My Undocumented Boyfriend’s Parents Taught Me True Hospitality

I was welcomed by my future in-laws who were unwelcome in my own country.
My Undocumented Boyfriend’s Parents Taught Me True Hospitality
Image: Figula Photography / Getty Images

My future father-in-law perched on his knees, balancing a spoon of goo in the air and waiting for me to open my mouth. “Sarita, pro ... bá ... lo,” he encouraged. My Spanish was weak, but I knew he was saying “Try it.”

“Don’t worry, Sarita. Is fine,” my future mother-in-law assured me in measured English. I looked at this Guatemalan couple, so concerned about a cough I’d developed visiting their country that they’d immediately whipped up a homemade concoction for me. I wished Billy, their son and my boyfriend, were there to translate or tell them to stop. But his status as an undocumented immigrant precluded international travel since he would not be allowed back into the United States once he left.

So I was on my own. I closed my eyes, opened my mouth, and swallowed the mixture his dad kindly offered.

I first met Billy’s parents en route to a city several hours away, where I was headed to learn Spanish for the summer. They greeted me with flowers. They welcomed me into their home, offered their bed for a post-flight nap, and warmed me with deliciously sugared coffee. They even volunteered to drive me to the bus station and help me find my way to my final destination.

Since dating an undocumented immigrant, I’d begun to recognize the prevalence of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, particularly toward arrivals from south of the border, including Guatemalans. Now I was wrestling with the realization that my future in-laws would likely not receive the same warm welcome in my country as they had extended to me in theirs.

This same tension is the driving force behind the story of the Good Samaritan, Christ’s familiar parable in Luke 10 about a passerby encountering an injured man. The Samaritan ignores his own agenda to offer the hurting man attention, medical care, shelter, and financial support. For many, the Good Samaritan serves as the ultimate example of biblical hospitality (the word hospitality, in fact, comes from the Greek philoxenia, or “love to strangers”).

Just as the Samaritan reached out across cultural, ethnic, and religious lines, Christians, too, have often understood welcoming the stranger to mean extending hospitality to foreigners and newcomers. But in an era of refugee crises, terrorist attacks, and rising nationalism, many of us feel overwhelmed and unsure what welcome really looks like.

Here is where the Good Samaritan story flips the script: Jesus invites us to learn hospitality from the stranger himself.

While I grew up connecting with the Samaritan and aiming to model his example of kindness, Jesus’ Jewish listener would not have identified at all with him, a man from a people group despised by the Jews. So the Samaritan is both the story’s hero and the embodiment of “the other.”

This role reversal was a difficult pill for many Jewish listeners to swallow, especially when Jesus returned his original question: Who was the neighbor? M. Daniel Carroll R., in Christians at the Border, describes his answer this way: “The scribe responds correctly, but he cannot bring himself to say, ‘the Samaritan.’ The merciful person is simply called ‘the one.’” When Jesus offered the looked-down-upon outsider as the example, Carroll writes, “The people of God are taught about true faith through an encounter with one outside and rejected by their culture.”

As Americans consider how to “welcome the stranger” in a climate of fear, skepticism, and scapegoating, it may very well be those we consider to be outsiders whom God is using to demonstrate radical hospitality.

Accepting welcome

Marie Marquardt is a scholar-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and board chair of El Refugio, a Georgia ministry that provides housing, meals, and support for family and friends visiting immigrant detainees. She has witnessed time and time again how the guests who stay at the El Refugio hospitality house—the people they aim to serve—demonstrate an inspiring capacity to offer welcome. When a family is visiting detention for the first time, other guests offer a listening ear and council, ministering to one another as they process the detention of loved ones together. Marquardt describes the house as a space of mutual hospitality, recalling the profundity of God she says she has experienced through visitors’ prayers.

El Refugio also organizes volunteers to visit men in detention who have requested guests. “Even in our visits,” Marquardt says, “we are preparing ourselves to accept their welcome. We are actual strangers—with no connection—coming into their space. It is vulnerable for both parties. But I have found these visits to be absolutely transformative. When you create welcoming space, you receive love, and it changes you.”

The call to hospitality is an invitation to transformation, healing, and redemption. And while it can begin with simple acts of kindness and welcome, it invites us deeper into community with those on the margins.

Anton Flores-Maisonet is the cofounder of Casa Alterna, a community of Christ-followers from Latin America and the United States devoted to serving others in their city of LaGrange, Georgia. “Fellowship within marginalized communities reveals resiliency that runs deeper than suffering,” says Flores-Maisonet, an advocate for sharing meals and ordinary life as a way to heal communities. “Witnessing inexplicable joy and hope amidst unthinkable circumstances creates a healing and hopeful place for all.”

In the giving and receiving of hospitality, both the Samaritan and the victim in Jesus’ parable are invited to see the face of God in the other. They are beckoned to engagement that can lead to relationship. While many Christians are familiar with verses calling us to care for the poor and marginalized, this story reminds us of the remarkable capacity of the other to demonstrate hospitality as well.

In our fearful world today, it is truly a countercultural proposal—a beautiful invitation both to welcome our immigrant and refugee neighbors and allow them to welcome us. “As Christians, we’re called to do everything we can to resist acting out of fear,” Marquardt says. “It’s the antithesis of hospitality.”

Billy’s parents applied for US tourist visas to attend our wedding, but they were both denied twice. The couple who had opened their home to me were not welcome in my homeland, and they were unable to attend their son’s wedding. Eight years later, they applied again, and this time my mother-in-law was granted a visa. When we went to pick her up at the airport, I brought her flowers. After eight years of visiting her home, it was a simple, welcoming gesture that I had learned from her faithful example.

Sarah Quezada is a writer living in a bicultural household in Atlanta. She has a master’s in sociology and writes regularly at sarahquezada.com. She is the author of Love Undocumented: Risking Trust in a Fearful World (Herald Press, 2018).

May
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My Undocumented Boyfriend’s Parents Taught Me True Hospitality