It was late spring, 2004, near the end of my first year teaching English in Southeast Asia. As I rode my electric motorbike away from the university campus where I worked, I hoped that a night at the seaside would refresh me for the end of the semester. Dusty gray streets soon gave way to rice fields, bright and young, lining the road to the coast, and as I picked up speed, the wind brought relief from unrelenting heat.
Another motorbike pulled up next to mine. The driver, like all women in the country where I lived, was wearing long sleeves, long pants, a hat, and a scarf across her face to protect her from the sun. She pulled the scarf down, revealing a wide smile.
“Hello!” said the smiling woman.
“Hi,” I replied, trying to hide my annoyance. I was retreating, for crying out loud. I was trying to be alone. But in that part of the country, many locals had never seen a foreigner, and they always wanted to talk with me.
“My name’s Leigh!” she exclaimed. “You American?” I answered yes, hoping the conversation would end quickly. And after another line or two, it did.
“Oh! That my house,” she said, slowing to turn and pointing to a small wooden house on a cement slab in a sea of rice plants and palm trees. “I invite you to my home!” she said.
I thanked her but waved good-bye.
Checking into my hotel, I asked the proprietors to plug in my electric motorbike so that it would be fully charged for my drive home the next morning. Then I grabbed my books and journal and headed to the beach.
After a day and a night spent in quiet and prayer, I was ready to return to campus and finish the semester. But halfway home, my motorbike began to lose speed. Soon I was crawling along at no more than four kilometers per hour, and I realized that the hotel proprietors had not, in fact, left my motorbike plugged in all night. They had probably wanted to save money on their electric bill. My motorbike was out of power.
I looked around. There was not a person in sight, just a haze of green, green heat and the buzz of mosquitos. I was still nearly ten kilometers from town, and I was in trouble. Even if another person came by eventually, it’s not like they could bring me a gallon of gas. I didn’t need gas; I needed an outlet.
And then I realized something: at the very moment my motorbike was dying, I was driving past Leigh’s house. The woman who had introduced herself to me the day before lived right where I was, in the middle of this very rice field. I turned down the dirt path toward the small home of the exuberant stranger.
Leigh was happy to see me, and happy to let me plug into an outlet on the side of her house. Now that I saw her off of her motorbike, I realized she was pregnant, nearly full-term, and probably only a few years older than I was. Leigh invited me to sit down, and pulled out a hairy coconut and a machete. Fascinated, and a little scared, I watched as this petite pregnant woman split the coconut in half and poured its juice into two glasses. She offered me one, and joined me at the table. With our limited knowledge of each other’s languages, we spent an hour in conversation, sharing our lives and stories. She told me about attending university, marrying her high school “darling,” and moving to his palm-tree farm. He was often away on business, leaving her alone and pregnant. She wrote letters to her classmates who had married foreigners and moved to Australia and England; she missed them. I told her about the family I’d left behind in America, and about my job teaching English at the university. Thanks to her generosity, I eventually made my way home.
In the twelve years since I ran out of power on a stretch of deserted rice field in Southeast Asia, I’ve often thought back to this moment as emblematic of the great hospitality that was consistently offered to me there. I was a stranger in desperate need. I was unable to demonstrate my trustworthiness, unable to prove that I deserved help, and unable to offer compensation. Yet I was warmly welcomed and cared for.
The way that I was welcomed when I was a stranger in Southeast Asia sparked in me a desire to extend the same kind of hospitality when I returned to the States. But when I moved back, and started studying and practicing hospitality, I began to realize just how anemic my understanding of it was. When I studied hospitality in the Bible, I recognized how different it was from the way I had grown up understanding the word. Hospitality wasn’t about having matching table settings and menus that met Martha Stewart’s standards, or Pinterest-worthy decorations. Hospitality was not about perfectly planned parties in immaculate households with sumptuous snacks. Hospitality had little to do with having a clean house or being a sophisticated hostess. These were the kinds of things, culturally, that we thought of when we talked about hospitality. We even talked about the “hospitality industry” of hotels and restaurants—which is perhaps, when you look at biblical hospitality, a bit of a contradiction in terms.
Biblically, hospitality is not about throwing parties for your friends or making money off of strangers. Instead, hospitality is a posture of the heart. Hospitality means being emotionally, physically, spiritually open to strangers—and being open for unexpected blessings in return.