Showing hospitality by sharing a meal is one of my favorite ways to serve others. But I learned a lesson from Jesus in hospitality while my husband, Kevin, and I were living in a rural community in Panama with the indigenous Ngäbe.
In Ngäbe culture, giving food is a sign of friendship. When you visit someone’s home, you leave with a full stomach or a handful of food that was found around the house: eggs, vegetables from the field, a pound of freshly harvested rice.
A few weeks after I arrived in the community, I became friends with a 17-year-old girl named Jaqi. She worked in a small store near our house each day from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m., selling rice, beans, and warm Coca-Cola. Shy and unsure of me at first, she gradually began to engage with me in conversation, and we would exchange a few sentences each day.
After a bit of time had passed, inviting Jaqi and her 10-year-old brother Roger to be the guests for my first dinner party in Panama only seemed natural.
Our Dog’s Favorite Dinner Party
Kevin and I whipped up the most delicious spaghetti we could with the resources available (some of which were purchased earlier in the week when we made the hour-long hike out to the grocery store in honor of the occasion). We sautéed onions, garlic, and green peppers to add to our tomato sauce, and then stirred in oregano and other spices while the pasta boiled. This was the food we had dreamed of while eating rice and beans for the umpteenth time, and it was good.
We mixed Kool-Aid to drink, dished up four plates, and brought everything outside to the table where Jaqi and Roger waited. We even lit a candle (less for the atmosphere and more because the sun was setting and we lived without electricity, but it did add a nice touch).
I presented them with the food and we dug in. After a bit of light conversation, mostly with myself, I noticed my dinner guests weren’t eating. Jaqi turned away from us and inspected her food very closely with a flashlight, removing from the pasta anything with flavor. Roger whispered to her in Ngäbere; she shot him angry looks and motioned with her lips to eat the food. After this awkwardness lasted a few minutes, I spoke.
“Roger, do you like the pasta?”
Jaqi continued inspecting her food.
“It’s okay if you don´t like it, Jaqi. Whatever you don’t eat Kevin or the dog will eat. We won’t be offended.”
“No, I will eat it.”
Kevin and I looked at each other. We knew they wouldn´t dare give it to the dog in front of us.
“We are going to clean up in the house. We’ll be back.”
We walked inside and a few seconds later heard the dog licking the plates. Jaqi rinsed the plates at the tap outside and brought them inside the house.
“Thank you for the food.”
“Thank you for coming. At the next dinner party we’ll have rice and beans.”
She smiled, nodded, and walked with Roger into the dark, her flashlight leading the way.
Dinner Party #1: Fail.
Banana Leaves as Relationship Builders
That evening, I reflected on what went wrong. There were many things: I made food they weren’t used to. I sat with them while they ate and tried to make conversation when they preferred eating alone with no one watching. But mostly, instead of growing closer through sharing a meal and trying to serve them, I highlighted the differences between us. I wanted to impress them, but fanning a three-stone wood fire with a banana leaf to boil rice would have been more relatable, and probably would have given them a good laugh and something to bond us together. (Fast forward a couple of weeks: I did ask a few women in the community to teach me to cook like they do, and it was a turning point in my relationship with them.)
I am thankful that Jesus is more relatable than I am and that his table looks a lot different than my table. As he said in Luke’s Gospel, “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at the table in the kingdom of God” (13:29). When I sit at his table with the beautiful mosaic of believers, I trust we will all belong.
And at his table, no one leaves hungry.
You might also be interested in our other "Who's at Your Table?" posts by Elizabeth, Lynda, and Adam.
Urbana 12 and ACT:S are challenging you to share an intentional meal with someone who lives differently than you, to learn what you have in common and what you can learn from each other. On Wednesdays in November and December, we’ll be posting stories from InterVarsity staff and alumni about intentional meals they’ve shared with others—and all the good that comes from it.
(This was originally posted on World Vision's ACT:S blog.)