When we arrived at the village, I saw a woman, whom I guessed was in her sixties, near a large sunlit tree with a few children around her. She was frail and her skin had that dark, weathered beauty that comes from years of working in fields. I jumped out of the bed of the truck and stood there. We looked at each other nervously, unsure of what to do. “Is she really one of the ‘Black Sheep,’” I thought? I decided to approach her. As I got near her, she opened her arms to embrace me. We hugged, then pulled away and smiled at each other, introducing ourselves in Spanish. “Me llamo Sara. ¿Y su?” She held her aged hand up to her chest, “Sulema.” The children, no longer scared, giggled at me when I turned to smile at them.
We were a group of predominately white North American college students, all attending the same Swedish-rooted university in Minnesota. We were told that they, the Hondurans we were going to serve, were the “Black Sheep” of their area. People from other villages wouldn’t even walk the trails of La Providencia or the surrounding villages for fear of being macheted; which, apparently, happened often. We planned to install a gravity-fed water system in La Providencia and to share life with the locals. That was all we knew to expect. That, and the machete part.
The North Americans followed the Hondurans to the table, dripping sweat in the hot afternoon sun. It was covered by an awning—which they built with bamboo and banana leaves specifically for us—to shade us where we would eat. Nearby, a large black water drum with a hose attached to it sat on top of a hill. A makeshift shower—one that hadn’t been fashioned in the entire history of these villages—was made for us North Americans to be more comfortable during our week-long stay.
Maria and her daughters brought out a meal for us. Later, she came up to me with a towel, holding it up to the sun to shade my arm, the one part of my body not covered by the awning. I tried to explain that, while I appreciated her kindness, she didn’t need to stand in the sun for me. But, she wouldn’t leave. Finally, I asked her if she was hot. “¡Si! ¡Mucho calor!” Jay Substad, the leader of our team, thanked her and said what she was doing was very nice, but not necessary.
She seemed relieved. Not only was she not thinking of herself, it was clear she neither expected us to think of her. She was a “Black Sheep.” She was deemed “lesser-than” by others in her country and, she knew, other people in the world. When we refused to let her over-exert herself, it was evident that she was taken aback.
Throughout the week, the Honduran women taught the North American women how they cook meals and clean. We made tortillas together. We did laundry at the well together daily. We bathed together. They asked us questions and we learned from them. (Were we born without hair on our legs?) They laughed at us with that deep kind of belly-laughter when we told them we shave it off.
We worked in the trenches together, swinging pick axes and shovels in the mountains. The Honduran men wore their finest clothes, showing their appreciation to us. They carried our tools for us on our miles-long hikes to and from the work sites. The North American men and the Honduran men continually laughed together and hugged often. And (to our humor) they were surprised by the North American women who not only volunteered to, but enjoyed working in the trenches.
We weaved into each other’s lives. Maria slowly became the Honduran mother of our hearts, standing behind us as we ate the meals she prepared for us, placing a hand on our shoulder and smiling. Marcelina was our Honduran grandmother; taking part in every activity, she shoveled in the trenches, cooked, rested, taught, cleaned, danced for the first time in her life and played bubbles with the Honduran children. Sulema was an aunt. Sandra and Nelly, our sisters. Javier, Raphael and all the men, our brothers.
Maria said, “When I first learned that I would be feeding the North Americans, I said, ‘No way!’ I had absolutely no desire to serve a large group of North American people. But I prayed and God did a work in my heart. I realized how you all were serving us.” She touched her heart, clearly emotional. Her vulnerability resonated through us as we sat around the table and listened to her.
Each meal we ate became more and more elaborate. Rice and beans with corn tortillas turned into rice, beans, tortillas and avocado—which turned into eggs, beans, avocado, cheese and sardines. We were given baskets of mangoes. We had tamales more than once, a meal that requires hours—oftentimes days—of preparation and is typically only eaten at Christmastime.
We were invited into their homes. We slept in their beds.
And here is the reality: we came to the village because a child dies every second due to waterborne illnesses. Every second. That statistic gripped our leader’s heart and he actively refused to let it go. Every second a child dies because of the water they drink.
Here’s the absolute kicker: children are dying trying to get the water that’s killing them. The Hondurans told us stories as we walked the trails together or worked together. They pointed out mothers that had lost their son, their daughter. They showed us where a child had fallen into a well, and how it was now closed off.
This was the underlying reality of our visit, one that peeked out its head in the quiet moments.
Their hospitality towards us, we felt, was unmatched. I’m sure Maria and the others felt it was the other way around. They explained that they knew how much it cost us—financially and otherwise—to come to them. We knew what it cost them to provide for us. The beauty that bred among us that week surpasses comprehension.
Tears flowed freely during our goodbyes. We sobbed. We hugged and blessed each other. The sense of the “other” that we felt when we first arrived was gone. We were one.
That’s what hospitality does. It unites us in the deepest sense as we choose to see the other’s needs and to meet them through compassion and respect. It breeds generosity and humility from the same breath. Hospitality welcomes everyone to the table regardless of race, gender, language or socioeconomic status. Hospitality sees. It feels. It acts.
Hospitality refuses to reduce someone to the least common denominator, to preconceptions or statistics. It does not pretend. It can’t. It shows up with all it has to give. True hospitality is vulnerable and beautiful, awaiting always the shared simplicity of human connection.
Sara Ellingsworth lives and writes in the dynamic city of Minneapolis. She received her BA in English Literature and Writing from Bethel University in Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Colloquy and Coeval, two literary magazines. She also writes at saraellingsworth.wordpress.com. She has a passion for the beauty of God and for connecting with those near her. She can often be found ruminating, dreaming about the future and living passionately in the moment—all with coffee in tow.