Phoebe Farag Mikhail: Hospitality can help conquer loneliness

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Community and connection are the antidotes to loneliness, says an educator and writer. Hospitality can help bring about that healing.

They gathered together in my friend Amy’s large family room and started heaping paper plates with a taste of home: koshary, an inexpensive and delectable combination of rice, brown lentils, macaroni, garlicky tomato sauce, fried onions, and chickpeas. This dish is beloved by everyone in Egypt, rich or poor.

But this wasn’t Egypt -- it was Northern Virginia, where many Egyptians have emigrated in the last two decades, many claiming religious asylum. Every month, Amy and her husband would invite newly arrived individuals and families that they met at their nearby Coptic Orthodox Church for this “koshary night.”

After all had assembled their dishes, she would ask them to share the stories of their journeys to the United States. With great joy, Amy shared with me how some of those stories would bring tears -- stories of families left behind and challenges to overcome -- but also hope at the beginning of something new.

Often, these gatherings resulted in new connections and a feeling of solidarity. Her guests left feeling more like they belonged and less like they were “traveling alone.”

The parable of the good Samaritan illustrates the risks of traveling alone in the early centuries. “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” Jesus describes, “and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30 NKJV).

One of the reasons hospitality was important in the early church, according to a scholar of early Christian hospitality Amy Oden, was how dangerous it was to travel. In addition to all manner of risks from thieves and bandits, travelers faced great exposure to the elements by road and sea, and sometimes the hunger of wild animals.

Today, travelers face fewer physical dangers than they did centuries ago, yet “traveling alone” still has its risks. Whether for a short visit or for a complete relocation to a new environment, traveling alone carries a great risk of loneliness.

Many people among us who are not physically traveling still indeed “travel alone” in life’s sojourn. These aren’t just new immigrants in our communities. They may be newly married couples, young families with newborns, friends struggling with mental illness and its stigmas, individuals or families dealing with special needs, singles, college students moving for school, young professionals pursuing work, or elderly empty nesters adjusting to a new phase of life.

Loneliness is the disease of our generation, negatively affecting mental, physical and spiritual health. Community and connection are the antidotes, and hospitality brings about healing because it helps to create and strengthen the community. “God sets the lonely in families,” the psalmist says (Psalm 68:6 NIV). Hospitality can bring about an authentic connection through which we can save each other from the dangers of traveling alone.

While the idea of hospitality might conjure expensive place settings and lavish meals, these are not the ingredients of authentic connection. As we look around in our own communities and seek those we might open our doors to, we will find our own ways to pay attention and listen to each other. While not every gathering will be emotional and life-changing, everyone needs a listening ear, everyone has a story, and everyone needs to rest on the journey.

In the past, when I invited people to my home and they asked what they could bring, I used to respond, “Nothing -- just come.” But an ingredient of authentic connection is to allow others the blessing and dignity of giving.

Now, when people ask me that question, I always request something small, like some fruit or bread. Sometimes, without prompting, whatever guests bring is exactly what is needed, in ways I could not have predicted.

Although she had no children of her own, one friend I invited for dinner had the foresight to bring a few toys from the dollar store for my children. These gifts occupied them long enough for us to share in some badly needed adult conversation. Allowing the guest to be the giver paves the way for connection and for seeing Christ in the person who visits.

Ultimately, offering hospitality is an opportunity for an encounter with Christ.

When Christ dined in his home, Zacchaeus the tax collector turned from his ways of extortion to restoration, vowing to give half his money to the poor and return any taxes he had collected by false means fourfold (see Luke 19).

When we welcome a visitor into our homes, we welcome Christ, and when Christ visits, we encounter him and he changes us. And in his presence is the fullness of joy.

This essay is adapted from Phoebe Farag Mikhail’s book, “Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church” (Paraclete, April 2019).