What my grandparents taught me about hospitality

This week I attended the funeral of my grandparents, who both passed away in February having caught coronavirus. From the speeches given during the service, and the messages of support from friends and former colleagues of my grandparents, the biggest thing that stuck out for me was their continual hospitality for those around them. Despite never having much money, they always welcomed neighbours, friends and family, to a squashed but cosy home with tables laden with food. Delicious spicy rice salad always made an appearance, with fresh bread, meats and cheeses, followed by plum puddings and ice cream. No one was allowed to leave until we’d all drunk buckets of tea, with an extra slice of cake or ginger biscuit if we had any space left at all.

As a child I took this as simply being the experience of visiting my grandparents, but during the funeral I realised how much hospitality really meant to my grandparents, and the effort they would go to for their friends and family. Nothing was ever too much, and everyone was always welcome. Their commitment to hospitality was based on their perspective of the world, where human connection was more valuable than anything else.

Hospitality is not unique to any particular religion or culture. Instead it is a principle found in most communities around the world. In Islam, hospitality is a relationship between the host, guest and God, so the duty to supply hospitality is a duty to God. In Judaism, when someone knows about others who are going hungry or need somewhere to rest, it becomes a legal obligation to provide hospitality. For Christians, hospitality is seeing the face of Christ in everyone, whether a friend or a stranger. Historically, hospitality was considered a moral institution in the Abrahamic religions, when living in the Middle East with harsh desert conditions and a nomadic way of life meant that to be declined hospitality likely resulted in death.

Hannah's grandparents, Mary and Gerald, host a Christmas dinner

Hannah's grandparents, Mary and Gerald, host a Christmas dinner

Mona Siddique, Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, writes how we sometimes think of hospitality as simply offering cups of tea and being polite to one another. However,

hospitality is not a domestic, sentimental affair, a watered-down piety. When honoured and exercised as a divine imperative, it is about knowing that reaching out to others is an act of worship, thus challenging, humbling and spiritually transformative.

The national lockdown here in the UK, as well as in many places around the world, has put a pause on our ability to welcome people into our homes. Instead, many of us have been left yearning for the time we can sit and eat with friends, or share a coffee with our neighbours around the kitchen table. It has made meeting new people, and welcoming strangers, feel almost impossible. Whilst Zoom has been proof of the amazing advancements in technology, it still doesn’t fully duplicate the in-person connection we feel when we show true hospitality to those around us. Many of us are feeling a sense of loss for the spiritually transformative experiences we once knew.

So how do we create hospitality in a digital space? How do we replicate some of the principles of hospitality, by welcoming those who we know as well as those who we don’t? At the Rose Castle Foundation we’ve been working to explore digital hospitality, and find ways to create meaningful connection and build trust across digital divides. We’re running workshops on 29, 30 and 31 March to share our struggles when working in a virtual space, and to meet the challenge of building trust across digital divides. We’ll be exploring creative methods of bringing people together virtually in a way that enables deep-to-deep connection. You can learn more about these workshops here.

I don’t think the online space will ever fully replicate the feeling of entering my grandparents’ home, sitting by the fire as they shared stories of adventures from their younger days. But it’s difficult to ignore the lasting changes this pandemic will have had on the way we connect with one another. Rather than avoid these changes, I’m looking forward to seeing the steps forward we can take as a society, working out how to get creative and ensure that hospitality remains at the core of all our interactions with one another, whether online or offline. I’m looking forward to finding those spiritually transformative experiences of showing hospitality to a friend or stranger, just as my grandparents showed me.

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