It was the first week of Christmas break in 2010. I was halfway through my final year of college and had picked up extra shifts at my part-time job at Panda Express. Walking across campus, exhausted from work and carrying my groceries, I ran into my friend Taka, an international student.
Taka had come from Japan to learn English through the school’s Cultural Intensive English Program. Through the program, I became Taka’s conversation partner. It was a simple exchange; our only obligation was to meet for a couple of hours each week so that Taka could practice speaking English with an American student. Those few hours turned into friendship as we bonded over our mutual love for professional tennis player Andy Murray, coffee, and Hiyao Miyazaki movies.
For one reason or another, most of those invitations had fallen through, leaving the international students alone to fend for themselves.
I was surprised to see he was still on campus; he had excitedly shared about going to a friend’s house for Christmas. We made some small talk until my curiosity became a barrage of questions. I discovered that several other international students had also stayed on campus because of invitations from campus ministry friends to make Christmas cookies, go ice skating, or visit new places together. For one reason or another, most of those invitations had fallen through, leaving the international students alone to fend for themselves. I was disappointed. I was embarrassed. It felt like we had tricked our friends, as though we had been saying, “Come to Bible study and weekly meetings in order to make American friends.”
Taka showed me that hospitality wasn’t about the glitz or glamour, but the willingness to serve those around you with humility.
As I headed back to my apartment, I grew increasingly frustrated with my Christian friends who had made these empty, grand gestures. But what about me? I didn’t open up my home to my new friends either. I had put that responsibility on others. I immediately texted Taka to see if he would come over for dinner. At that moment, Taka gave me my first lesson on hospitality, as he courageously asked if he could invite other international students who were also stranded alone on campus for the holidays. To me, hospitality was something my parents and other grownups did because they had a house with matching dining sets, enough space to entertain their guests, and a fancy meal. I thought you had to have it all. But that evening, 10 of us scattered around my living room floor eating pancakes because all the groceries I had bought earlier were cases of instant ramen, eggs, cereal, bread, and milk. I didn’t have to have it all or have matching dining sets to open up my home. And I didn’t need to have anything fancy to serve. Taka showed me that hospitality wasn’t about the glitz or glamour, but the willingness to serve those around you with humility. A relationship of vulnerability and genuine connection was forming beyond what I had previously experienced with my international friends. I was no longer the one talking; I was learning to listen.
As Christmas break continued, the 10 of us gathered together to eat pizza at a popular establishment walking distance from campus, cook together in my kitchen, play endless rounds of UNO and bingo on my living room floor, watch movies, and most importantly, continue establishing a meaningful relationship with each other. Every night, my friends shared more about their lives, their aspirations, their struggles, and their secrets. For the first time, I wasn’t the one doling out words of unsolicited advice, comfort, or encouragement — my friends had taken the lead.
Taka shared the real reason he had been uninvited from his friend’s home. He had told his friend that he was gay and asked advice about how to talk to his parents about his sexuality. Taka’s friend immediately ghosted him (ending the friendship suddenly and without explanation). I could feel the sense of shame that he was feeling. He had never before shared this vulnerable side of him. My time with him had been spent helping him practice English, looking over his English homework, and trying to get him to come to my Bible study and Thursday night ministry. Another friend was double-majoring in economics and finance to be respectful of her parents while secretly taking painting classes. A third friend was ashamed to tell his parents that he was battling depression and struggling with how to adjust to life so far from home.
The more my friends opened up to me, the more I, too, was able to become vulnerable with them.
The more my friends opened up to me, the more I, too, was able to become vulnerable with them. I told them I was also going through my own set of personal struggles with anxiety, depression, and self-doubt. That fall semester, I had taken on 18 credit hours and two part-time jobs. It was the first semester I didn’t make the Dean’s List. This was one of the reasons I had decided not to go home for the full Christmas break; I knew my mom would be disappointed and it would be all that she would talk about. I also wanted to avoid the conversation about what I was going to do after I graduated that spring semester. Culturally, we were all so different, yet also alike in so many ways.
Culturally, we were all so different, yet also alike in so many ways.
A few days before Christmas, my friend Andrew, also a Christian whom I met in a cultural anthropology class, invited me to grab coffee. Feeling vulnerable, I inundated him with a flood of emotions from anger to sadness to confusion about how I could respond in grace toward my friends in the campus ministry and how they had acted toward our community of international student friends. But also how disappointed I was in myself for not opening up my home to our friends. Andrew surprised me by simply asking, “How can I help?” Full of skepticism and wanting to protect my friends, I responded, “Are you 100 percent sure?” He didn’t respond.
I was disappointed in myself for not opening up my home to our friends.
Christmas Eve came. I went home to spend time with my family and pick up decorations for my apartment. Then I went on a last minute shopping spree to buy gifts for my friends. I still hadn’t heard back from Andrew. But there he was at my door, with presents in hand, ready to help me prepare for our Christmas party. On Christmas Eve, the two of us made my apartment look like Christmas. We diced, chopped, minced, and marinated several pounds of meat and vegetables, prepared two rice cookers, and crimped dozens of dumplings, crab rangoons, spring rolls, and egg rolls.
Christmas Day finally arrived. We were ready. The apartment was decorated. The table was set out with all kinds of food. Christmas music blared from my computer. And I experienced the best Christmas present I could have imagined: friendship. After a late night of eating, celebrating, and playing board games, my friends didn’t leave the cleanup to me. They pitched in to help.
The Gospel is about learning to offer hospitality and being a blessing to the people we encounter each day.
I never shared the Gospel with my new friends or witnessed one of them accepting Christianity. I had previously been so caught up with that side of ministry that I, myself, missed out on Jesus. I also missed out on being a good friend. There are days when I often reflect on the Gospel and its reminder of what it means to serve others well beyond the Great Commission. Bringing people to Jesus isn’t about quick marketing gimmicks like those late-night infomercials. The Gospel is about learning to offer hospitality and being a blessing to the people we encounter each day. I am reminded of what God directed Moses to tell the Israelites and Aaron: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26, NIV). This is what I want to generously share with those around me.