For fall break this year, one of my best friends invited me to come home with her to stay with her family. They were just getting ready to renovate their new farmhouse, and she wanted to see it before they made changes.
I’ve visited her family a couple of times in the past, and feel very comfortable with them. They have a gift for hospitality, so their house is always full of guests. I’ve always been welcome to just come join in whatever the family is doing. I have helped to prepare for parties and participated in their hospitality the way my mother always taught me to do, making myself useful. They would give me chores to do and errands to run, so I always maintained a sense of dignity and helpfulness. I earned my keep there, and felt that they appreciated what an easy houseguest I could be.
But this time there was no family event I could help prepare for, no chores to help with, nothing to do but sit in their quiet farmhouse and rest. Without a whirlwind of activity blurring the lines between my role as a houseguest and a co-host, the magnitude of their hospitality overwhelmed with a sense of smallness and gratitude.
As always, they made me a part of the family. The sisters included me in sibling discussions, and the parents asked about my plans for post-graduation. They invited me to open the fridge at my own discretion and showed me how to work their coffee machine so I could get up early and help myself.
And every day we feasted. You would have thought it was a holiday the way we made merry. There was no reason for it except that the family was randomly reunited in the middle of a semester. With a wealth of stews and golden breads, rich meats and strong cheeses, they celebrated their togetherness.
And I was invited.
Growing up I never self-consciously experienced true dependence. Although I studied hospitality by watching my parents host guests at our home in Washington, I had ever known what it felt like to be on the receiving end of the host-guest relationship. Mine was the house people came to, mine the church they visited, and I learned how to set guests at ease and to keep their glasses full. I learned how to give, but not how to receive, the gift of hospitality.
Then I graduated and came to Hillsdale. I guess didn’t realize that in choosing a school 2,000 miles from home, I would have to become an experienced houseguest. But as I started to feel the very real distance between myself and my mother’s kitchen, I started learning to presume on local friends for home-cooked dinners, laundry on the weekends, and parental advice. Over the last few years, I have learned to spread the needs around so no family gets all of me at once. I have practiced taking only the essentials and saying “no, thank you” and going without. I have learned how to budget, how to not ask, how to wait.
I have tried not to be a burden, not to be hungry, not to be in need.
But this weekend I spent at my friend’s home, I was invited to come and feast on the bounty of another family’s labor. As a poor college student, I felt acutely aware of how much everything costs, and conscious of the gravity of their generosity. They made me a member of the family, but I felt deeply the fact that I was a guest, grafted in by their whim.
There was no way I could pay them back, and it would be an insult to try. They delighted in giving, and mine was the privilege and the responsibility to take. So I took and I ate everything they set before me and gained probably ten delicious pounds.
In watching them over the weekend, though, I found that it was as much a gift for them to be able to offer hospitality as it was for me to receive it. They would imagine ways to make the house comfortable for houseguests. They kept a stack of oversized sweaters in a milk-crate by the backdoor for guests to wear on spontaneous walks through the nearby woods. They discussed the renovations they would make to create extra space for guest rooms. They asked for my opinion, including me in everything like another family member.
The whole experience climaxed on Sunday when they took me to their church.
Now I grew up a PK, listening to my daddy’s preaching and feeling forever at home, whether that be in my own kitchen welcoming guests or in the front row taking notes on a sermon I’d already heard over dinner the night before. Church at school always felt furtive and temporary in comparison as I wandered a foreign landscape of liturgy. I was an orphan ─ anonymous, far from home, and boldly taking from someone else’s communion table. I learned to sit quietly, listen attentively, take communion, and leave as soon as service ended, like a hungry thief stealing a mouthful of bread and slinking away. I got used to that feeling. Church became a strangely private activity compared with the loud and personal family affair of my childhood.
So there I sat in a back pew with my friend’s family, listening to a sermon on Christ feeding the five thousand with five loaves. I had my best guest-face on. I breathed deeply and decided to really try to listen, even though I didn’t know the preacher or the person sitting to my right, even though I knew I was a fraud of a member, and didn’t really belong there.
I couldn’t tell you what the service was about, but I know I was spellbound. The preacher delivered a sermon like I haven’t heard since I was newly baptized and my daddy was preaching in my own language, speaking right to me in the front row and using all the phrases and tropes we shared and he knew I would understand.
And here was this man, a complete stranger to me, presenting the clearest gospel message I’ve heard in four years. I crouched on the edge of my back row pew, straining forward to catch every word. Then the pastor called all God’s people to communion.
And I was invited. I was not there as a student affiliated with a church, or as a child of my parents, or even as a guest of a family friend. I was in a strange state with a family who took me in when my family was far away from me and could not reach me. I might never darken the door of that church again. And still I was invited.
I followed my host family to the pulpit to receive the elements, and no one kneeled. There was nowhere to look but right in the pastor’s eyes when he handed me the bread and wine and told me I was a daughter, and he blessed me. It was personal, individual, and we did not know one another. As I walked back to my seat with bread pressed in my palm and a tiny plastic communion cup balanced between my finger and thumb, I felt so small, so empty-handed, and so strangely happy to have nothing to give.
How do you receive a gift you can never repay? I wondered as we spoke the Lord’s prayer in unison, my own voice blending with the stranger on my right. He had a deep baritone voice like thunder.
My dad always says the spirit of gift giving in not reciprocity. The best way to honor a gift is simply to enjoy it, to take it in the spirit it was given, to thank the giver by putting the gift to use. A hungry houseguest is an audacious thing to be, and it feel counterintuitive to bless someone by taking from them no questions asked, no reciprocity offered. But only those who come to the table hungry can come away full.
The best response to an invitation to feast is to take and eat.
Molly Kate Andrews is a senior studying English.