Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 1

Earlier this month, our priest friend came over to give us the Sacrament of Confession. It was a huge grace, a great favor. It was a hot morning and J and I took turns with Father in lawn chairs beside the fire pit, catching up and then confessing. Afterwards, I left him by the raised beds while I ran in for the heads of lettuce I’d cut and bagged for him, tucked in in the fridge.

And I left him out there in the heat.

It did not feel good. I am the kind of woman who feels guilty continuing to lie down when the postpartum nurse comes into her hospital room. It felt disrespectful leaving our friend outside while we stepped into the cool of our house which, despite many half-started quarantine projects and three active stay-at-home kiddos, is about as company-ready as it ever is (which is, of course, to say, not very, but that doesn’t stop me). Still, I didn’t invite him in.

Hospitality has been a huge, intentional part of my life for years, since at least our time in Uganda, where I made a point to welcome homesick fellow expats as I haltingly learned to cook. It’s part of what we see as our family work. And now there hasn’t been another human in my house since mid-March.

So I’ve been thinking about what hospitality means when you aren’t welcoming any one into your home, and I have a few ideas.

Hospitality is about making people feel welcome, about loving on people. I think these things can be done, to an extent, from a distance. Letting people into your life, the life of your family, can be done, a bit, with Zoom calls and letters, with mailed kid art, by dropping off treats — baked goods and plants and magazines — on the porches of friends and neighbors. It can mean spending more time outside being neighborly, yelling conversation to your friend as she walks by, picking up groceries for others when you’re going to be out anyway, singing “Happy Birthday” from your car parked in a friend’s driveway. None of these are my own invention; I have been so grateful for all those thinking creatively about how to navigate these times.

The other afternoon I dropped off schoolbooks on one doorstep, and a meal for a friend who was hurting on another doorstep, where I was able to talk from a distance with her. I came home to find that some of our study abroad students had dropped off scones and goodbye presents for us and were talking on the curb with J, everyone in masks. Community and hospitality still exist — they just take some looking.

I think when you’re trying to love people well, to care for them, as one does in hospitality, it’s a dance between what they want and what you want for them, the same as when you’re deciding whether you can justify making them unhealthy food. Many of my friends, thoughtful and responsible people, are no longer socially distancing, but I still believe that the best way I can help to protect them is by continuing to stay at home myself. I like to think that they understand why I’m doing this, that I’m not snubbing them or prioritizing my health over our friendship, just as I hope they know I will try not to dwell on hurt feelings when they host gatherings I can’t, in good conscience, attend.

This ribbon of negotiation of terms, of interpretation, of good intentions, has always run through social interactions. It’s just that now, in a time of rapidly changing official advice and so much uncertainty, this back-and-forth is more explicit in the practice of hospitality. I will try to offer the good things I feel I can; you will try to accept what you feel you can. It’s a scary, awkward place to be sometimes, but I suspect it’s the way forward for now as our families all unfurl and contract on different evidence and circumstances. It turns out hospitality was always about grace, and now we’re just exercising it more consciously.

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