A Blizzard's Silver Lining
An ancient virtue is alive and well in Buffalo, New York.
We are each other’s business: We are each other’s magnitude and bond.
- Gwendolyn Brooks (excerpt from the poem, Paul Robeson)
The big news in the United States this past holiday season was the wild and destructive winter storm that covered much of the country. Western New York was especially hard hit with sustained blizzard conditions. Thirty people died in New York because of storm-related causes, in part because most emergency vehicles could not get through the snow drifts.
On Christmas morning, an article in the New York Times about a stranded tour group caught my attention. On Friday afternoon, two days before Christmas, ten people from South Korea were traveling to Niagara Falls when their van got stuck in the snow in Williamsville, New York. Two men from the group knocked on the door of Alexander and Andrea Campagna, asking for shovels to dig their van out of a ditch. This was the beginning of an unexpected holiday weekend blessed by hospitality, otherwise known as the ancient art of welcoming guests.
The Campagnas lived their entire lives in Buffalo and understood the danger of the storm when they invited the visitors in as guests. The seven women and three men filled their three bedroom home over the Christmas weekend, sharing stories, watching football, and enjoying home-cooked Korean meals prepared by the guests. It was a stroke of good fortune that Alexander and Andrea love Korean food and had all the necessary condiments on hand.
The Koreans were touched by the warm welcome and kindness of the Americans. The Campagnas so enjoyed the time with their guests that they are now planning a trip to Korea to visit them there.
Shortly after finding this story, I read about Sha’Kyra Aughtry who, early Christmas Eve, brought Joe White in from the cold after hearing his cries for help. Joe, a man in his 60s with developmental disabilities, left his home and may have gotten disoriented in the storm. Emergency responders could not answer her call for help because they could not get through the impassable roads, and, worried for Joe's safety, Sha’Kyra took to Facebook. For two days, she cared for Joe, feeding him and using a blow dryer to melt ice off his blistered hands.
Sha'Kyra's pleas for help via social media livestream were eventually answered by a group of men who could get through to her home. They took Joe to the hospital Christmas night, accompanied by Sha'Kyra, who was there to support him every step of the way. Her openness to care for the stranger could very well have saved Joe's life – and he is now recovering from severe frostbite.
The silver lining of catastrophic events is that they often show us human acts of kindness and care, and in these two cases, hospitality. In the modern world, the practice of hospitality—making room for the guest—is not the elevated virtue it once was. Though now most often associated with the service industry, hospitality is a meritorious practice with ancient roots in many cultures and faith traditions and was once viewed as a necessary pillar of civilization.
In true hospitality, it doesn’t matter who the guest is; the stranger is treated the same way as friends and family. The hosts provide for physical needs as well as emotional ones, including food, shelter, and companionship, expecting nothing in exchange. In hospitable cultures, there is the understanding that everyone, at different times, will be both host and stranger.
Hospitality can take any form: a ride, a handwritten note, an attentive ear, rest, or shelter. It manifests when we make something extra special with a guest in mind, such as a meal or a pretty setting at the table. Hospitality requires our presence and attention. In fact, in today’s world, listening is often the most hospitable thing we can offer. Yet more than any particular action, hospitality is an internal state of openness toward those outside our everyday circles of care.
Hospitality is a mindset, an attitude where what we have to offer right now is enough. We don’t have to wait until we have a great idea, a gift for entertaining, or for the conditions to be just right. It helps to remember that it is our thoughtfulness and desire to connect, and not the end result, that are most important.
The genuine hospitality that is most needed, from all of us, is one that welcomes others into our personal lives and communities for nothing in return. This more radical welcome includes, even prioritizes, the stranger, and those who are different from us.
The Campagna and Aughtry family exemplified hospitality on Christmas weekend, a holiday most often celebrated with family and friends. While treating their unexpected visitors as valued guests, they embodied the spirit of Christmas and forged unlikely bonds that will extend into the future. The practice of hospitality enriches both host and guest because it affirms the fundamental truth that we are all connected.
Reflect upon a time when you have been hospitable, when you have opened yourself up to others for nothing in return.
What was that experience like for you?
What is one way you can practice hospitality in your life right now? Who might you reach out to in a state of welcome?
In this practice, it is important to remember that what you have to offer, right now, is enough.