Can Hospitality Be Too “Scruffy”?

Several years ago, when I was invited to speak at a conference, a friend (who was also speaking) and I shared a room to save money. Our room was not in an actual hotel, but rather in a sort of guest house that the hosting organization ran in an old apartment building. The furnishings were simple and, given their mismatched state, appeared to be donated or purchased secondhand. At first glance, it seemed clean and nice enough. Neither I nor my friend expected luxury, so we settled in contentedly. When we got ready for bed the first night, however, we began noticing a few things. The room had no bedside tables, no alarm clocks, and no reading lamps. Getting a good look at my travel alarm clock required various contortions so I could see it, down on the floor, from up on the bed. If I wanted to read in bed, I had to leave the bright overhead light on, then get up to turn it off when I was ready to go to sleep. It would be potentially disruptive for one of us to keep reading with the light on if the other was ready to go to sleep. In the morning, I discovered that the bathroom had neither an electrical outlet nor a mirror that anyone under five-and-a-half feet (which both of us are) could comfortably use.

My friend and I concluded that, while we were perfectly satisfied by the guest house’s simple aesthetic, our accommodations failed Hospitality 101 by failing to meet some fairly basic needs of travelers for, say, a light to read by and a table on which to put one’s book after turning that light out. We weren’t looking for luxury, but we were looking for thoughtful consideration of some common, straightforward needs.

I thought of this experience when a post praising “scruffy hospitality” kept showing up in my Facebook news feed a few weeks ago.  In the post, Jack King, an Anglican priest in Knoxville, Tenn., observed that if we wait to invite people over until our homes are spotless and we have the wherewithal to produce a gourmet home-cooked meal, most of us will never invite anyone over. So he and his family have begun inviting people over knowing that they might serve a prepared entree rather than a home-cooked one, the wine might be selected from the bargain bin, and the kids might not impress guests with their angelic behavior as bedtime approaches. When the emphasis is on connecting with people through table fellowship instead of on producing a stunning meal in a perfectly clean house inhabited by serene well-dressed people, scruffy hospitality gets the job done—and might even lead to deeper connections, as people welcomed into a laid-back atmosphere might be more likely to relax when they aren’t worrying about spilling on the hosts’ fancy white tablecloth or the behavior of their own overtired little ones.

I can absolutely attest to the value of “scruffy hospitality,” as I have practiced it often. Just this week, I had a group of close girlfriends over so we could see one another before we scatter in various directions for the summer. I made a microwaved salsa dip, dumped tortilla chips into a bowl, cut up some fruit and a store-bought cake, put some drinks and plastic cups out on the breakfast bar, and that was that. My preparations took all of 30 minutes, and we enjoyed two hours of unhurried conversation. The value of scruffy hospitality is particularly important in a world in which even “simple living” has been commodified and made Pinterest-worthy. We see a beautifully set table described as “simple,” featuring just-picked flowers from the hostess’s yard plunked into antique glass bottles that she has collected over the years, cloth napkins that she whipped up with leftover quilting fabric on her vintage sewing machine, and farmers-market–purchased goat cheese spread on artisanal baguette from the bakery down the street. We think of our own yards, where dandelions are the only blooming things, and that the only thing we collect is our children’s artwork (which is Scotch taped all over the kitchen walls, not framed and hung in a whimsical tableau over the fireplace that we re-tiled ourself with antique tiles purchased for $5 at a yard sale). Also, we last used a sewing machine in seventh grade home ec class, and we’d love to frequent farmers markets and artisanal bakeries but given our jobs and kids and volunteer responsibilities, it’s all we can do to make it to Stop and Shop once a week. Suddenly, we feel bad that we can’t possibly recreate even such a “simple” table for our guests. The “scruffy hospitality” rallying cry reassures us that it’s okay to go ahead and invite friends over even if the table is set with plastic plates and paper napkins, the cheese is Velveeta melted onto grilled hamburgers and served on squishy white buns, and the centerpiece is the condiment tray.

But can hospitality be too scruffy? My experience with the guest house that missed the mark on several counts suggests that it can be.

Hospitality is a core Judeo-Christian virtue, one to which numerous scriptures attest. (Perhaps the most well-known, and lovely, is from Hebrews 13: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.) In ancient times, there were no inns or hotels for travelers, so allowing strangers to eat around your table and sleep on a mat on your floor was a common and necessary practice. As inns and guest houses became more common, people still often chose to stay with friends or relatives on their travels. Today, however, hospitality necessarily looks quite different from the ancient practice of putting travelers up for a night (although many of us still welcome friends or relatives needing a place to stop over while traveling). We are much less likely to welcome true strangers, and much more likely to welcome our children’s playmates, our actual neighbors, our friends and families and colleagues, for an afternoon, a meal, or a few nights’ stay.

But the core practice of hospitality, however we define or frame it, is still welcoming another into our private space and doing what we can to meet their basic needs—for connection and conversation, for rest, for food and drink. Hospitality can be too “scruffy” when we fail to give adequate attention to what those needs might be, and therefore fail to meet them within our means. People don’t need to be entertained in spotless homes, they don’t need gourmet meals, and they certainly don’t need Pinterest-worthy table settings. But they do need a clean towel on which to wipe their hands after they’ve washed them, and to be easily able to find the extra rolls of toilet paper in the bathroom. They need a place to sit down, especially if they are eating; a lack of seating at cocktail parties, fundraising events, or church-hall receptions is one of the biggest hospitality failures that I experience as someone who is seriously uncomfortable standing for long periods, and who often has a walking stick in one hand so can’t easily carry around a plate. Overnight guests don’t strictly need, but will surely appreciate, a bedside table, a reading lamp, a bathroom stocked with toiletries in case they didn’t bring them, and a quick tour of the kitchen so they don’t have to ask for help if they want a glass of water to take medicine before bed, or a cup of coffee when they wake up earlier than the rest of the household. Guests don’t need a spotless home (nor the frazzled, anxious hosts that might come with it), but when they encounter sinks wiped free of the kids’ toothpaste residue, floors swept or mopped so that shoes don’t stick and socks don’t come away black with dirt, surfaces cleared so that they have a place to set down a drink, they get the message, “We prepared for you, we made room for you.” I think of the words to “Joy to the World”: Let every heart prepare him room. The story of God coming to us as a human baby is one of making room for a most welcome, if unexpected, guest. The innkeeper who provided a stable—far from luxurious, but meeting the holy family’s basic needs for shelter, warmth, and a place to lay a newborn baby—practiced the best sort of “scruffy hospitality.”

The hospitality my friend and I got in that simple guest room was a bit too scruffy, not because of the mismatched furniture or faded bed linens, but because no one had thought about, and prepared for, some basic things that overnight guests might appreciate—the ability to read in bed, to know what time it is, or brush our hair in front of a mirror. I feel welcomed when I get the sense that I and my needs have been considered, that room has been made for me, that my arrival was expected and prepared for, whether in someone’s home, in a hotel room, or in an entertaining space of some kind. It doesn’t take much to give guests this sense, and it certainly doesn’t take perfect cleanliness or complicated recipes. But it does take thought and a little bit of preparation.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.


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