When Strangers Opened Up Their Home to Me

“Why are you still looking for housing options? I’ve told you that you can come stay with us. We have a room for you,” Cheu said.

This gentle rebuke has stuck with me for a while—even after I’ve wrapped up my five-month stay at her family’s apartment in New York, and now returned home to Singapore—as a reminder of such ordinary, yet radical, hospitality.

Over the last close-to-two-years in New York City, I’ve met my fair share of people true to the Big Apple stereotype—cold, self-assured, and hostile. Never would I have expected this to be the place where I’d be a first-time recipient of philoxenia—the Greek term for hospitality, literally translated as “friend to the stranger.”

When the Loh family first offered for me to stay with them, I had just graduated from an exorbitant master’s program at an Ivy League university and was very broke, unemployed, and lost. Also, they’d barely known me. Although we worshipped at the same church in uptown Manhattan, at that point, we had probably chatted all but thrice.

Perhaps there is some affinity with being Singaporeans—Cheu and her husband Ji Meng are Singaporeans, but have been in the US for over two decades, while their two children, Ashley and Isaac, have spent almost all their lives in New York.

But I’d say their gesture stems more from the belief that the blood of Christ is thicker than the blood of water.

In her book, The Gospel Comes with a House Key, Rosaria Butterfield wrote that those who live out radically ordinary hospitality “see their homes not as theirs at all, but as God’s gift to use for the furtherance of his kingdom.”

Hebrews 13:2 urges Christians to “not forget to show hospitality to strangers,” and reminds us that our willingness to do so can have far-reaching, kingdom implications—“for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it”.

This was true to my experience in the Loh household. I was offered my own room, probably the largest space I’d ever had in this city of sky-high rents and tiny apartments; I was invited to “help myself” to whatever was in the pantry, and to daily fellowship at the dinner table.

I became part of the family for this season, in a rather low-key way. I sometimes helped load and empty the dishwasher, which I grew to enjoy. I once tried to help Isaac film a video for school, but we only ended up in balls of hysterical laughter; I offered to help buy vegetables and baozi (Chinese steamed buns) each time I made a trip to Chinatown.

The family has been there for me through the mundane and the crazy, too. They listened to my incessant dilemmas about whether to take up this internship, or that job offer. When I sustained an abscess on my foot, they helped me seek medical services and look up pharmacies late in the night. When the Lunar New Year came around, they extended table fellowship to my friends—fellow international students not wanting to spend the festive occasion alone.

How ordinary is the hospitality that’s folded into the general rhythm of this household, where its owners are not caught up with fancy meals, nor perfectly cleaned rooms, but where there is always room—or where the owners will always make room—at the table.

But how radical, too, this has been to me, as someone who grew up being taught to “mind your own business,” and where people hardly ate together.

The Loh household is the only one I’ve ever lived in where people ask about your day because they genuinely want to know. And this sheer gesture of asking, listening, making time—has allowed me to experience Christ’s love, as He sat and feasted with sinners (Mark 2:13-17).

If we speak in monetary terms, I will never be able to “repay” this offer of hospitality. But my experience with the Lohs’ has encouraged me to consider how I, too, can be a fearless giver of my time and space to others.

While physical space is scarce in Singapore—it’s scarcer still in Manhattan, really—I now know from experience that Christian hospitality does not call for a beautifully decorated home, or even a physical home at all. It can take the form of a cup of tea, offering company to the doctor’s, or simply a listening ear and prayer. It calls for us to make room in our hearts and calendars.

And it calls for some boldness.

Jesus was never afraid to befriend the hurting and dwell with the outcasts. He laid hands on the leper whom the society shunned (Matthew 8:3). He dined in celebration with tax collectors, whom others considered undesirable (Mark 2:13-17). He befriended a sinful woman, despite her status and past (John 4:4-26).

This inspired me to think about my circumstances in Singapore. Is there someone I can invite to a meal during a festive occasion, who might not have an opportunity to celebrate it otherwise?

Is there not a nursing home or daycare centre right in my neighborhood, which houses senior who crave company? How about the migrant workers who are often abused because they are not fluent enough in English to understand their rights? How can I be a friend to them, like how Jesus has been to sinners like us, and how the Loh family has been, to me?

Jesus exhorts us in Luke 14:12-14:

When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Jesus drew people close. He met them empty and left them full. Such is the gospel’s standard for hospitality—radical to the fallen world, but an ordinary building block of the eternal kingdom.

God will call some of us to leave everything behind and move abroad, to places strange and unfamiliar. But for the majority of us, perhaps the call is simply to keep our doors open, to make room at the table, to help people carry the crosses they bear.

As we await the marriage supper of the Lamb, may we strive to make our homes here a hint of what that great feast will look like—most extravagant not in booze and delicacy, but in its picture-perfect gathering of all nations and tribes, the outcasts, the hurting, and the lonely.

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