Hospitality sans Toilet Paper

“But David, they will use all the toilet paper!” Even as I type these words, I’m embarrassed and humiliated. “I know Mary, but we have no place to meet. There are no offices, no meeting area. We must use our house as a meeting place.” As David and I recall this conversation, it is with laughter. Who, in their right mind, worries about toilet paper? I did. Even after a few years of living in Albania, certain household goods were difficult to find. Toilet paper was one of them. And it seemed, our house was the office, guest house, …. you name it. One summer we accommodated 40 overnight guests in 30 days. Ah, this house. It was a glorious place… 1940. And I know, for a fact, that not one item of maintenance or upkeep had been done on that house since it was built. There was no kitchen, so we brought in laminated cabinets and a stove to create a cooking place.
The cellar housed the extra things we brought back from our once yearly “stock up” trip to Greece. We could only purchase what we could pack in the Isuzu Trooper. I was tempted to leave my three kids and their luggage in Greece, so I could pack more sugary cereal, but alas, the grandparents would not have been happy. The cellar also housed enough mold to run a penicillin factory. One night, in a rainstorm, the roof began to leak, and the water began to drip on our bed. I remember saying to David, “Fix it!” He hollered back, “What do you want me to do? Stand on the roof with an umbrella?” We had some shining moments of graciousness to each other while living in that house, didn’t we? Insert rolled eyes here.

Before going to Albania, I would have said I was a hospitable person. I loved to host dinner parties, and I found great joy in planning and executing those soirees. But my parties were controlled, deliberate, and definitely on my terms. Now, with no prospect of a reasonable hotel in the capital city of Tirana, stranded guests were staying in our house. Of.all.the.nerve. MY house. The Holy Spirit used this rundown house, built during the occupation of Italy’s Mussolini, to teach me about surrender, and in the process, allow me to understand hospitality. I wasn’t finished with my lesson, even after four years, but it was a start.

You see, hospitality, true kingdom hospitality, is so much more than carrying tepid bottled water in the car to pass out to the homeless man on the street corner. The prep work for true kingdom hospitality involves the stripping away of everything you thought you owned. It is the loss of space, privacy, time, children, and yes ….toilet paper. It is the realization that everyone that comes to your door has a need, and you are responsible. You simply cannot watch the crisis of the day and turn off the TV.
Instead, the crisis is standing at your door. You are responsible when friends with five children get stranded in your city with a broken-down car, no place to go, and can’t get back to their village. It meant, roll out the blankets for the floor, pull out the sofa bed, and make more food. You are responsible when a volunteer, sick with hepatitis, needs a place to stay for a few days. Or someone with a ruptured appendix needs you to pull out all the stops to have an emergency medical jet fly in and pull her out of the country. The night before the plane arrives, she will sleep in one of your beds. In my ugliest days, it was the sense of being bound and held captive by others. On the good days, which at this point were few, it was a joy. There were many more days of feeling bound than days of feeling joy. Something had to give.

Oh, let the work begin. This must be the funniest chapter in my life, although you will find it the strangest. It was as if I was a five-year-old, holding onto my worn out, tattered blanket with both hands, unaware of the things that could have replaced that dirty piece of cloth. It was the loss of Dr. Pepper, Wolf brand chili, toilet paper and my father’s wedding ring that finally pushed me over the edge. Biblical hospitality means “love of strangers.” I’m convinced I was the only strange one in this four-year teaching moment.
– By Mary Carpenter
Mary is a member of the board of directors of Global Gates. She and her husband now live in Waco, Texas, but during the 1990s were missionaries to Albania where they learned to be emissaries of Christ even with limited supplies of toilet paper…a topic that seems all too relevant in the age of coronavirus.