In my previous post, I mentioned that our attempts at practising hospitality haven’t always been successful. The truth of that statement is that I have a lot of baggage to unpack; but I won’t open it all out here. Instead, I thought, I’ll try and pluck out the highlights – the airport security x-ray version– of a decade’s opening doors.
So let’s start at the beginning: marriage. Before Husband and I were married, we had a house share with a mutual friend. He was brilliant; we had a laugh; we loved him. None of us, however, wanted the arrangement to continue post-wedding, as that would be plain weird. So, in the run up to the event, the house share disbanded and we briefly moved back in with our “host families”- the folks we had lived with while working as performers with a faith-based theatre group. Our hosts were brilliant: Husband’s were eccentric in the best kind of way, and mine were so influential that they need an entire post of their own. (See Ode to Mrs H. ) When we got married, we moved into a rented house with a spare room and exercised a somewhat middle class version of hospitality for the first year. (I.e. we invited friends and family to stay the weekend, or cooked well-rehearsed three course dinners for other child-free couples who could do that kind of thing on a whim!) It was fun.
Our second year, however, is when things began to get interesting. Husband was in a very low paid (and often unpaid) job and I was about to start a PGCE in Secondary Teacher Training. We moved into a two bed flat above a Church for cheaper rent and acquired a sofa bed from Freecycle. Being very much of the opinion that God created us for community; that no man, woman or even couple is intended to be an island, we were determined from the outset that hospitality was going to be our thing. A part of our DNA, our giving, our way of living. We had gained so much from it as “boarders” that we were excited to play that forward. And, as Husband was still attached to the Theatre Company and they were always struggling to find host families, we decided that this was the most obvious way for us to serve. And at first, it went well. We had an Actor from London sleep on our sofa bed for six weeks; he was low maintenance, enjoyed Gavin and Stacey, joined in our banter and didn’t make much of a fuss. In fact, the only gross thing I remember about him was the way he used to cover every single meal in salad cream. Even Roast Dinners. Gross.
Still, it was successful. We thought we had the gift. So, when his six weeks were up and we heard that he was going to be replaced by an American Actress for the next six months- we jumped at the chance to offer her a home. Heck, we even bought her a proper bed! We picked her up from the airport with a little welcome sign. And she was nice. Super nice.
That said… there were alarm bells in those first few days that taught us a lot about gut instinct… and the trouble that ensues when you ignore it! See, she was nice. I told you that, right? Super nice. And pretty. And excited. So, I gave her the benefit of the doubt when, in our first ever conversation, she said, “Oh! Let me show you my friend from home- he is SO in love with me- but I don’t even like him!”
However, after watching her show the same Facebook profile, and tell the same story, to every other person I introduced her to that week… my gut didn’t like it. There was an uncomfortable amount of glee taken in this poor guy’s unrequited love. What’s more… she had already made an impression on another frequent guest around our dinner table- under our roof- and my gut was ready to throw up. (Don’t worry… it wasn’t Husband! Well, not mine anyway…)
“I think we need to find her somewhere else to live.” I told him within the first two weeks.
“No! Don’t be horrible!” Husband protested. “She loves living here and she’ll be really upset if you ask her to leave!”
“But… don’t you see what’s already happening?” I asked in genuine disbelief.
Of course not. We had sat at the same dinner table, witnessed the same body language and been privy to the same conversations, but all he had to feed back was that the food was nice! We discussed it a little more, but he put his foot down. (Largely I think because it would have been more work for him to find her somewhere else to live!) And so, with one final warning that this was not going to end well… I let it go. (Largely, I think, because Husband’s best friend and colleague- our lovely mutual friend that we had house-shared with- had died suddenly during this time. Everyone was grieving; nobody wanted to upset anybody else.)
And so she stayed.
Well… I try not to enjoy saying I told him so!
Without going into too many details, my gut threw up with prophetic gusto; complete with additional characters and plot twists. There was lies and deceit; diversion tactics involving a misunderstanding with a ‘blind date’, in which I sent her out with one chap and she was returned, confused, by another! There was misleading dialogue; episodes where you couldn’t tell who was predator and who was prey. Additional house guests and sofa-surfers; a few who appeared occasionally unannounced. Two love triangles; an argument at a memorial and an explosion in the kitchen. We had opened our doors to people who were causing one another pain, but their stories were so different that at various points I had no idea who we were supposed to protect. All of which was set to the backdrop of raw grief; the loss of a very close friend, and later a beloved grandmother. Not to mention a deep and traumatic family argument and a nightmare PGCE placement with a narcissist who declared: “I am an Outstanding Teacher! If you don’t improve I’ll take back my classes, because they don’t deserve to have you instead of me!”
Hilariously, our Wi-Fi came free- (with permission)- from the Church below; which was great, except that you had to sit in the corridor right by our bedroom to get a good signal! So, there were many nights we found ourselves retiring to bed, exhausted, attempting to exercise our marital rights, with an American Actress chatting loudly to her parents outside of our bedroom door! (We tried silent and we tried loud- nothing seemed to deter!)
One night, I remember coming home late from placement to find one guest sleeping off a night shift in the spare room, another on Skype in the corridor and an occasional turn-up on the sofa, playing loud music on her laptop. Husband and the other semi-permanent sofa-surfer were out. I’d had a horrible day. Where once the busy-ness had distracted us from our grief, it now began to exasperate it. The place was noisy and it did not feel like home. I realised we had made it a sanctuary for everyone else, but not for me.
It was the very last place I wanted to be.
So I turned back around and I left. I went to a friend; somebody perhaps a little too close to the situation, and explained how I was feeling. I didn’t get much sympathy. Apparently this is the life we Christians are called to, and my misery was symptomatic of being self-seeking. In fact, she told me off for judging people; comparing our main guest’s difficult behaviour to that of her toddler. “If she is seeking attention, then just pay her attention! Who are you to dictate how a person should behave at twenty-five?!”
Nobody said much about boundaries.
Later, after many heart-to-heart talks of questionable truth and little to no real-life action… I gave up on trying to fix things with the Actress. And this is where I really come off badly; because I lost the energy and the motivation to talk to her at all. The relationship completely broke down. Hospitality turned into pure hostility. The atmosphere was horrible. Eventually, she asked to talk and explained that she had requested to move. Hallelujah! We cleared the air, we agreed it wasn’t working for any of us, and we both felt a weight had been lifted.
Until I heard the version of the story that she had told my friend- and Husband’s boss- that is.
And then I seethed.
I was so angry I didn’t go home. I got on a bus straight from placement and went to a late-night shopping centre. I sat down with a hot drink and I finally called Husband.
“I’m done. I’m sorry. But I am NOT coming home until that woman has left my house.”
And he said OK. And he said I’m sorry. And he said just give me an hour.
And even though I was wrong on so many levels, and had behaved in such an appalling way… I couldn’t have loved him more.
Half an hour later, the lovely guest who just about kept me sane that year showed up. She didn’t want me to sit alone- and she certainly didn’t want to be around when the house cleared. She bought me a burrito. I bit into it so hard that I caught the side of my mouth and bled into my tortilla. I still remember that moment, and hoped right then and there that I never, ever let myself get so bitter and hateful again! But it happened. Such is life at its lowest.
Not long after this, the other boarders and associated surfers gradually moved out, (Sanity Girl last, which was healing!) I finished my PGCE and got a post with a Christian Education Charity, working for an excellent mentor. Husband left the company and went to work full time at a Church in order to explore ordination, so we left the area too. New house, new jobs, new Church- and a couple of years off social media. I’m not condoning running away or anything, but the change and the break away definitely did us a lot of good! Within weeks, I was a completely different person. (No, really, people said so!)
I came to let go and let God.
But… we still took a break from hosting!
A really, really long one.
We hosted cell meetings and youth groups instead, and largely went back to our middle class dinners- until we had kids and moved to Theological College! Here, we attempted MC dinners about once, only to find that Husband spent half the night upstairs settling the baby, while I cooked and served; and then we both tried not to fall asleep at the table while the childfree folk on the wine talked late into the night, not having to get up at 6am or wash away the plates before bed!
“We’re so passed this!” Husband said.
And so we settled on doing hospitality as a family instead. From now on, if we feed people, it is messy. It is loud. And it is generally all done before bedtime!
Which, once we moved to Curacy, worked very well for one particular dinner guest…
M was a young Asylum Seeker at our Church, awaiting a court case for residency. He was friendly and he liked kids; he would show me photos of his nephews back home and seemed to miss them a lot. A friend, who acted as a translator, told us he was lonely and depressed; “he doesn’t even have a TV.”
So, later that week, when my Granddad gave us his TV, I knew exactly who to give ours to. M was thrilled! It had a DVD player inbuilt, so we loaned him a few movies too. Sorted!
He contacted me that week, however, and asked me to come to his house to pick up some “thank you” toys for the children. I said no; I’d rather he came to our house for a meal and gave them out himself. He agreed and Husband went to pick him up.
He took a very long time. Too long.
“Sorry we are late!” Husband text. “He is cooking!”
“Cooking?! But he’s coming for tea?!”
“No… he’s bringing tea. Lots of it!”
Husband wasn’t lying. M showed up with his housemate and about three weeks worth of (beautiful) home-cooked food. He also showed up with brand new toys for the kids.
To say thank you.
For a second-hand TV we got for free.
“Not just that…” Husband said later. “There’s wires everywhere. I think he’s sellotaped it up to the Ariel. It was on BBC.”
“No! I thought he was just watching DVDs. Has he got a license?”
“I don’t know… I doubt it…”
So he cooked our tea and gave us presents, whilst we enticed him to break the law…
I chewed myself over it for hours into the night. Each time I tried to ask about the license, he would say, “Yes, TV, thank you!” I had no idea if he was covered or not, but after a few hours of Googling, I had visions of him being carted off in a Victorian-style police van, bludgeoned and denied Refugee status because of me and my evil, backfired gesture!
So we bought a TV license. Just so that I could sleep at night.
“He better enjoy the ruddy news!” Husband said, a hundred and twelve pounds lighter.
Still. M and his flatmate had enjoyed messy family dinner so much- he kept saying it reminded him of home. And so we kept trying again; each time insisting that I would cook the food. Each time, however, M would turn up with more, until eventually, I decided not to bother cooking at all!We invited him round, he brought six dishes, looked at my empty hob and said, “Oh…You didn’t cook?”
One time, I asked him to come round early instead and cook with the kids – and I‘ll buy the ingredients. But each time, he not only brought shopping and refused money, he also brought bags full of brand new toys for them. Which was starting to get uncomfortable.
Especially this one.
A life size doll with scary eyes, whom I would find loitering about the house in various states of undress!
The Eldest carried her about everywhere and named her… Richard.
“You know Richard is a man’s name, honey?”
“Yes I know but… This is Richard-The-Girl.”
“OK… What exactly is Richard-The-Girl doing?”
“She’s watching me poo.”
“Where is he getting the money from?!” I asked Husband.
“It’s best if we don’t ask…”
“Seriously. He’s supposed to be living on a pittance, unable to work, yet he’s cooking us tea and bringing us gifts! It’s not right. Besides which, the kids think he’s Santa Claus. The Eldest asked if we could go to his house yesterday because she wants to see if it’s full of elves!”
“Ok. That’s not right. I’ll have a word.”
It was a hard won word, and eventually Husband had to refuse to take the toys in the car until he got the message. (Though there was no movement on the food!)
This carried on for best part of a year, until we reached Christmas Day, upon which we finally played our best card. Determined that he would not be bringing salad and curry for Christmas dinner, as delicious as it was, we invited him and his flatmate to join us… with twenty minutes notice. Husband turned up to find him out of breath.
“Sainsbury’s is closed?! I have no food to bring! No toys?!”
“Yes, we know. Merry Christmas!”
Turns out it’s harder to give to a refugee than you’d think!
They both left the area soon after that and we were genuinely sad to see them go. After this, we went back to last minute meal invitations wherever possible; though as our ministry is mainly concentrated around sharing large community meals in the Church hall, this hasn’t been too much of a feature.
Which brings us up to … Lockdown. A strange time to move into a bigger house, set yourself up for hospitality, and not be legally allowed to invite a soul! And so we Bubbled; tried to create an occasional sanctuary for one particular family who need it- whilst maintaining reasonable boundaries!
We pray; we bless our new space; we ask that in every circumstance, this home would be a place of hospitality, creativity and prayer.
And now… we have an opportunity. A real, genuine opportunity, to provide a space and a home for another adventurous young woman from abroad! Only this time… we have ten years extra life experience under our doormat and she is half our age. (What a depressing thought!)
So… here we go again.
An opportunity to right past wrongs?
A chance to create a space in which everyone belongs?
An opportunity to see if I have, in fact, matured?!
A chance to practise hospitality the way You would, please Lord!
Peace be with you and yours, and anyone else who slips through the Covid net this Christmas!
Thanks for reading xx
Peace be with you 🙂