Called to hospitality: One home can make a great difference
(OSV News) — My then-4-year-old son and I were reading together from a children's Bible storybook. In the story leading up to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus confirmed that God wants us to love our neighbor. I read aloud: "Then a man asked Jesus, 'Who is my neighbor?'"
"I know!" Elijah said confidently. "Mr. Rogers!"
Sad to say, at that time Mr. Rogers was about the only neighbor Elijah could claim as a friend. Having recently moved to a different city, we had left behind his best pal in the friendly neighborhood where we'd lived before. On our new street, there were no little boys to play with, and none of our new neighbors — children or otherwise — seemed interested in getting acquainted.
Over the years our family has relocated often, and we've learned to value the great gift of neighborly hospitality. Where we live now, for example, neighbors take the time to get acquainted, open their homes to one another and look out for one another. We're surrounded by good friends who form a genuine community.
On the other hand, I'll never forget the time we pulled up in a Ryder truck to a new home and watched as our new neighbors in their yards spotted us — and literally ran to hide in their houses. We didn't meet anyone on that street until someone showed up at our door, two weeks later, to ask if she could use some of our moving boxes. Our family has never felt so lonely in a neighborhood as we did in that one.
Even in the least promising of settings, however, one home can make a great difference. Sometimes all it takes is for one family to show hospitality to neighbors, and when at least a few of them respond in kind, a new sense of community is born.
Especially in a neighborhood where isolation has been the norm, the best place to start is by reaching out to newcomers. Lending a hand on moving day is a fine strategy for getting acquainted and helping them feel at home in their new location. But even if that's not possible, a batch of homemade cookies will say "welcome" in a thoughtful way.
Taking regular strolls through the neighborhood provides more opportunities for getting to know the folks who live nearby. On our street, families are out walking often, especially in the evenings and weekends when chances are good that they'll get to chat. Our next-door neighbors, some of the most hospitable people you'll ever meet, have taken a complementary strategy: When the weather is pleasant, in the evening they camp out in chairs on the front lawn, waving down those who walk by to stop for refreshments and conversation.
Inviting a neighbor over for dinner can open the door to a new friendship. But if dining one-on-one with a near stranger feels awkward, or you feel you need some "excuse" for a get-together, holidays provide ample opportunities.
We've often hosted an evening of Christmas caroling. A neighbor family or two joins us singing as we walk door-to-door through the neighborhood. After the music, everyone is invited to our place for cocoa and cookies.
We know one neighborhood in which whole families go trick-or-treating on Halloween. While the kids collect the candy door-to-door, the parents gather for their own little social event walking along the street, keeping an eye on the kids while gabbing and enjoying hot drinks.
Holidays give us a chance to strengthen neighborly friendships in other ways as well. One Easter custom in our family is to create inexpensive holiday baskets for neighbors. We collect the little green baskets in which strawberries are sold, and we fill them with grass, dyed eggs, jellybeans, and a small signed card with a holiday greeting. Then we quietly leave the baskets on our neighbors' doorsteps early Easter morning.
Times of need provide perhaps the most important and most meaningful occasions to show ourselves as friends to our neighbors. For example, I once met an elderly neighbor from some distance down the street because I noticed her struggling to start her car, and I was able to give her a jump-start.
We've frequently helped neighbors, and they have helped us, with rearranging furniture, mowing lawns, finding lost pets and caring for homes while someone was out of town. I've assisted neighbor kids with school projects; my wife has cooked meals for neighbors who have lost a loved one. And, of course, the borrowed cup of sugar remains a standard token of friendship among those who live closer to one another than to the supermarket.
In all these ways, we've come to appreciate why Scripture encourages us to "exercise hospitality" (Rom 12:13). Through such small but welcome acts of kindness, we show the love of Christ himself to those who live nearby.
Mr. Rogers would be proud.