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Art by Edward Clifford, public domain

My church has an adoption policy for the local college kids in our town. It’s pretty simple. The students come to our church, and we adopt them. We feed them. We buy them dill pickle sunflower seeds, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and other atrocities at the Dollar General, and we call it a study package. We invite them over for birthdays and March Madness and caroling parties.

I have fed my adoptees frozen Stouffer’s lasagna and bagged salad and ice cream bars. Creating an entire meal without actually cooking anything was a first for me, but our girls didn’t care at all. They ate everything, fiddled on their phones, and then, telling us they had homework, left. It was a Friday night.

I am blessed by these girls. They are so young. The world and time and everything in between stretches out before them like a lazy cat. They contemplate this with the same ennui as the cat does in his spot of sun on the window seat, happy to sit there and bask, but never very chatty about it. I long to talk to them about it all. “When I was your age,” I want to say, and then tell them cautionary tales that will keep them safe and righteous and happy. And, did I mention, safe? Very safe.

In my version of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shalt Always Call Ahead” is numero uno.

Instead, I cut them heavy wedges of brownies (made from a box), and pop fragrant bowls of popcorn, and pit my children against them in Wii Nascar. I don’t tell them about my dark past because there really is never a decent opening for such information. And I think, also, if I did, they would stare blankly and mutter, “Oh,” and proceed to fiddle with their phones some more. I cannot bear the thought of this, so I offer to scoop some ice cream onto their brownies. I add caramel sauce. And then some whipped cream—from a can, of course. This confection is also squirted straight into my children’s beckoning mouths, further proving that we are all about manners and sophistication at our house.

My pastor tells me that hospitality is a command. It shows up all throughout the Bible with feasts and fishes and angels, showing up all unannounced and incognito, which I think is sneaky. In my version of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shalt Always Call Ahead” is numero uno. But through my college girls, I am learning that hospitality has a lot to do with commandments, but very little to do with rules.

My girls show up late often. They check their phones incessantly, but they do so with bored expressions, which is confusing. Sometimes they don’t show up at all, and other times, there are somehow more of them. They don’t seem to worry much about the art of conversation, and I have yet to figure out how they feel, really, about most things.

But I know they like Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and that Luke Bryan is also hot, and that their sport, soccer, is brutal.

And I know a few more things. I know sometimes they have deep circles under their eyes, and then they smile with their mouths but not their eyes, and they could all use a really good nap. I want to offer them my couch and a soft blanket, and maybe also Steve the cat to cuddle with. I also know that, if you ask, they will give you a really good hug. But you have to ask.

I have been adopting college kids for four years now. At first, my invites were more elaborate. Pinterest might have been involved. I can remember once busily vacuuming before my two girls showed up to carve jack o’ lanterns, when one of my boys asked, “Who is coming over, Mom? I mean, besides the girls?” And he gestured awkwardly at the vacuum like it paired nicely with those elusive dignitary-types, but certainly not nineteen-year-old college soccer players.

Hebrews 13:2 tells us to offer hospitality to strangers, because we might just be in the presence of God’s messengers. My soccer girls have delivered God’s messages to me over and over again. The missives come through loud and clear:

“Pray for others, even when they don’t believe in me.”

“Don’t give up on anyone. I certainly don’t.”

“Love them more and more. And then, some more.”

“Yes, brownies can evangelize. Yes, even the boxed kind. Throw some frosting on there, and you’re good.”

True hospitality is messy, and sometimes it means standing around in a basement, with the cobwebs and crickets.

Last April we had seven soccer girls and a couple of baseball players over for my son’s birthday. In the middle of our celebrations, a tornado siren started wailing. My husband sent all of us down into our scary basement, and I had a momentary panic, looking at the state of my basement and all its crickets. But the students seemed unfazed. They stood around eating pizza and discussing that day’s practices in their soft monotones while staticky tornado warnings blared away on the radio.

My husband, ever vigilant about these things, explained to the ones who had never experienced a tornado what these storms were like. In very striking detail. I countered this by stealthy missions upstairs to get everyone more pizza that I served while murmuring comments like, “Tornadoes in Kansas? Pffft. No big deal.”

Later that night, as I wandered around picking up stray paper plates and gnawed pizza crusts, I commented to my husband, “I hope they had fun. Who wants to spend their Friday night standing around in a basement?”

Brian responded, “They’ll never forget it.”

Perhaps “never” is too strong a word, but I tend to think it will stick in their memories as the night we all smushed among the dusty boxes, and Henry the birthday boy managed to lug our twelve-pound cat down the basement steps without mishap.

True hospitality is messy, and it can be awkward and sometimes it means standing around in a basement, with the cobwebs and crickets, making small talk about which is the best weather app on our phones. But I cannot help but acquiesce to the symbolism. It’s a safe place that I offer them. It is safe and warm and a bit weird, and we are here with our flashlights and our love.

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