“Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” -Romans 12:13
“Make yourself at home. You are like family!” said the chief of Pon Kam village. I sat on a mat on the floor of the chief’s house eating a mango that an older woman had peeled and given to me. I’d only met the chief an hour ago. He didn’t even know my name yet, and he was telling me I was like family. We laughed as we talked about the differences in Lao and American culture, and recited the names of different fruits in Lao, English, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and French. He found the English word, “banana” particularly funny. He looked at his wife straight-faced, then blurted out “BANANA!”, and burst into unrestrained laughter. The plates of jackfruit and pineapple that surrounded me came from his trees. The chief went and picked them himself, and proudly presented them as part of the feast that we shared that evening in his home with about 15 other villagers. While we were still eating, the chief pulled out a small cup, about the size of the individual communion cups we have at my home church in Rogersville, AL, and began to pour Lao whisky. He told everyone to drink from it. It was one of the most expensive things he owned, and it was obvious he saved it for special occasions. The chief filled up the cup, then passed it to his right. The person would drink, then give him back the cup and he’d fill it again, each time passing it to the next person. The cup went around the circle so that everyone was able to drink. The chief was offering up the most precious drink he had, and he wanted to share it with all present at the meal.
After the meal, we walked in the dark to another villager’s house where we would spend the night. Though we had never met the woman before, she welcomed us into her house. We greeted one another with a simple “Sabaidee,” the typical Lao greeting. We were never asked our names but beckoned in to enjoy the snacks and drinks that were waiting for us. As we nibbled on rice crackers, the chief and I began to talk more. He explained that he’d met many foreigners before, but they were very different from me. He said they smiled differently. “You are easy to talk to. You talk like Lao people,” he said.
The thing that I was impressed by was not his comment on my demeanor, but his hospitality having encountered so many less than friendly foreigners before. As we were leaving his house, I remembered that one of the Lao IRD staff had picked up a trinket and showed it to me. It was an unexploded ordnance (UXO). All around are reminders of the complicated and often unacknowledged relationship between the US and Lao, from the UXOs used as decorations in restaurants and homes to the man passing by on the road with nothing to fill the left sleeve of his shirt. Despite a complicated past with Americans, last Wednesday, I was welcomed in by the chief of the village. He threw a party just because a stranger was there. He shared his food, and then we all drank from the same cup. Then I shared a sleeping mat and a mosquito net with two other women I’d never met before.
“In Lao villages, if you just go up to someone and tell them you do not know anyone and you have no food, they will welcome you into their home, let you stay with them, and feed you,” explained my Lao friend and IRD staff member, Mo. “We don’t even have to know your name. Saying, “Sabaidee” is enough. It is like we already know each other then.”
A few weeks ago, Candler published an article on their website talking about how its students were going out this summer to love their global neighbors. The truth, at least for me, is that I came across the ocean not because of my love, but to be loved by my Lao neighbors. As IRD is doing life changing work improving Lao schools, training teachers how to teach Lao children about nutrition, and community health workers to promote hygiene and sanitation, it seems my new friends are doing some training and capacity building of their own. My friends are teaching me an eternal lesson, how to love.
Don’t misunderstand, I’m not talking about some over-spiritualized kind of “love.” The kind of love that I am being taught is a kind of love that is intensely practical. It’s sharing the only food you have, when the next meal is still very insecure. It is sharing your home and risking relationship after being burned. It’s drinking from the same cup the most precious drink you have. It is sleeping under the same mosquito net with a stranger, and at times the enemy. To be clear, I was the stranger this week.
For the last month, I’ve been wondering why I felt so called to come back to Laos this time. I’d lived in Laos for 6 months before in 2008, but that was different. I was a missionary. I was working with a church. I was living in intentional community. Why had I felt called to return? I wasn’t living or working with the same people. I wasn’t even in the same region of Laos as before, and there was no “church” in sight. Last week, I understood. I’m being taught the lesson that is so simple and yet so difficult for most of us. It’s the reason I went to Laos in the first place, its the reason I came to Candler, its the reason I was transformed at Emmaus House in ConEd I and Druid Hills Presbyterian in ConEd II. Slowly but surely I’m getting it, I’m learning how to love as Christ has loved us.
So, I’m thankful to God, to Candler, to IRD, to the chief at Pon Kam village, and to all the countless people in between that showed me what God’s love looks like, who loved their neighbor, the stranger, and sometimes even the enemy…me.
I wonder, what would it look like if our churches practiced the same kind of hospitality? What if we realized we are often the stranger when discussing immigration policy? What if we shared the most precious things that we have instead of hoarding them? What if sharing the cup was practical, meaningful, and sacred all at the same time? What if we dared to truly love?