There’s an everyday miracle that has just caught my attention. Every day, around the globe, there are at least 7 million people who would consider providing you with a safe and comfortable place to stay… for free! I’ve developed a new understanding of the wonder of couchsurfing. This phenomenon has got me thinking about the miracle of hospitality in general. As our family prepares to celebrate Christmas, it’s an appropriate time to reflect on what happens when someone provides shelter to a stranger.
My newfound appreciation of couchsurfing arose because our 21-year-old son has just returned from a 6-week tour through western and northern Canada. His extraordinary experience was heavily dependent on the generosity of strangers. These strangers gave him rides as he happily hitchhiked his way across the country. But most impressive was the way that strangers welcomed him into their homes. He used the services of a phenomenal website that supports couchsurfing.
When I told friends that Jacob was staying with strangers who had posted their “couch” on the Internet, the responses varied from marvel to shock. Did he not feel vulnerable? How did the host feel safe? Who would freely offer a bed to a young man they had never met? But Jacob was never worried. Turns out he knew what he was doing! He met the most amazing people who opened their doors to welcome him. He stayed with a lovely family with young children in Sault Ste. Marie. The host he met in Calgary ended up taking him for a 3-day ski trip in the mountains. I believe his favourite stop was Yellowknife where he connected with a terrific couple who took him into their home – and helped him find the best spot to view the spectacular aurora borealis.
The couchsurfing website that Jacob used is a network of 7 million people in 100,000 cities around the world. There is a great system of rating, reviewing and vouching for both hosts and travelers. What a wonderful way of capturing the power of the Internet to connect people who will help one another, learn from one another and build friendships around the globe. I highly recommend having a look at the site. Maybe you could offer a couch to a stranger (or, as they say, a friend you haven’t met yet).
As Jacob described this positive experience to me, I was inspired. It made me think of the miracle of shelter in the Christmas story. We are told that just when Mary was about the give birth to Jesus, she and Joseph found themselves in the village of Bethlehem without a place to stay. There was no couchsurfing website. But an innkeeper gave the expectant couple a place of refuge in a stable. There was no couch. But the newborn king had an animal-feeding trough for his first bed. A small act of generosity on the part of that innkeeper has become one of the world’s best-known tales of hospitality.
The miracle of hospitality that Jacob discovered also made me think of about 15 million people in the world who are refugees. These people need much more than a couch for a night or two. But if an Internet website can help 7 million travelers find a safe place to sleep, I wonder if this is a clue about how we can do better for the world’s most vulnerable people who need a place to be safe. When I consider my home country, I understand that there has been an alarming change in Canada’s reputation as a hospitable place for people who need refuge. A recent report from Harvard notes that Canada is now “systematically closing its borders to asylum seekers and avoiding its refugee protection obligations under domestic and international law.”
These data show that Canada is a less hospitable place than it used to be. As a society, perhaps we have a Hospitality Deficit Disorder. I’ll admit that, as an individual, I probably less hospitable than I used to be. My excuses vary from busy-ness to inconvenience to fear. What have I missed out on as a result of being less hospitable? When our family lived in Niger, it was quite customary for us to offer dinner to travelers and strangers who passed through our town. We met people from all over the world by doing so. My husband and I still recall (and talk about) many of the people that we hosted. They shaped us, enriched us and sometimes amused us. This makes me wonder if there should be a “tablesurfing” website similar to the couchsurfing website. Anybody know of one?
At this holiday season, I’m going to reflect on my own hospitality deficit. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions: Is there a hospitality deficit in Canada? How can we make it better? What happy miracles could be in store for us if we would take more risks and offer more hospitality to those in need?