Our Community Blog: Claas Ehlers, President, “Compassionate Hospitality”

October 18, 2016

ceThis September I had the remarkable experience of spending a week in Bolivia. My son was studying there and I wanted to visit him, but also I have extensive family throughout the country, only one member of which I had ever met.

So my wife, feeling this was a singular opportunity for me, sacrificed our 25th wedding anniversary trip so I could go. I cashed in miles and jury-rigged an itinerary that we could afford with the money we had set aside for the celebration.

I arrived in Cochabamba and stayed for a week with my cousin Jorge and met other family members: Pablo, Katia, Adriana, Vicente, Teresa, Bernardo, Elsa, Leti, Mario. Jorge’s home was filled love, great food and hospitality.

It was also filled with Spanish (which I had not studied since freshman year of college) and foreign customs. I worried about behaving the right way, talking about the right subjects, responding appropriately to barely understood jokes or serious issues. I was very aware of the sacrifices they were making so I could have a comfortable bed to sleep in, delicious meals and company in a strange place.

Don’t get me wrong; my family could not have been more positive, affirming, hospitable, loving or kind. But I realized that my situation echoed many aspects that Family Promise guests experience. It gave me insight on how hard it is—and how rewarding—to be at the mercy of compassionate strangers.
There was much delicious food, but if I did not eat it all would the hosts feel they have failed? There were rules I could hardly fathom of both spoken and nonverbal language. (I kept mixing up common words. My older daughter “mi hija mayor” became my better daughter “mi hija mejor” for example.) I had to weigh whether my hosts wanted a break from me, or me from them. If I would disappoint them or make them feel they had disappointed me.

I have slept in more than a dozen different host congregations and with those I was not familiar I got a glimpse of this dynamic. But my week in Bolivia, one of the most meaningful experiences in my life, gave me a much deeper look at this aspect of guests’ lives.

I would not trade the joy and warmth of that week for anything, nor would I trade that kernel of insight.

Gracias mis primos, muchos abrazos.

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