Odd-Numbered Hospitality

Over at her always-stimulating blog today, LaVonne Neff writes about some of the ironies of her mother’s practice of hospitality in the late 1950s:

Something you should know about tall women who seem reserved and even distant—they may just be shy or socially awkward, and they may really want to be your friend. I’ve understood this all my life, of course, but I was well into adulthood when my mother told me she understood it too.

My mother was not the kind of woman who could chat easily with strangers or charm other people’s children. She would not have survived as a social worker, therapist, or nurse. If she had belonged to a church that equated righteousness with personally comforting the deranged or the homeless or the dying, she would probably have changed denominations.

I tell you this only to point out that hospitality has many faces.

And then there’s this:

During my grade-school years when my father was president of a small college, she invited faculty families to dinner nearly every weekend. It was the late 1950s, and the dinners were pretty formal: white Quaker Lace tablecloth, Noritake china, and Community silverplate. Stemmed goblets filled with Hawaiian punch and ginger ale. Individual Jell-O molds with dabs of mayonnaise. A centerpiece. The amazing thing is that, with virtually no help (my father and I were useless in the kitchen), she managed to make all the hot foods finish cooking at the same time.

This was hospitality, to be sure, but her company dinners are not what impressed me most about my mother’s approach. Back in the 1950s and 60s, I’ve learned, most American social occasions were one big Noah’s Ark: you came in pairs or not at all. I did not realize that at the time, because it wasn’t the way my mother operated. She had friends whose husbands got sick, or left them for other women, or died. These friends were often at our house. Sometimes we all went out and did things together. I never gave it a second thought.

Years later several of my mother’s friends told me that once their husbands became unavailable, most invitations dried up. Couples they used to go out with stopped calling. For a time my mother was just about their only friend who continued to have them over for dinner.

I was dumfounded. It had never occurred to me that the death or desertion or illness of a spouse would make a mid-20th-century American woman a pariah. I thank my mother—a tall, reserved, possibly distant woman—for keeping me ignorant of such heartless behavior. And I thank her for giving me a lesson in hospitality by treating her hurting friends with such dignity that even her daughter had no idea she was doing anything unusual.

I have often told people that my most memorable experiences of Christian hospitality come from when I attended an evangelical charismatic church, The King’s Church, for four years when I lived in Durham, England. Our pastor and his wife were known for regularly inviting any and all kinds of people—including many university students whose families lived far away—to have Sunday dinner at their house and spend holidays with them (or even to live with them for extended periods of time). On my first visit to their house, shortly after I’d arrived in Durham for graduate school, I was struck by how their then-fourteen-year-old son made a point of initiating conversation with me and was at ease asking thoughtful, open-ended questions. When I later asked him how he’d managed to become so comfortable with young adults and other older guests, he replied that he’d never known a time in his childhood when the family hadn’t had an eclectic group of dinner companions around the table. “In fact, it feels weird now when we don’t have guests around,” he said. And he credited those guests, in part, for the vibrancy of his own evangelical faith.

Likewise, another one of the church leaders was a single woman in her early forties. Hosting Sunday dinner parties was part of her regular routine, as well, and as I’ve often told people, I never saw an even number of chairs around her table. What strikes me, in retrospect, is how easy it would have been for her to have invited mainly other single people to her after-church meals. With other single guests, there would have been more opportunity to talk about common interests and habits, and she certainly could have avoided some of the messes that young children create. But I’m grateful she didn’t, because I now have at least one strong, happy memory of it seeming like the most normal thing in the world for a single person to buy a house with a big dining room, make sure that that room is furnished with an extendable table and plenty of extra chairs, and invite people from outside her own life situation to be her guests. It’s the kind of hospitality I aspire to practice myself, and would that more of our churches looked like King’s in Durham in this regard.

10 thoughts on “Odd-Numbered Hospitality

  1. Pingback: Odd-Numbered Hospitality » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. These words will linger long with me. I’m pondering so many of these ideas right now, questioning the right ordering of my relationships (as behind an all-encompassing relationship with my God).
    Thank you for adding to that discourse.

  3. for what it’s worth, this is my rule of thumb: if you are with me and it is mealtime, share with me. my kids never questioned this, which is why (i suppose) i’m often cooking or buying for a random & unannounced 2 or 3 more any given time. i admit it makes me feel good that i can do this without jeopardizing the electric bill, and that’s not bad.

    i could never manage the personal attention and pro-active inclusion thing in this blog – due to my work commute and single parenting. i sure do wish our world was a little more relaxed so more people could be like the lady in the article.

  4. My receiving hospitality of both the odd & even numbered variety from strong women — a public school teacher and a pastor’s wife in particular — was a very healing thing in my life as odd (and same-sex attracted), and it broke my stereotype of women as weak that I held because of my mother’s mental illness and suicide.

    My wife learned this kind of hospitality from her mother — whom LaVonne Neff could be describing –, an imposing six-foot pastor’s wife. My kids learned it from my wife. The kids did engage adults in conversation naturally as young teens, as you observe, Wes. What a blessing to be able to pay forward this gift!

    p.s. off topic, but f.y.i. I am leading a 5-week discussion of your book, Wes, for interested students at Messiah College starting next week. Will let you know how it went.

  5. Pingback: “Odd-Numbered Hospitality”: Wesley Hill

  6. Pingback: Odd-Numbered Hospitality - Hardcore Catholic

  7. Pingback: On Hospitality and Unstructured Time | Spiritual Friendship

  8. Pingback: On Hospitality and Unstructured Time » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  9. Pingback: “The Church is Homophobic”—True or False? | Spiritual Friendship

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