Sitting on the couch next to my husband, I stare at my laptop and blink away the tears. I’m watching my grandfather’s funeral procession from over 2,000 miles away, and yet my heart feels impossibly close.
My Papa went to be with his eternal Companion at the age of 97—seven years after the death of his earthly companion, our beloved Nana. And while all of my aunts and uncles were able to make the trip up to Canada, most of my cousins and I had to watch the livestream from afar. Between speeches at the memorial service, my mom would pan the camera away from the stage and over the audience, scanning the sea of nearly 200 faces. Aside from my family who sat towards the front, most of them had white hair and I knew they were friends from Papa’s church.
My grandparents had served on the mission field for over two decades—first as house parents for an orphanage in Cuba and then as church-planters in Miami to reach the city’s growing population of Cuban refugees. Their family of nine lived in a small ranch—and although their round dining room table was already cramped, whenever someone asked to invite a friend over for dinner, the answer was yes. “There’s always room for one more seat at the table,” Nana would say. There’s a handful of people who became grafted into our clan that way. To this day, they are active members of our family’s Facebook group and email chain, and all have attended at least one of our reunions throughout the years.
Most of my grandparents’ seven children landed in South America as missionaries, while a few settled in the U.S. or Canada as lay ministers. Some of my cousins carried on the same trajectory as their parents in overseas missions and the rest were scattered throughout North America. But while missions was the driving force of my grandparents’ lives, their legacy was one of hospitality—and my own parents would carry on this two-pronged ministry focus.
My mother and father have mirrored my grandparents in many ways, serving as missionaries in Venezuela and then as pastors of a small inner-city church in Miami. During my growing-up years, the guest room in our parsonage was often occupied by overseas missionaries, who would stay with us during furlough, sometimes for months at a time. By the time I graduated high school, two different foreign exchange students had lived with us. By then, my dad was a professor, and he extended open invitations to all of his classes. Any of his students were free to drop by our house at any time, unannounced, and many took him up on it—especially his international students during the holidays. For my parents, hospitality wasn’t an event to plan; it was a lifestyle and a no-frills endeavor. It didn’t involve gourmet presentations or fancy place settings—the food was served in pots straight off the stove. But my mom always made more than enough, and nothing in our fridge or pantry was off-limits. In short, anyone who showed up for dinner was treated more like a family member than a guest.
As Papa neared 90 years of age, my parents moved up to Canada to care for him, making frequent visits to his independent living facility. They would talk, read, pray, or sing hymns with him. On bad days, they’d sat next to him and hold his aging hands. Meanwhile, the current refugee crisis in Europe worsened, and Canada began receiving more refugees. My parents were offered an opportunity to become house parents in a transitional home for the newly resettled, and they agreed to look after the home and help the families get on their feet. My mom started to run errands for them, and help them with ESL homework. It’s no surprise that within a few short months, she’d already formed a strong connection with two Iranian women who lived with them.
So much so that when Papa passed away, my mom invited them both to his memorial service. One of them came; she sat in a pew near the back of the church. And as my uncle stood on stage before our large extended family, leading them in the doxology, I thought about how her presence was a fitting testament to my grandfather’s legacy. Here, among those who’d come to witness and honor his life, was a Muslim woman from halfway around the world. And while she could not understand much of what was being said , this gathering was one of her first experiences of Christianity.
When the livestream of the service ended, I drifted over the collage of memories I’d pasted together from our trips to visit Nana and Papa when I was growing up. I remembered their small ground-floor apartment and how our family could barely fit in it for our reunions. There were handcrafted artifacts and colorful folk art everywhere—on the walls, shelves, and side tables—gifts sent by my aunts and uncles from overseas.
Long after my grandparents retired from ministry, they were still making sacrifices for the sake of God’s kingdom. As their offspring served the Great Commission, my Nana and Papa had to forsake watching their children and grandchildren grow up around them. Countless years, gray hairs, and age lines grew unwitnessed by much of our extended family—except at reunions, held twice a decade or so. When I was a child, the thought had never occurred to me, but now I can’t help but think of Nana and Papa on the long and lonely days in their later years and wonder if they ever regretted their decisions. Was it worth it to them in the end?
A year and a half ago, my husband and I moved to be near Clarkston, a small city just outside of metro Atlanta, which has been a refugee resettlement area since the 1970s. Now, with over 40 different nationalities and 60 languages, it’s said to be the most diverse square mile in America. On our way home from church, we drive past women in hijabs and men in tribal print tunics on the streets. Instead of cooking dinner at home, we invite our friends to join us at our favorite local refugee-owned restaurants. I love seeing the multitude of colors and cultures.
Before we moved here, I was shocked to discover that the majority of all refugees resettled in the States will never be invited into an American home—not even once. More than any other time in history, the world has come to us; and yet Christians are still more likely to travel overseas on short-term missions trips than to establish long-term relationships with the refugees and immigrants who live in their own cities. We moved here to live and minister amongst the international community. At first I thought that it would be easy—that just because we lived nearby, ministry opportunities would somehow rain from the sky.
And while I’ve met and talked with plenty of refugees in public spaces like restaurants and coffee shops, I’m embarrassed to say we have yet to invite a refugee family over for dinner. We’ve lived in our house more than a year now, and I feel as if I’m already failing my family legacy. The worst part is that our table is bigger and our house is larger than either my parents’ or my grandparents’ ever was. And yet, though we have more resources at our disposal and all the same good intentions, that doesn’t mean practicing hospitality will come easily.
Since my grandfather passed away, I’ve been thinking about the legacy I want to leave for my own children. Do I want them to grow up thinking missions is something that happens somewhere else in the world, rather than right here, right now? Why is it so much easier for us to minister to people “out there” than it is for us to welcome them into our own hearts, homes, and lives? Unreached people now live within our reach—thus, I must expand my definition of what it means to be a missionary. And while my husband and I are still figuring out what that will look like for us in our current context, there’s one thing I’ve learned from my family: True hospitality doesn’t begin at the doorstep, but somewhere much closer than that—it flows naturally from the generosity in our souls. From the heart.