When Hospitality Knocks

It's easier to say "yes" to the idea of hospitality than it is to actually open our doors when the spontaneous needs arise.

In one day last week at Open Homes Hamilton, we received calls from shelters about six refugee claimants who needed housing as soon as possible. Six!

It’s always a bit of a scramble when we get a call. We shoot messages back and forth among our leadership team, trying to decide if we have capacity to welcome a refugee claimant into one of our host homes.

But welcoming someone takes more than a host home! We also need at least one companion to help our new guest navigate life, and capacity from someone on our leadership team to take on the guest’s settlement tasks, like getting them set up with Legal Aid.

Once we think we might have all the ingredients, we start reaching out to hosts. Inevitably, someone’s on vacation; someone else’s availability has changed; someone’s house has stairs that are a barrier to a guest with mobility issues.

The heart of Open Homes Hamilton are volunteers, so this is all part of the package. And since our vision is to mobilize resources (spare rooms!) that are already present in our church communities to provide safe communities of belonging for newly arrived refugee claimants, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The ‘wrong’ time
It’s always exciting when a host picks up the phone and says, “We’ll get the room ready!” We’ve screened and trained and coached them; they’ve let us check their house for carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and stair railings, and now the moment has come. Will they allow a newcomer to totally change their week? Will they allow hospitality to inconvenience them?

I know I would find it hard to suddenly get that call, even if I was expecting it. It’s like interacting with my neighbours: in principle, I want to! In practice, opportunities seem to come at the wrong time. I’m in a hurry to make dinner, or my mind is preoccupied with how messy the house has become, or I’m on my way to work. But then the stranger knocks. The WhatsApp message arrives. The phone rings.

So I always admire our hosts for not just having the intention to welcome someone new into their homes, but also their responses when they actually get the call.

An incarnate ‘yes’
The companions are actually the harder part of the equation, which we didn’t expect. I thought giving up a couple hours a week for six months to help guide someone into their new life in Hamilton would be easier than inviting someone into your space! 

But it seems to be more of an uphill climb finding people to offer friendship and support to refugee claimants than finding homes. Maybe the responsibility seems too nebulous. Or maybe offering friendship and connections to community resources is more vulnerable than other more concrete tasks. 

Our companions too get that surprise phone call. You’ve been preparing to meet a new friend, to open your life to the possibilities and uncertainties of accompanying a refugee claimant, and suddenly that person has a name, a country of origin, a personality, some quirks. Will your theoretical “yes” become a solid, incarnate “yes”? 

What about down the line, when that person makes a choice that you wouldn’t recommend or behaves in a way that you don’t quite understand? What will happen to your “yes” then – will you work to keep your heart open to the humanity of the stranger even if they act in ways that you find . . . strange? 

It seems to me that this is part of what a commitment to boundary-crossing hospitality means: an openness to being surprised. Here’s to the people who plan for hospitality . . . and then let it surprise them! 


  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

    Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is a Host Connector with Open Homes Hamilton, a Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality in Hamilton, Ontario.

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