Western and eastern cultures have different views of hospitality.
In the west, hospitality is something we do to bless and honor our guests by inviting them into our home, providing food and entertainment for them, and treating them well. IFI’s mission reflects this sentiment when we actively “extend life-changing hospitality and friendship to international students out of reverence for Jesus.”
In most eastern cultures, having guests in one’s home honors the host!
“Reverse hospitality” is giving others the opportunity to show you hospitality in order to bring them honor.
Reverse hospitality is an important concept for western Christians–especially us in international student ministry (ISM)–to learn and practice. Doing so honors easterners’ culture, which is much closer to the culture of the Bible than western culture is.
Reverse Hospitality In the Bible
Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus practiced reverse hospitality. We see this in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus honored Zacchaeus for humbling–even shaming– himself to catch a glimpse of Jesus. What wealthy, grown man would climb a tree in full view of a crowd–who all knew him–to catch a glimpse of Jesus? Shameful! But Jesus loved Zacchaeus for that climb; it revealed how much Zacchaeus’ longed to know Him. (Perhaps Jesus knew Zacchaeus wouldn’t invite Jesus to his home because Zacchaeus feared Jesus wouldn’t accept! Zacchaeus was wealthy, but he was despised by his countrymen for the way he’d amassed his wealth; maybe Jesus, too, despised him.) So Jesus appreciated what Zacchaeus had done in the most graphic–and public– way He could: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Can you imagine Zacchaeus’ astonishment and excitement? Jesus was offering Zacchaeus more than a glimpse; He was offering Zacchaeus intimate time with Him. The results of Jesus’ reverse hospitality brought the Kingdom of God to Zacchaeus!
Philip and the Ethiopian. Acts 8:26-39 tells of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (“great woman”). When Philip asked if the Ethiopian understood what he was reading, Philip practiced reverse hospitality. The eunuch accepted Philip’s invitation by humbly admitting he didn’t understand it and couldn’t unless someone explained it. Philip’s question told the Ethiopian that this stranger cared about him and might be able to explain what puzzled him. Philip honored the Ethiopian’s humility and accepted his invitation to join him in his chariot.
Philip’s reverse hospitality resulted in even greater blessing: his host heard the good news and received new life in Jesus! The faith he took back to Ethiopia may have prepared the way for the spread of Christianity in northeastern Africa.
Jesus and the woman at the well. When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink, He was honoring her by inviting Himself into her world. Cultural barriers forbade her to speak to Him. Surely she was shocked when He spoke to her but even moreso when she realized that He knew her life!
To free her from the life that had isolated her from her community, Jesus asked her for a drink. His request made her the hostess and Himself her guest. He was saying, “I am one of you,” a message that was central to His entire ministry. His care was clear. Her guard came down. He ushered her into forgiveness, cleansing, and new life.
Why Reverse Hospitality Is Important
Reverse hospitality recognizes two things: First, in many cultures, having guests in one’s home honors the host, not the guest (western thinking). Second, receiving gifts and hospitality with gratitude and joy is the best way to honor the giver. Therefore, visiting students in their home and joyfully receiving gifts they bring when they visit us demonstrate God’s love for them and the value He puts on them. Our delight in both honors them and prepares a path for friendship and the good news.
As Rich Mendola, IFI’s Executive Director, warns, “…our emphasis on extending hospitality can lead to an imbalance. It can lead to people feeling in debt to us and to us feeling like the only way to express hospitality is be the giver. But Scripture encourages us to offer hospitality to one another and receive it, too. In many cultures, we honor people by receiving their hospitality.”
The Faces of Reverse Hospitality Today
Scripture gives us guidance in reverse hospitality but also poses some challenges in cross-cultural situations.
Luke 10:5-8 says,
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, [which honors the hosts] for the worker deserves his wages [honors the guests]. Do not move around from house to house [which would insult the host]. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you.”
Food. When hosts from one culture meet the expectations of guests from a different culture in their own way, both experience some of the delights of reverse hospitality.
An IFI volunteer recalls a birthday party that her international Bible study group had for her. The hosts’ apartment was very small and there weren’t enough seats for all the guests. “The hosts offered their delicious native foods, so I didn’t expect birthday cake. When they all started clapping and singing “Happy Birthday,” I was delighted to receive a large watermelon studded with lighted candles!”
But sometimes “eat what is offered to you.” (Luke 10:8b) can be a real challenge! The same volunteer remembers, “I was beginning to like Chinese food until my hosts set a plate of halved hundred-year-old eggs in front of me. From the way the hosts described this dish, I learned it was special, something that not many people know how to prepare anymore. But those greenish yolks and black, gooey-looking whites did not look appetizing! I suspected my hosts had splurged to include the eggs in the menu. I ate one half, praying I wouldn’t get sick, and encouraged others to eat the rest. My hosts were honored to be the first to offer me this delicacy!”
What to do if offered food you really don’t want to eat? Jim Hanes (IFI Illinois) urges us to receive it with gratitude, take a small bite, and put it on your plate. “Also, don’t refuse food more than once. When hosting, offer food and drink several times if your guests say no to your first offer.” (In some cultures, receiving food on the first offer is considered greedy!)
Samson Wasao (IFI Ohio) suggests “Say how much you appreciate what is offered but ask if you could enjoy it at another time.”
Rich, who has some food allergies, says that, when offered a food that may make him ill, “I’d rather get sick than be inhospitable.” Rich’s attitude puts the honor of the host above the welfare of the guest.
Place. Rich recalls, “When I visited Yasir [IFI’s staff person in Sudan], I remember going to a home where the women began to sing a song. They were so happy. I asked Yasir, ‘What are they singing about?’ He said, ‘They are singing about you!’ He translated their song: ‘We are honored by your presence. We are honored that you have come to our home. We are honored, Mr. Richard, that you have found us worthy.’
Jonathan P. (IFI Cleveland) notes that younger internationals are often reluctant to invite older people into their apartment. Perhaps they fear their elders won’t receive their hospitality or that their humble home may not be up to their guests’ standard.
Kim Friesen (IFI East Lansing MI) urges us not to let the surroundings stop us. She and her husband, Rod, once enjoyed hotpot in a student’s apartment, standing at the kitchen counter because their hostess had no table or chairs. Kim says, “Students really appreciate us taking time to be with them.”
Time. Luke 10:5-8 urges guests to stay as long as they need to, not to move from house to house. But Proverbs 25:17 urges, “Don’t visit your neighbors too often, or you will wear out your welcome.” We need God’s guidance here!
In many cultures, “to stop by for a moment” is neither possible nor desirable. Allow extra time when stopping by to give your friends something or pick someone up to go to an event together. Your international friends will not let you stand inside their door and wait. They will ask you to sit down, offer you juice or tea, and make time to get to know you better. Your visit honors the ones you visit; cutting it short could shame your hosts.
One IFI volunteer discovered that his Middle Eastern conversation partner and wife “never want their guests to go home–at least not before 2 or 3 am!” The volunteer’s wife was a teacher and needed to rise early for her work, plus she was pregnant. Once their Middle Eastern friends understood the situation, they were sad but not offended by the Americans leaving by 10 pm–far too early in Middle Eastern culture! If you need to limit your time together, explain in advance.
In Latino cultures, the dinner hour may be 9 or 10 pm rather than 6 or 7 pm. If Latino friends invite you for dinner, don’t rush to get there by 6 pm! If dinner isn’t served until an hour or two after you arrive, don’t fret. The wait will be full of talk, laughter, music, and family photos and stories–well worth your time!
Reverse hospitality urges Americans who are involved with internationals to give by receiving and to honor by accepting and enjoying. To be the giver all the time robs both you and your international friends of the joy that God wants you to share.
5 ways you can practice reverse hospitality
- If invited to a student’s home, make every effort to go. Take a small gift. Their invitation honors you; your accepting it honors them.
- If your international friends never invite you to their home, ask if you could visit them sometime for a meal together. Remember, this honors them!
- Never comment on what your hosts don’t have or may need (from your viewpoint) in their home. If you want to give them some furniture, a cooking pot, a lamp, or other household item, say you’d be glad if they could use it, for you don’t have room for it or someone else has asked you to find a home for it.
- Take your time. Plan to spend at least an hour at international friends’ homes when you “drop by” for any reason. (There is no such thing as “dropping by” in some cultures.)
- Receive snacks, beverages, slippers, etc. that your hosts offer–especially new foods–gratefully after it’s offered the second time. Ask how to make the food. Smell it, taste it. If you simply can’t eat it, ask if you take it home to enjoy later or nibble it and lay it on your plate.
Remember that hospitality is about honor. Look for opportunities to honor your international friends by receiving from them.