Yesterday a local friend was helping me move a big mattress for a teammate. In between waddling and heaving the awkward thing, we somehow got into a conversation about how hard it is for many Middle Eastern and Central Asian refugees who are resettled in the West.
“My living room in the US was often visited by refugee friends,” I told him. “They would sit, drink chai, and lament about how there were no people out on the streets, no people mixing in public, no equivalent of the tea house or the bazaar. Just work, more work, then car, home, TV, and repeat it all again. It’s a hard life in the West.”
I remember being puzzled at how often the comment about “no people on the streets” was repeated. This ache for living somewhere with more human interaction was a constant theme that came out as we sat together and kept the dark black tea spiced with cinnamon and cardamom (and plenty of sugar) flowing. The desire to simply see more people on the sidewalks and in public hinted at a much deeper sadness – the absence of true friendship for most of my refugee friends in America. Having lost their natural relationship networks back in their homeland, they now found themselves in a land that felt utterly starved of community – even without the language and culture barrier they had to contend with.
During that season of our lives we lived in an apartment complex where many refugees were resettled. We used to open up our apartment and the one across the hall for a weekly community potluck-style meal and text all our international friends to come and join us. Once a month we would also turn the green lawn in front of our apartment building into a “Community Cafe.” We would set up a small canopy, get some tea and coffee brewing, set out some chairs, put up a sign, and invite anyone who walked by.
I remember one autumn day sitting down in our “cafe” next to a Saudi student and looking around at the various groups of people chatting. Iranian men – Persian, Azeri, Kurdish, Luri – were gathered in one corner. A couple Iraqi Arab friends had also come by and were dumping incredible amounts of sugar in their tea. The ladies were busy getting to know some Eritrean women. And a Nepalese believer was energetically connecting with a Hazara friend from Afghanistan. Strange as our pop-up cafe was for their cultures and for ours, it was proving to be an encouraging environment for our international friends. It was leading to conversation and friendship, and our friends were soaking it in like a Somali refugee in the Minnesota winter huddles in the heat lamp at the bus stops. What a kindness simple conversation and friendship can be to the lonely and those far from home. How their eyes light up when someone really wants to know their story and to learn about their culture.
It also doesn’t have to stop at tea and friendship. Friendship can lead to sharing the gospel, Bible studies, and new believers. And though we didn’t get this far, it can even lead to a new church plant. Oh for a thousand new church plants to be formed in the West because believers showed simple kindness and hospitality to the refugees, asylum seekers, and internationals who now live in so many of our urban areas. They are a field ripe for the harvest. And once they come to faith, they are a powerful force for a jaded post-Christian West to reckon with. I may be dismissed as just another white Evangelical trying to proselytize, but when my generously-bearded Iranian friend starts sharing why he became a follower of Jesus, all my secular countrymen don’t quite know what to do with it. So they listen.
Our time in that particular refugee community came to an end about six or seven years ago. Today it’s 2021, and there’s talk of Western nations returning to some level normalcy this summer. A change of administrations in the US also means the numbers of refugees received there will be increased ten-fold. Believers will be emerging from this strange pandemic time-warp eager to gather physically with the body of Christ – and hopefully – eager to engage the lost face to face again.
As many Western nations plan to reopen this year, will you consider hosting and befriending some refugees that live in your community? It’s not that hard. Volunteer as an English tutor at TESOL programs in your city. Choose to buy your tea and hummus from halal markets in your area (google it and you may be surprised), and while there make some friends. Open up your home for regular meals where you invite international students and others – most of whom never get invited for dinner in a Westerner’s home. Especially consider how you can host gatherings around the holidays. Repeatedly offer to help your immigrant neighbors with any tasks they might be confused about – court documents, mail forms, bills, homework, etc. Realize that most refugees, asylees, and internationals don’t have any good friends who are natives of their new host country. Choose to step into that role, even if only for one family.
The missing piece for so many refugees is relationship with trustworthy locals. Government and social programs might abound, but the crucial ingredient for refugee success in their new society is friendship. And as it turns out, friendship is also the key for some very compelling evangelism. Sure, you’ll make plenty of mistakes. That’s par for the course in any kind of cross-cultural ministry. But you might also make some surprising best friends – as I have – and then get to watch them lead your own Western neighbors to faith! Now that is worth a little bit of risky hospitality.
In a culture where generous hospitality is expected and celebrated, some will inevitably learn to abuse the system. This proverb helps keep locals in check, helping them make sure that they are not taking advantage of others’ hospitality. If things begin to be lacking – such as the warm repeated assurances of undying welcome, or, God forbid, the food – it likely means you’ve been coming too much. Wait a while to visit again and the “pot” will once again be full and overflowing.
This post is for those Christian parents in the US who have managed to make it this far in 2020 without yet getting a dog. You have bravely held out in spite of your kids’ tearful pleading, many of your friends getting puppies, and all those extra quarantine hours at home almost second-guessing your decision to go without a canine companion. Your resilience is admirable. As they say in Hobbiton, may the hair on your toes never fall off. Yet, while I commend your resilience, I will also attempt to provide a cultural-missional justification for getting a puppy – seriously – or at least why I would get one if I lived in the US.
You see, when you leave your own culture and begin to deeply study another, you can’t help but see your own culture back home in a new light. You also have no power over what kind of insights unexpectedly emerge as you, the metaphorical goldfish, get a chance to look back on the fish bowl. These insights are sometimes life-changing and other times, well, they more in the category of, “Aren’t Americans odd for never using their front doors?” Sometimes, these insights helpfully have to do with challenges believers face everywhere, such as how to share the gospel.
Living primarily in the non-Western world and traveling back occasionally, we have noticed a few things about when Americans feel its appropriate to talk to strangers. Generally, it feels like it’s harder to talk to strangers in the US than it is in many other parts of the world. The justification required for striking up a conversation with a stranger that could approach deeper things, things like Jesus, seems to be higher. Especially among the middle and upper classes, a good reason seems to be expected for the question, “Why are you talking to me?” This presents a challenge for those who want to regularly engage others with the good news, yet who also do not want to be unnecessarily rude or awkward.
The exceptions for talking to Western strangers that we have noticed are as follows:
If that stranger is pregnant. If this is the case, not only can you strike up a conversation, but many also strangely impart a flood of unrequested advice and anecdotes. I don’t necessarily recommend this, but we have certainly observed it! On the other hand, go forth and multiply.
If you have one of those amazing extrovert personalities, like my grandpa, and somehow random people just light up when you engage them. However, these charming extrovert types seem to be a small minority. If this is you, you have a gift.
If that stranger has a dog, if you have a dog, or both. If this is true, than the high wall of Western resistance to talking to strangers seems to immediately disintegrate in an unexpectedly warm camaraderie of canine appreciators.
This dynamic about dogs is truly there. If you doubt me, try it out the next time you’re at the park. Approach that intimidating total stranger who is walking their dog. Ask a few genuinely happy questions about their pooch (while asking permission to shower said canine with affection). That scary suburban scowl will immediately melt like you had just dropped a polite greeting in the tribal tongue to the grumpy village grandma. Next thing you know it, you’re being invited to marry one of the villagers – or in the American equivalent, you’ll actually be shooting the breeze with a total stranger who just might become a genuine friend.
We’ve seen this confirmed as we’ve spent the last few months in the US. Even in the midst of a pandemic, those who have dogs, walk them, and take them to dog parks are regularly involved in happy interaction with neighbors and strangers. Dogs even make Americans warm up to families with lots of small children, which aren’t always appreciated by mainstream American culture. Friends who have recently acquired dogs have confirmed that it’s been one of the best things for getting to know their neighbors.
All of this leads me to this conclusion: In America, having a friendly dog is a big win for hospitality and meeting strangers. A canine might set you back if your primary ministry is with refugees, but if you live and work primarily among mainstream middle class folk or other similar demographics, a dog is a serious tool for mission!
We live in Central Asia and so far we still sense that a dog would be more of a hindrance to knowing our neighbors than a help. Dogs are traditionally viewed as religiously unclean and dangerous, due to an unfortunate hadith (authoritative religious tradition) where the angel Gabriel tells Mohammad that he hates dogs and won’t come in the tent where young Aisha has hidden a puppy. However, the younger generation is slowly beginning to adopt more of a dog culture.
But, if I lived in America, I would get a puppy and work so that he grows up trained and friendly. Then, as a family we’d think through what stepping-stone invitation makes sense next for the acquaintances we’d make at the dog park or in the neighborhood. Even before the lock downs, Americans were starved for community and friendship – though they are slower than internationals to accept a quick offer of hospitality.
Like when we lived in the US before, we’d probably aim to invite contacts to some kind of weekly or monthly open meal or coffee/chai time at our house or a park where we bring in our relationally-gifted international friends who are believers and pros at the art of good conversation and friendship-building around food. Then with that normal rhythm of hospitality, we’d have a way to simply bless our neighbors with good food or coffee and community. And as always, with prayer and intentionality, this simple yet rare kind of gathering would lead to many gospel conversations. In the past, pairing a regular time like this with a regular Bible study happening another time of the week led to a natural next step.
So, if you’ve been on the fence about getting a dog, let me add one more point in favor of doing so. When done well, having a dog in America can make you more approachable and even more hospitable. In a culture starving for genuine friendship and community, a dog, of all things, could be exactly what God uses to help you reach your neighbors. It’s a bridge of common ground that somehow helps Americans sidestep their normal avoidance of engaging strangers. It’s no silver bullet, but it could help in one of the hardest parts of engaging the lost in busy America – finding regular and natural ways to meet and befriend strangers. Meeting can lead to hospitality which can lead to Bible study which can lead to new birth – and to eternal friendship in the resurrection.
The first phase of mission is always access. So, consider the ways a furry and slobbery friend might increase your access to the lost.
The Western Church faces a growing challenge and opportunity. Our cities, once culturally Christian and populated by people more-or-less similar to us, are now inundated with immigrants and refugees, many of whom are Muslims from the Middle East. For example, any major American metro area is likely to have at least several thousand new residents who are Arab, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Somali, or of other Middle Eastern ethnicity. The cultural distance between these newcomers and North Americans is not to be understated. Yet the same gospel which compels us to send missionaries to the Middle East also compels us to reach the Middle-Easterners who are now our neighbors. How then can the Church be equipped to practically reach out so that evangelistic conversations and relationships can take place, and so that Middle-Easterners can repent and believe in Jesus Christ? Equipping the Church in good hospitality is one way to make a major impact in reaching local Middle-Easterners with the gospel.
Why hospitality? Modern Westerners are generally weak in hospitality compared to many other cultures. Conversely, in the culture and worldview of a Middle-Easterner, hospitality remains an extremely important value. Often Middle-Eastern families live for years in Western nations without ever being invited into a Western home. If a Westerner were to not only host a Middle- Easterner, but host them well, this would make a major impact and open the door wide for friendship and spiritual conversation. But not only is good hospitality strategic, it is also biblical. Let us remember that Jesus himself ate meals with sinners and Pharisees (Matt 7, Luke 19). In these settings, while eating together, he shared powerful truth about the kingdom of God. We ourselves are commanded in Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).
Important Gospel and Culture Disclaimer
Before we begin with some basic cultural guidelines, we should acknowledge that these rules are not meant to be unbending laws that Christians must follow or else be doomed to fail in their evangelistic outreach. They are meant to equip, not to paralyze. We should expect to commit cultural blunders. Often our friends will graciously ignore these blunders, will be understanding, and will give us the benefit of the doubt. Genuine love covers a multitude of cultural faux pas. Follow these rules with freedom and trust in God. Do not trust in your cultural expertise or lack thereof. Your friends’ salvation is in God’s hands and only possible through his power. Under-gird all of your cultural efforts with believing prayer and earnestly seek to love your guests through honoring their culture (Rom 12:10).
Keeping this perspective in mind, the following are some basic guidelines to follow when hosting a Middle-Easterner.
Culture and Values
At the values level, Middle Easterners strive to be above reproach in their hospitality and generosity. The opposite attributes of being inhospitable or stingy are shameful and to be avoided at all costs. When hosting friends from the Middle East, generosity, warmth, gratitude, and attentiveness are important ways to communicate love. Keep in mind that some aspects of American culture, specifically our casual “make yourself at home” hospitality and valuing of frugality, can actually be offensive and rude in Middle Eastern culture. Strive to be a host who is generous, welcoming, thoughtful, intentional, and joyful. If these things characterize your hospitality, you will do well.
In many Middle-Eastern cultures it is very appropriate to invite someone to your home at the first meeting or anytime afterward. An Afghan proverb states that “the first day we are friends, the second day we are brothers.” Middle Easterners extend hospitality quickly and can throw themselves into deep friendships quickly. Sometimes your friend will decline your invitation the first time in order to avoid the appearance of taking advantage of you. Kindly press your friend and usually they will happily relent, realizing that you truly do want them to come and are not merely being polite. Be sure to communicate how honored and happy you would be to have them in your home.
In preparing for a visit, it is wise to think through how you will dress. In Middle-Eastern culture the way you dress communicates respect for yourself and for your guest. When hosting a friend for the first time men should dress smartly. Wearing a collared shirt is a good rule of thumb. Women should dress smartly, but modestly. It’s often appropriate to wear a longer skirt, or if wearing jeans, with a longer top that covers the hips. It is also important that tops be modest and not too tight, with sleeves that go to the elbow or forearm and without revealing necklines. Women should also be careful not to have wet hair when a guest arrives, since wet hair can sometimes carry loaded cultural connotations. Wearing socks in the home, for hosts and guests, is generally more polite than being barefoot. Even if you normally wear shoes in your house, doing so while hosting might be an unnecessary (even scandalous) distraction, so it would be best to remove them.
Your mother was right. A clean home really does convey respect to guests, at least if they are from the Middle East. Middle Eastern women keep their homes and especially their hosting rooms immaculate. Clean before your guests arrive and put away the clutter so common in Western living rooms. No tour of the house is expected, as in many American hosting situations, so it is OK if you are unable to clean the entire house. As long as the areas you host in are respectfully clean, you will do well.
When your guests arrive, greet them warmly at the door. They will automatically take off their shoes. You do not need to insist that they leave them on. It is usually rude in Middle Eastern culture to wear shoes in the home. The foot and the shoe is viewed as dirty and shameful (Hence the shoes thrown at George W. Bush, the beating of dictators’ statues with shoes, etc.). It is very important that all stand when greeting and that men shake the hands of all men who arrive. Shaking with two hands by cupping your guest’s hand in both of yours is also very polite. Women can shake the hands of women who arrive, but men should avoid shaking hands with women unless they extend theirs. Women likewise should avoid shaking hands with male guests unless they initiate. Take your cues from your guests about whether they find it appropriate for members of the opposite sex to shake hands. Instead, a hand placed on the heart can substitute for a handshake. In general, stay away from hugging until a strong friendship is established.
Sometimes guests will bring a gift if it is their first time to your home. Thank them for it and set it aside, not making a huge deal out of it lest your guest be embarrassed.
Middle Eastern culture views the seat furthest from the door as the most honorable. You should invite your guests to sit in that seat, or in whichever seat is most comfortable. Often your guest will politely refuse and sit in another seat, not wanting to appear presumptuous. During the visit, watch out for unintentionally pointing the bottom of your foot at your guest. This is a shameful gesture. This can happen when Westerners (especially men) cross their legs such that one foot is resting on one knee. An easy way around this is to sit with your foot underneath the knee you would normally rest it on top of.
As soon as your guest is seated it is polite to bring them a glass of juice or water. Do not ask if they would like something to drink, since in order to be polite, a Middle Easterner will often refuse a direct offer for food or drink the first time in order to not appear greedy. Without asking, simply bring it and set it before your guest. Something cold to drink (water, juice, soda), something to munch on (sunflower seeds, pistachios, cookies) and some tea are usually the normal minimum food and drink requirements for a typical Middle-Eastern visit. Once again, if you ask your Middle Eastern friend if they would like something to eat or drink, they will sometimes say no out of politeness. It is safer just to set out the food. If your friend is not hungry, they will take just a little of it. There is often nothing rude in Middle Eastern culture in drinking only a small portion of a glass or in eating only a portion of one’s plate.
As regards food and drink, Middle Easterners (and hence you as host) always err on the side of abundance and avoid having too little at all costs, even borrowing from neighbors if need be. Keep attentive to refill your guest’s cup. Again, do this without asking. If you serve a meal, remember to prepare more than can be eaten. Don’t be alarmed or insulted if your guest leaves food on their plate. This is their way of signaling that they are satisfied. Or it may just be that they’re still getting used to Western food. In order to be polite, guests will often wait for the host to be the first one to start eating and the last one to finish. Stay away from serving pork or alcohol at all times unless specifically requested by your guest. Black tea or coffee always, always follows a meal. Middle Easterners have a serious sweet tooth and typically take lots of sugar in their tea along with sweets while relaxing after a meal. But as diabetes increases in Middle Eastern populations it’s becoming polite to ask if your guest would like any sugar in their tea or coffee. In some cultures, when the host serves fruit later in the evening, this signals that the visit is drawing to a close.
If you are wondering what to prepare, it is usually a safe bet to go with a rice dish, a meat dish (again, no pork!), and a salad or vegetables. Also buy some flat bread or pita bread if you can find some at a local grocery store (or halal market – google it) and serve this along with the meal. Many Middle Eastern recipes are also available online and can be very helpful and delicious.
It is always appropriate to pray before a meal. Simply inform your guests before you begin the meal that you are going to ask God’s blessing for the meal. Do not be afraid to pray in the name of Jesus, a name most Middle Easterners greatly respect. It is highly unlikely that this will offend your guests. Many will even appreciate this and ask questions about how Christians are supposed to pray.
Engage your guests in conversation. If you don’t know where to start, ask questions about their home country and their family. Show an interest in who they are and where they came from and make connections where you can. Doing some internet research beforehand about your guest’s home country and society can equip you with good questions which can then lead to profitable conversation. Middle Easterners are often more willing than Americans to discuss politics and religion so don’t get uncomfortable if these topics come up. At the same time, be sober-minded, tactful, and gentle when discussing sensitive issues. Many Middle Easterners have lived through terrible suffering and personal tragedy. Your willingness to listen well can be used of God to truly minister to your guest.
Beware of making direct compliments regarding clothing or jewelry as sometimes this will put an obligation on your guest to offer you the item you just complimented. Asking where they bought said item or being sure to add that it looks nice on them politely avoids implying that you want your guest to give you a certain possession. Having your hands in your pockets or your arms crossed can imply that you’re not listening to your guest. Avoid these postures if you can. Also be aware that unless you are close friends with your guest, physical affection between spouses in front of guests is not appropriate. Physical affection among those dating or engaged is never appropriate when hosting Middle Easterners.
Middle Eastern visits are long, prioritizing people over schedules. Understand that for the first few visits you will need to set aside most of the evening to focus on your guests, not trying to fit them into a one hour slot in your calendar. By giving much time to focus on your guests, you are communicating that you really value them and their friendship. To a Middle-Easterner who has been living in the West, finding a friend who will spend long amounts of time simply visiting and talking is like finding water in a thirsty land.
Children are highly valued in Middle-Eastern culture and much delighted in. If you have small children or babies especially, your guests will often shower them with affection. Often, modern Middle-Eastern children are undisciplined and somewhat spoiled, so don’t be worried about your guests if your kids get a little out of hand. Your guests in fact may encourage this. Be prepared to handle the aftermath and the sugar crashes, but by all means let your children make friends with your guests. It would also be wise to think through fun and engaging kids’ activities if your guests are bringing their children.
Many Middle Eastern cultures consider cats and dogs dirty or shameful. Because of this, pets should be put outside or confined to a room when guests are present. The Western tolerance for these kinds of family pets is much lower among many Middle Easterners. This is changing among the younger generation, but it is wise to be careful. Birds, however, are a very common pet in the Middle East.
It is always polite to walk your guest to the door, or even to their car. Be repeatedly expressive in your gratefulness for your guests and invite them to come again. It is often appropriate to ask to pray on the spot for your guests and many times this is received warmly among Middle Easterners. In this way Christians can be better hosts than others, through our kind intercession for our guests to our loving Father in heaven. An open home and considerate prayer can really open doors for extensive sharing of the gospel. Don’t be surprised if your friends also invite you to their home for the next get-together. Many Middle-Easterners readily enter into mutual hosting relationships, where friends and family regularly visit and host one another.
Sharing the Gospel
Strive to keep the sharing of the gospel as a much-desired result of hospitality, but not as a mandatory obligation. Be sensitive to the Holy Spirit, pray for open doors to speak the gospel, and by no means communicate that your hospitality or friendship is contingent on how they respond to the gospel. Jesus explicitly commands us to host those who cannot repay us (Luke 14:12-14). That means our hospitality as Christians is not an attempt to manipulate any kind of physical or spiritual return. Freely you have received, freely give.
Counter-intuitively, when we extend no-strings-attached hospitality to Middle Eastern friends, this often leads to greater spiritual receptivity and to long and fruitful conversations about Jesus. Let your sharing of the gospel be an overflow of your delight in Jesus and not religious point-scoring. Share your testimony. Hold up Jesus as beautiful and powerful and accompany the tasting of food with an invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). Share confidently, but with gentleness, respect, and love (1 Pet 3:15). Do not be surprised at initial resistance to the gospel on the part of your friend. Instead, pray and pursue more opportunities to spend time together. Genuine hospitality and friendship will lead to numerous opportunities to share the gospel clearly and compellingly.
Everything shared in this post comes from a desire to see Western Christians equipped to host Middle-Easterners in their homes. There will be slight variations from region to region regarding these cultural guidelines, so don’t treat these recommendations as law. Some immigrants and refugees will want to do certain things the Western way. These guidelines, however, have been checked and affirmed by many who have lived among Middle-Easterners or who are from the Middle East themselves. God willing, this information can serve as a good foundation to invite a Middle Eastern friend or family to your home. If Middle Easterners and believers begin to sit down in homes and to have meals together, much spiritual fruit can follow. As we break bread together God will give us opportunities to speak of the bread of life, the one whose body was broken for us, the one who promises that he himself will host many from the East and the West at his Father’s table (Matt 8:11, Luke 12:37).