Editor’s Note: Missioner Annemarie Barrett shares how the experience of accommodating unexpected guests led her to think about the nature of hospitality and its differences across cultures.
Recently a group of friends and I decided to grill fish together. It took us a couple of hours to prepare the meal and soon the patio filled with the smell of grilled fish.
We were excitedly celebrating that there might be enough fish for each of us to have one to ourselves when all of the sudden the doorbell rang. We all looked nervously at each other, each wondering, were we expecting more company?
The owner of the home looked outside and saw a whole family waiting. Our friend, who was preparing the fish with us inside, had invited her family to join us but had not expected them to actually take up her offer. What happened next taught me an important lesson in the making of miracles.
Our host told us to get ready for more company, put on a smile, and went to the door. She warmly welcomed each person into her home and invited them to sit at the center table.
Then the doorbell rang again.
Another friend arrived with his wife and kids and they were also warmly welcomed in, given seats at the table, and were soon eating grilled fish next to us.
I was worried; I doubted that the little fish we had was going to provide for all of us. I feared that the friends doing the grilling were going to be left without food, but when I looked to our host, I found her handing out more plates and making sure everyone was satisfied with what they received. Our unexpected guests were served first.
After I had already eaten my fill, another friend came up to me with another plate of fish and offered to share it with me. I was shocked and wondered out loud if the fish had multiplied. How had so little fish fed so many of us?
I spent the next week perplexed. What had I witnessed? And why was it so surprising to me?
I reflected on my experiences of hospitality in my own culture and considered some of the fundamental differences in what I had learned about hospitality the day those fish seemed to miraculously multiply.
In my culture, in my experience, we calculate our guests by RSVPs and prepare only for that number, or we host a potluck and expect each person to bring food to share. There exists a certain level of judgment if someone shows up without an invitation or without offering something to share. The underlying message seems to be that we are only welcome if we are expected or able to contribute something.
And when we prepare meals day-to-day we rarely expect company. A guest showing up at mealtime is treated more as a bother than a friend. The underlying message seems to be that we will only be generous when it is convenient and hospitable only when it is planned.
Would it even occur to us to share our dinner with an unexpected guest without resentment?
I will be honest, it would not have occurred to me.
Even the day that we grilled fish, I noticed myself more ruled by my hunger than liberated by my generosity. I was suspicious of our unexpected guests, judgmental of their unexpected arrival, and sore about having to share with them.
Thank goodness I was not hosting. Thank goodness I did not have to answer that door. Thank goodness I had the opportunity to learn from my friends that day who knew how to be generous in a way that I am only recently learning.
And for the record, none of these friends would identify as Catholic. So what does that say about my formation as a Catholic? Did I fail as a Catholic that day? Or am I just another example of a Catholic who is skilled at blogging about faith but inept at practicing basic Gospel values of generosity and hospitality?
If the underlying message in our hospitality is that you are only welcome if you contribute, or if you played by our rules, it shouldn’t be any mystery why the evils of capitalism are thriving unchecked in our “developed” world.
This is the same message that justifies the marginalization of all peoples who we deem less worthy, less useful, and therefore more disposable.
In the end, the fish did not multiply and the miracle was not all that mysterious. The problem was not the lack of sufficient fish; the problem was the temptation to choose exclusion. We were all well fed that day because we chose inclusion.
Reflection Questions: Today our society seems to be so polarized; it often feels like we need a miracle to pull us out of this mess. What actions are you taking today to choose inclusion? How are you speaking up against exclusion? How can you practice hospitality more generously?