by Bonnie Camp Palmquist*
We had just sat down for supper with our 3 daughters in the Middle Eastern city where we were living when the doorbell rang. Going to the door, we saw an Arab family with 3 little children, all dressed up for a visit. We welcomed them into our home, and went to tell our kids to go ahead and eat. They knew that it wasn’t unusual for visitors to come at any time, so we went back and served our friends. After welcoming them and asking about their health and family, I went to the kitchen and prepared the first part of the hospitality routine – cold drinks for everyone. We sat and talked some more while we drank our drinks, and when it seemed appropriate, I went to the kitchen and prepared the next serving – a plate of fresh fruit. Again we ate and talked for a while before I went back to the kitchen to prepare a plate of sweets – cookies or cake. We ate and visited until our guests politely said, “We must go”. At that point I insisted, “Oh, no, you must have coffee first!” I fixed the tiny cups of strong Arabic coffee and brought them out to the living room. We drank them as we continued our visit, and finally our guests said again, “We must go.” My husband and I said, “Oh, it’s still early!” But our visitors smiled and insisted they really needed to go home. As they left we handed them all pieces of candy and thanked them for their visit. Two hours after we had first sat down for supper we rewarmed our food, and sat down to eat, but we had had a lovely visit with friends, and felt honored that they had taken the time to visit us.
You see, in Arab culture a person honors another person by visiting them in their home. When we had visitors, we were being honored. The story in Genesis 18 of Abraham welcoming the 3 strangers to his home and going to great lengths to serve them makes sense in the context of the Middle Eastern view of hospitality. He knew he was being honored by their visit, even though at first he had no idea who they were other than strangers who must be tired and hungry. He didn’t consider it an inconvenience to himself to take the time to feed them well and make them welcome.
Living in the Middle East my husband and I were often guests in other people’s homes, where we were graciously welcomed and served as if our hosts were delighted to see us. We then had to learn the proper procedures to make guests who came to our home feel welcome, too. But maybe the thing we had to learn most was the heart attitude of the people – recognizing that it really is an honor to serve others with joy. Lilias learned this early in her ministry, both in London with poor women, and in Algeria with her Arab neighbors. She opened her heart and her home to those who needed her, and she delighted in those who came. How often do we see her writing about the “dear ones” who came to her, seeming so thankful for them. And God did bless her through them, as she reveals in so many tiny paintings of people and scenes that reveal her heart to love and serve, while at the same time delighting in the very colors and details of each.
So instead of thinking of hospitality as being hard work or even an inconvenience, maybe we could look to our Middle Eastern friends as well as to Lilias for a perspective closer to God’s heart.
*Bonnie Camp Palmquist is on the Lilias Trotter Legacy Advisory Board and has spent an adult lifetime loving and working with Arab people in the Middle East and the USA. Her insight into the role of hospitality in the Arab culture gives insight in how to interact not only with the Arab people, but also provides a perspective of loving and serving close to God’s heart.