I confess that I miss the back fence neighbors we had in South Carolina. On each side of us, all you had to do was walk out the door and there was someone ready to offer a smile, a chat, something to drink, or lend a hand. Trust me — they never had to ask twice. Unless I was running off somewhere, it was great fun to take the time and enjoy the relationship.
It is the beginning of the new school year and I am expecting many new neighbors in this great city of Houston where I now live. They are coming from all over the world. It is my turn to offer some hospitality at the back fence. International students will soon be arriving at our universities and colleges. Indications are that this will be a record year in numbers of young people coming to study in the U.S. Sadly, 70 percent of international students never enter an American home. These new bright minds coming to study alongside our students will battle homesickness and fear of the unknown. They will navigate confusing apartment leases and class schedules. They will search for places of worship and figure out grocery shopping for foods they do not recognize. With many of them coming from countries that excel in hospitality, my prayer is that a few more of us will gather at the back fence and offer a chance for a chat, a cup of tea, a meal, or just lend a hand.
Record numbers of refugees have arrived this summer. Families will be enrolling their children in schools. They will likely look a bit bewildered and even frightened. Some of them may have a new backpack provided by donors, but many of them won’t. Some may have managed to spend a few dollars on a new shirt and shoes. Most of them won’t. Imagine coming from a war-torn, impoverished country after having lived months maybe years in a tent, and then walking up to that American school for the first time. All of the nice cars pulling up in front letting out their little ones. Watching loving parents in a sense of peace and security hug and kiss their kids as they send them off. Imagine these new arrivals with big eyes taking in all the new clothes proudly worn and shown off to friends or listening to all the friendly excited chatter. And then imagine them facing that giant door to a whole new world. My prayer is that many of us will be ready and waiting to offer these new Americans an opportunity to come play in the backyard even as we chat with their parents at the back fence.
As I visited one international friend a few days ago, I was reminded of the Persian cultural rule of hospitality called tarof. In tarof the host must offer the guest something that is perhaps needed or wanted. The guest must refuse. After all one never knows if the host is sincere or just being nice. So the host is obligated to demonstrate sincerity by offering multiple times. One of my Persian friends told me years ago at least three times is required. I am hoping tarof is what my new international neighbors will experience. I am hoping we will call out from the back fence so many times that our new International neighbors cannot doubt the genuine sincerity and hospitality. Then it will no longer be welcoming the stranger, but welcoming a friend.