Evelyn Bence, author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality, is known for the warm, personal writing style that has made her a favorite of readers who have looked forward to her next work. She is the author of Prayers for Girlfriends and Sisters and Me, Spiritual Moments with the Great Hymns, and Mary’s Journal, an award-winning novel written in the voice of Jesus’ mother. Evelyn is the coauthor of Just as We Were: A Nostalgic Look at Growing Up Born Again and compiler of numerous inspirational collections.
Evelyn’s personal essays have appeared in various publications, including the Washington Post, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, US Catholic, and Good Letters (blog). For more than 10 years, her devotionals have been featured in the Daily Guideposts annual devotional. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as Anglican Theological Review, America, Christian Century, and Blue Ridge Country.
Evelyn, an editor and a writer, lives in Arlington, Virginia. She has served as religion editor at Doubleday, managing editor for Today’s Christian Woman magazine, and senior editor at Prison Fellowship Ministries. She is a graduate of Houghton College.
A Conversation with Evelyn Bence
In a day where we have so many technological conveniences and social media, how has hospitality changed?
Well, some of the change of scene is pretty obvious: we no longer have to physically gather together to communicate. I laughed recently when I saw a church seemingly boast that they offered “in-person potlucks.” I couldn’t quite imagine what a virtual potluck dinner might look like.
My parents invited people over so they could get acquainted or stay connected. Social gatherings also provided activity, amusement, diversion from boredom.
Now we’ve got Facebook, Skype, and streamed movies. When we talk to people, even groups, there’s no need to invite them into our real-time space. Does being friended on Facebook really cut it? I sense that people miss the home gatherings, the possibility of lingering over dessert. But if we’re not used to the home-style format, we’re hesitant to take the risk of inviting someone to our table.
Many say the parable of the Good Samaritan is the perfect example of totally giving of oneself without expecting anything in return. What lessons about hospitality can Christians learn from this parable?
If we’re talking about offering sustenance to friends, neighbors, and acquaintances in our homes—which is the hospitable focus of my book Room at My Table—I’m not sure the giving has to be totally selfless. I admit that I’m disappointed if I don’t receive a complimentary “thank you” as a guest is leaving, if not again later. Even if someone declines an invitation, I like to hear a “thank you for thinking of me.” Sometimes planning a get-together gives me a needed focus and goal to work toward; the social stimulation is my reward for tidying up my home. Then, just making the effort to make coffee for someone other than “me and mine” has its psychological perks and spiritual rewards.
Many churches have hospitality ministries but still fail in their efforts to attract visitors or new members. What do you think might make these teams more successful?
It’s very tricky, as many people want to just float in and out of a church, hesitant to make commitments. They’re afraid frequent attendance or membership obliges them to take on a responsibility, join a class, serve on a committee. This may sound trite, but any consciously hospitable effort, at home or church, should be preceded and surrounded by prayer, asking God to help you listen keenly (what does the guest expect and need? is it something you can offer or not?) and respond graciously.
A welcoming church has welcoming members, even those not assigned the task. I’m not an official welcomer. But I’m very aware of who sits around me in the right rear quadrant of my small church. I greet newcomers and try to remember their names. I try to notice if any regulars are particularly heavy-laden. At coffee hour I’ve been known to go off in a corner and quietly pray with someone in distress. It’s not always about assigned roles . . .
Who was the biggest influence in how you portray hospitality to others?
Hospitality—if defined as hosting guests at your table—is easiest if you can acquire several skills: table conversation, food preparation, and service organization. My parsonage parents entertained often, usually on Sundays—an afternoon dinner or a dessert after evening church. I observed my gregarious dad drawing out conversations. I helped my mom in the kitchen, learning how to put together a meal, stretching meager resources to feed the always unpredictable head count. Then in my twenties, as a guest I watched a work colleague orchestrate several crowded-room buffets. No one set out to teach me. One learns by observing and then experimenting/trying.
Was being a hostess something you came by naturally, or did you have to work at making it a part of who you are?
That’s a hard question. I suspect that even something that comes “naturally” requires effort. Maybe it’s similar to the biblical admonition to “work out your own salvation” (Phil. 2:12). We may have accepted God’s gift of salvation, but there’s still some aspect we need to work out.
I’m an introvert, and, though I watched my dad’s engaging conversations, they were always with his peers. Children, even teens, were to be seen, not heard, so I can’t say I was practiced. Sometimes I still stumble in this regard. Again, in my twenties, a particular book was very helpful: Barbara Walters’s How to Talk to Practically Anybody about Practically Anything.
Why do you think traits such as cooking or being handy in the kitchen often equate with being a hospitable person?
Is there anything more universal to everyone, anywhere, than food? Offer someone a snack, and you have at least one topic to talk about—its taste, its texture, its source. In nearly every culture, eating with someone—sitting down at table with that person—implies some measure of peace in the relationship, at least temporarily. Of course one can purchase food, whether it’s a meal in a restaurant, an apple at a market, or a ready-made deli sandwich. But a personal touch—“I made it myself”—can be seen—by the giver and the receiver—as an added bonus.
You state in your book, “Most anyone can find a reason for not reaching out.” What’s your best advice for someone who’s reluctant to step out of his or her comfort zone to invite someone to “break bread” together?
Best advice? Hmm. Read the book (smile). Though I didn’t by any means write a how-to book, Room at My Table is meant to gently illustrate that your setting doesn’t have to be perfect. I myself have a tiny galley kitchen and no dishwasher. Your food doesn’t need to be fancy—have some microwave popcorn on hand. You just need to be ready to take a little risk and make a first step toward reaching out.
Someone recently commended the prayer before the “God, I’m willing” prayer. “God, give me the desire to be willing.” And “God, let me see the value—to myself, to others, or to your kingdom—of reaching out.” As for the actual invitation or the actual welcome at the door, my best advice: Smile (something that hasn’t always come naturally to me) and listen. Let people talk. Seek their stories; draw them out.
As an editor what have you learned that carries over into your role as a writer? And what advice do you have for budding writers?
I learned how to edit—and to write—by reading and making subjective judgments about what works and doesn’t work on a page. It’s also how I learned to be a hostess. Maybe there’s another correlation between being a writer and a host/hostess. Some people who make it look easy actually work arduously behind the scenes to pull it off. Writing a short devotional usually takes me a good eight hours. What is finally printed is something like a fifth draft.
Again, not that a fellowship gathering or a paragraph has to be perfect (is there any such thing as a perfect paragraph?), but hosting a gathering takes a lot of legwork. Likewise, finding the right verb, rewriting and honing a sentence, requires more time and effort than you might think. Advice for budding writers: if you really want to write, keep at it.
Link to Family Life Network podcast with Evelyn Bence
[caption id="attachment_10165" align="alignright" width="241"] RECIPE: Chicken- or Turkey-Corn Soup[/caption]
In his 1989 presidential farewell address, Ronald Reagan challenged listeners to gather together to eat and converse: “All great change read more