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The other day I was given a lesson in hospitality on a flight from Rome. After eating my airline meal (not bad), the passenger seated next to me offered me some cookies he had brought onboard. When I smiled and took one, he firmly insisted that I take a second.
Later as I was reading a book, I suddenly realized that my fellow passenger was intoning a prayer in Arabic. I shut off the overhead light and sat quietly so that he could pray without distraction. After he was finished, he thanked me with a smile, and a little later he retrieved some candy from his backpack. Again he offered me one and at first I tried begging him off (I’m watching my weight) – but when he again insisted, it suddenly hit me that to refuse his gift would have been an insult.
So I took the candy. It was very good. That’s when I finally introduced himself, three long hours into our flight. The man’s name was Mammar. And when Mammar offered me another cookie later, I happily accepted it.
An education in hospitality
Clearly, Mammar had been educated in hospitality. It was part of his cultural tradition and his faith. In hindsight, I noticed that Mammar was much more hospitable than the airline staff, who were trained in the professional art of hospitality. The flight attendants did their jobs efficiently – I had no complaints about the service – but I could see they were not deriving any pleasure from what they were doing. They just wanted to get us passengers through the flight as efficiently and unproblematically as possible, so they could move on with their day.
For Mammar, on the other hand, the act of offering me some food was done out of real conviction. The small gesture was important to him, which is why he was so insistent that I accept that second cookie. Hospitality was not so much a duty for him, as it was for the airline staff, but part of his cultural and religious identity.
Building the kingdom
In his book The Miracle of Hospitality, Luigi Giussani says, “The attitude of hospitality means the forgiveness of difference…” That is certainly what I experienced from Mammar, who did not act generously to me because I shared his religion or nationality or language.
Christians, of course, are also educated to be hospitable. (“Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Matthew 25:31) Hopefully all of us will be practicing that virtue in the coming weeks – welcoming strangers, giving generously of our time and possessions to those in need, taking a moment to listen to people who have problems, or even doing something as simple as offering a fellow airline passenger a cookie.
Whatever we do to try to spread Christ’s love and build his kingdom during the coming months, I hope that our actions will be carried out with all the conviction and insistence that I encountered in my fellow passenger, Mammar. Our society desperately needs these simple gestures of hospitality. Carried out with love and conviction, they have the power to transform the world.