Growing up in the South women were defined by their hospitality, church potlucks and family reunions. You were nothing if not considered a phenomenal luncheon hostess or the catalyst for the ladies’ afternoon book club. While I admired my mother and her counterparts’ ability to quickly organize a soiree, I often found these events and open houses to be a bit dry, lacking in authenticity. I wanted friendship and conversation but I wanted it to be real, an authentic expression of our collective humanity.
As I grew older, I better understood my disconnect with the hospitality of the Old South. I did not identify with the stuffy tea parties and get-togethers thrown out of either obligation or a need to impress. I did not feel compelled to follow the assumed rules and roles of social decorum: hostess gifts, thank you cards and the like; unless of course I was certain they came from my heart, rather than obligations set in place by the pressures of Southern culture. I desired to be hospitable both within my heart and my home, yet struggled to find a way to accomplish this in light of my experiences.
Over the last six years, I’ve been unbelievably lucky to fall into friendship with a woman I adore and admire. She has taught me more about genuine hospitality than I had formerly learned nearly a lifetime ago.
We met through a mutual friend who connected us during an author’s event at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Area 15, a collaborative artists’ space that hosts a variety of small businesses and events. At the time, we each had two kids the same ages: three years old and newborn, which in the throes of motherhood is the best groundwork for camaraderie.
My friend Helms, lived on the west end of town with her husband Greg and two boys, while I lived on the north end with my husband at-the-time and two children. We were introduced by a friend who knew my longing for true, intentional community, and also knew I often lacked the interactions needed to support such a deep desire. This friend assumed we would find a space for connectivity and meaningful relationship; though I’m sure he didn’t know how much I would benefit from learning about this new definition of community and hospitality from this family.
Helms and Greg live in a way that challenges and often overwhelms me; always leaving me better after our time together, always looking for ways to incorporate their way of life into my own home. For 11 years, they have lived out of what they call a “Hospitality House” in an area of town previously feared and ignored by the majority of city residents. In spite of this, their door is almost always unlocked and their yard is full of neighborhood kids with the sounds of innocence and deep friendship filling the air.
I watch as they host meals for the kids on Wednesday nights and for the entire neighborhood a few Fridays per month, with an open-door policy every night in-between. There is never the expectation of receiving thank you gifts or accolades. Helms and her family show hospitality not to meet a social obligation, but to meet the needs of others in their community; often finding their own needs being met through these meaningful and otherwise unlikely friendships.
This open-door hospitality changes my previously assumed definition of being open, welcoming and hospitable. It encourages me to warmly welcome people in despite what I may have to give; despite what others may give in return, with the true goal on relationships and love rooted in commonality.
Though the mores of my Southern roots built within me a foundational importance of having an open home, ensuring that I am capable of vulnerability and genuine interaction comes from watching this family day in and day out. They live in a space of hospitality – even when it’s exhausting, even when it’s uncomfortable.
This new definition of hospitality is not about me. It is not about meeting my needs or being filled by the compliments of others. This new hospitality empowers me to give – though I may not receive, to love – though it may not be returned. My neighborhood’s needs are a bit different than the west end’s needs in which my friends still reside. But the lesson is the same: When we make our homes and our lives more accessible to others, we are able to generously give out of a space of compassion and authenticity; embracing opportunities that embody our true selves. This is the way I want to live. This is the hospitality I’ve been longing for.
Liz lives in a quiet Charlotte neighborhood with her growing family, which includes her 80 pound German shepherd, Quinn. She writes on pregnancy and parenting; amongst other things she is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.