to eating.

Jodie and her family with their Chinese Muslim host family in the village.

Jodie and her family with their Chinese Muslim host family in the village.

If someone in a Western context wants to invite a Muslim over, what should they know?

Well, the most helpful thing you can do is talk with your guests about food before they come over. Express a desire to honour their customs and make them feel most comfortable. If there is no Halal market in your area, they may not eat Halal. But two good questions to ask are:

  1. Is there a certain international market where you shop? (Then you can shop there for the food for them, too).

  2. Would you feel more comfortable with a vegetarian meal? (In this case you can avoid the Halal meat issue altogether).

"Generally speaking, Muslims tend to think of non-Muslims as immodest and unclean. This can make them hesitant to accept a meal invitation from us."

Generally speaking, Muslims tend to think of non-Muslims as immodest and unclean. This can make them hesitant to relate to us or accept a meal invitation from us. Show that you are clean not only by serving Halal food, but also by making the washing of your hands public if possible. Be modest in dress around your Muslim friends. In western China, I realized that women covered their arms and legs and avoided low cut shirts or tight fitting clothes, so I did the same. With Muslims friends in the West, perhaps you can take your modesty cues from how the friends of your gender typically dress. (For example, do you ever see your friend wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts? If not, perhaps it would be better not to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts around them, either.)

You might find that Muslim friends feel more comfortable having you over so they can cook what they know they can eat. We had that situation with a neighbour—they had us over several times, but politely refused our invitations to have them over. 

Jodie's family hosting and playing games with Chinese Muslim friends.

Jodie's family hosting and playing games with Chinese Muslim friends.

What should a person do if a Muslim refuses to come to their house? For example, should they stop trying to invite them, or should they talk about how they'll make sure the food is Halal? 

"Follow your Muslim friend's lead. Be open to new possibilities."

If the idea of coming over for a meal seems to make your Muslim friend uncomfortable, it could be that your friend is extremely devout and eating food that came from your kitchen (if pork has ever been cooked there) would violate his or her conscience. Suggest some alternatives, like coming over for an afternoon to play games (instead of coming at meal time), meeting at the park or eating out at a restaurant of your friend's choice. Don't take a refusal to your invitation personally. If someone is concerned about their conscience and what might make them unclean, honour that and follow his or her lead as to how they might want to develop the friendship. Be open to new possibilities.

Would you say that most Muslims you meet in the West are conservative?

"Making assumptions your friend's level of devotion might make your friend feel guilty, like he or she is not a good Muslim."

Some are, but you can't assume that. My husband once asked a Muslim friend who came over during Ramadan about the fast he assumed she was doing. She politely informed him that actually she doesn't practice Ramadan, and she would like a glass of water! That was an awkward situation, but we all laughed about it. It's good to be unassuming about new friends and sensitive to the range of devoutness that exists. Making assumptions about how devout someone might be can make your friend feel guilty, like he or she is not a good Muslim. Some of our Chinese Muslim friends were simply non-pork eating Muslims and that was the only thing that made them different from the Han Chinese. We can talk in generalizations about Muslims, but the most important thing is to get to know your particular Muslim friends and learn what suits them best.

What is the best lesson you'd pass on to people who are starting to share their table with people of other cultures and religions?

If we enter a new situation and are easily offended or quick to judge what we encounter as “wrong” instead of “different,” we'll end up building walls instead of bridges. Humility, a learner's heart, and the ability to laugh at yourself all really help in crossing cultures!

Read the second half of our interview with Jodie here.  She's talking about unique experiences she had while being hosted by Chinese Muslims. She also shares about how good questions can help your conversations with Muslim friends go deeper.