An empty bowl

Reflections on hospitality

May 2, 2018 | Feature | Volume 22 Issue 10
Kaylene Derksen |
Photo by Kaylene Derksen

“Everything in the world is about to be wrapped up, so take nothing for granted. Stay wide-awake in prayer. Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help” (I Peter 4:7-10, The Message).

These verses are pretty standard Anabaptist stuff. The world won’t last, so keep praying. Love and serve others—especially food—as if your life depends on it, because it’s God’s way of building God’s kingdom. This is Hospitality 101. It’s what I cut my teeth on. My parents made it look easy and even exciting.

Growing up in my family of 10, you would have thought there were enough mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, stories to listen to and people to love. But apparently it wasn’t so. Although my family was not wealthy by anyone’s imagination, we always seemed to have extra—mostly extra food and space at our table. This is where learning hospitality began for me. And this is where I began to see that hospitality is hard.

My quintessentially hardworking Mennonite farmer parents were lovers of God and lovers of people, in that order. They believed that God had called them to love those around them. Their neighbour could be anyone, and hospitality was to be shown to all.

Our farm was set along a country road and butted up against a small forest. It was just a dairy farm of no great consequence, with about 100 head of cattle; 50 chickens, depending on the time of year; a dog or two; and some feral cats. We had pigs, but they were not regular guests. The odd sheep, ducks and even a horse graced the farmyard when I was a youngster.

We were pretty much like our neighbours, except we were Mennonites surrounded by Catholics. We and our neighbours had the same kinds of animals, same plantings of crops, same kind of manure, same weather and the same smells. But there was one noticeable difference in our house. People would stop in. They would drop by unannounced. They came in cars, on bikes and even on foot. And it never seemed to matter what was going on when they arrived, because my dear parents would roll out their version of the red carpet.

I often heard Dad say, “Mother, let’s set another place at the table,” or, “Didn’t you just bake bread this morning? I’m sure there’s an extra loaf.” Mom never cooked just for the 10 people she loved the most. She always planned ahead for more. “Why would you make just enough?” This is red carpet talk.

If anyone came by on a Saturday, they could expect pancakes and eggs for breakfast, thick and hearty potato soup for dinner—what others might know as lunch—and homemade deep-dish pizza for supper. We were rural people; there were no light meals in our home. Proper stomach-filling dinners were never questioned, and the calories were easily metabolized in time for a sure-to-be-hearty supper. Afternoons were often interrupted with cookies, glasses of milk or coffee.

But rolling out that red carpet takes lots of time and is mostly inconvenient. Farms are busy places, especially with that many children!

Although Mom and Dad were both raised in fairly conservative traditions, they never let their backgrounds keep them from friendships beyond their borders. I remember the particular warmth shown to a couple who visited fairly often on weeknights. And while the house was always crazy with children, and the day’s work had all but exhausted my parents, a quick salad dressing cake would miraculously appear, still warm in its pan. Fresh coffee was brewed, cream and sugar came out, and, alongside it all, an empty bowl. This empty bowl was a sign of welcome on the part of my father and a compromise on the part of my mother.

John and Frankie came to our home because they knew that they would be welcomed and that the little empty bowl would be waiting for them.

As soon as their car was heard pulling into the driveway, Dad would go out in his line-dried clean jeans and a T-shirt worn butter-soft with use to meet John and Frankie. They only lived three miles away but they were greeted as if they’d travelled the entire day.

John was a lanky Elvis-type guy with tight jeans, pointy black boots and a pompadour, while his wife wore stylish open-toed platform heels. I could see her red toenails and tanned feet. Frankie was bottle-blonde, tanned and lipsticked, and had the best posture I’d ever seen. This pair could not have been more different from my parents if they’d tried.

“Come in, come in.” “Oh, Rhoda, you shouldn’t have!” And off to the dining table they went. I always watched from the sidelines, partly because I was in awe of the ease my parents had with these flashy people who talked a lot and looked so glamorous, and partly because I wanted cake.

They began to talk and laugh. John, teasing Mom that cake is the only reason he came to visit; Frankie, defending Mom and asking Dad for house-building tips. Such fun they were.

I never observed any discomfort on anyone’s part. Even when the visitors were lingering in a chocolate-cake coma over their coffee, and their cigarettes came out. The conversation went on as our house filled with second-hand smoke and the little bowl filled with butts. They knew this was not my parents’ style, but they were welcomed, nevertheless. No wonder they came.

Every time after they left, there was much cleaning to be done. Smoke removal is not easy. Mom fussed over the smell. Dad looked helpless. Hospitality is hard.

That small farm tucked along a forest’s edge is no longer my home, and I no longer live in the country. None of my trappings are similar to the simplicity of the pasture full of Holsteins, a backyard full of tall pine trees, or a night sky unmarred by too much electric light.

I live in a city now and I’ve been a city dweller for most of my adult life. However, even in my world of higher convenience and less space, I do have the ability to cook and I have embraced the importance of the table. Mom and Dad instilled in me their love of God and their love of people, and I am learning the courage it takes to be truly hospitable. I believe that God has asked me to be available to love whomever is placed in my path. I am learning the surrender that such love entails.

This love and level of hospitality that my parents modelled involves hosting guests who have no respect for my personal space and no concept of their own. It involves the smell of body odour, cigarette smoke and shoes removed too late in the day. Sometimes it means having a visitor at my table who refuses anything green or healthy, unintentionally insulting me and my endeavours to prepare and serve whole foods. Sometimes this hospitality leaves me exhausted from the late nights, many questions and hours of listening. And sometimes it means I try too hard.

When I get to the point of being entirely poured out, I read further in I Peter 4:12: “When life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.”

Daily, I put out my own empty bowl on my dining table, as a sign of welcome and of compromise. As a sign of the difficulty and also the joy I experience on this journey towards hospitality, on this journey of learning to love those around me.

Kaylene Derksen is the development director at Eastern Mennonite Missions in Salunga, Pa. The article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Anabaptist Witness.

For more on food, see:
Gifts of the table
Peppernuts and anarsa
Mennonites connect over pancakes
Foodgrains Bank brews climate storm on Twitter
Food Cupboard provides emergency help in Wellesley


For discussion

1. How often do you invite people to share food at your table? Do you find hospitality energizing or fatiguing? Do you agree with Kaylene Derksen that “hospitality is hard”? Is hospitality something we need to be trained to do?

2. Derksen writes, “I have embraced the importance of the table.” What do you think she means? Can you think of situations where you have experienced “the importance of the table”? What is the connection between God’s kingdom and hospitality? Derksen leaves an empty bowl on her dining room table as a sign of welcome and compromise. What compromises have you made when offering hospitality?  

3. Marlene Epp writes that Christmas peppernuts link her to her family’s religious and cultural past in Ukraine. Do you have traditional foods that connect you to earlier generations or to a particular community? Is it important to have special foods served only on holidays like Christmas and Easter?

4. Do you agree that food can have a special meaning that ties us to our beliefs and cultural identity? What foods might represent the Mennonite experience in Canada?

—By Barb Draper

Photo by Kaylene Derksen

‘Soup and Pie’ by Manitoba artist Margruite Krahn was featured in the November 2015 issue of Anabaptist Witness that focussed on food issues. She cites the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as her inspiration. The work hangs at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

‘Food is a Human Right’ is the title of Filipino artist Bert Monterona’s painting that was featured in the November 2015 issue of Anabaptist Witness, which focussed on food issues. Inspiration for the work was Amos 5:11-12,14 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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