Sacred hospitality: Have you been a stranger?

Susan Hudson and Veda Shaheen Gill discuss the radical hospitality in Pakistan.

With Susan M. Hudson and Veda Shaheen Gill

Susan Hudson, a retired PC(USA) pastor and missionary, landed in Lahore, Pakistan, about 28 years ago as a missionary with the denomination. She met Veda Shaheen Gill, who became executive director of the Presbyterian Education Board in Lahore. They discuss the radical hospitality that Hudson discovered is common in Pakistan.

Sue: Mrs. Veda Shaheen Gill, whom I deeply respect, and I met 28 years ago in Lahore, Pakistan, when my husband, David, and I, along with our three daughters – Rebekah, 10; Rachel, 7; and Mary, 4 – were called to serve as Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) missionaries in partnership with the Presbyterian Education Board of Pakistan.

When I informed my father of our plans, he thought I had lost my mind. “Why would you take your three daughters to Pakistan?” he asked. My response sounded naïve, but I answered, “I think it will be good for them.”

David and I, truth be told, have chosen to be “strangers” in many contexts. We began our journey as a newly married couple in 1980 in Seoul, South Korea, where we served as Volunteers in Mission. Our first daughter, Rebekah, was born there when we returned to serve as missionaries from 1983-1988.

Rachel was born while we lived at Mission Court Apartments in Richmond, Virginia, on home assignment. We took Rebekah and our newborn to different churches every Sunday as we itinerated to share God’s work in Korea. Staying in peoples’ homes as “strangers” was challenging, since I needed to comfort Rachel’s middle-of-the-night tears!

Mary was born while David was in his first pastorate. She went with the flow when we felt called back into missionary service to Lahore.

I have been a recipient of global hospitality in Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Japan, whenever I found myself lost and unable to speak the language. Strangers stepped up, respectfully assisted me, and helped me find my way home. Those were humbling, yet holy, experiences of God’s love.

In Pakistan, where few women drove cars, my car fell into a ditch. Several strangers pulled over and righted my car without sharing words. I felt grateful awe. Another time my car quit running at a red light. Another stranger assisted me and remained with me until I could find my way home.

My friend and colleague, Veda Shaheen Gil, has served as the executive director of the Presbyterian Education Board since 1998 when my husband handed her the “keys.” When we visited Pakistan in November 2023 to celebrate 25 years of “de-nationalizing” the Christian schools, we witnessed how God has used Veda and her team to revitalize Christian schools.

Veda: In 1972, the government of Pakistan took ownership of mission schools and property established in 1885 when nearly 300 missionaries in Indo-Pakistan were serving poor and marginalized communities. What followed were 30 years of darkness for the schools.

I remember my first peek at the Presbyterian Education Board (PEB) system in February 1998, when visiting Girls Primary School in Kasur with David Hudson, my predecessor. We traveled on a public bus without windows. This visit was enough for me to realize we were inheriting condemned buildings, nonfunctional toilets, a few hundred students, squatters, a poor educational system, untrained staff and inadequate resources. The magnitude and gravity of the gigantic task seemed an uphill battle. After denationalization, the first priorities were to make the system functional, to get the electricity connections restored, secure the loose hanging wires, provide bulbs and fans, clean drinking water, and functional toilets, close the leaks in the roofs, repair of sewerage system and to assure a secure place for students.

This precarious situation was overwhelming. In desperation, I asked one question: “Where do we start?”

“I have left a clean slate for you to write,” was the simple answer of my predecessor. In 2008, when Mr. Hudson visited Pakistan for the Kinnaird Academy dedication, he asked me if I had used a magic wand to make such a huge transformation. I told him God’s hands through God’s people are the biggest wands in this transformation.

Sue: I accompanied David in November 2023, when he was invited as chief guest to celebrate the transformations that have taken place under Veda’s leadership. We were overwhelmed by PEB’s hospitality. They graciously welcomed us into the same guest house where we had been welcomed in 1995.  We did not spend a single rupee as their guests. PEB staff offered to cook breakfast every morning, and, because of the war in Israel and Gaza, the PEB staff hired security officers to travel with us to visit schools. At each location, students put leis around our necks and showered us with rose petals. They prepared songs, skits and dances in English to show us their skills and display the hard work of teachers in language arts, math, science and technical subjects.

Veda: Pakistani hospitality is renowned for warmth, generosity, and friendliness. It is an integral part of our culture. Western media talks about Pakistan as full of violence and terrorists, but the truth is most Pakistanis are friendly and hospitable.

The foreigners in Pakistan are treated like royalty. Pakistanis consider guests as gifts from God and take it as their responsibility to be kind and protective. Hospitality demands that you be generous if someone appears at your doorstep. Once members of PC(USA) churches were visiting Pakistan. We drove to Sargodha to visit a PEB school. When we stopped to give them a tour of orange and guava orchards, the poor people staying there provided us with a charpai (a bed-like cart with four posts) to sit on. The lady of the house brought freshly picked guavas and oranges and served us. We tried to pay them, but they said “These Americans are guests. We do not take money from guests.”

Let me share another story. An American friend from Iowa City visited Martinpur, one of the Presbyterian Girls Schools. While she was talking to a group of girls, one asked about her hobbies. She said she collects spoons. When we were about to leave, that girl came running to us and handed us a spoon. She said we eat with our fingers. My grandma has kept this one spoon and we do not use it. She wanted to give her only spoon to the honorable guest.

To me personally, Sue, when someone comes to our house, we give the best of the best. Pakistanis have a special way of spreading food to more people by making curry thin. In my mother’s house – and that tradition was in our house, too – any guest who knocked on the door at dinnertime was welcome to food. We easily entertained 5-10 people by making quick alternative arrangements. In this case, the family will eat later; the guest will eat first.

In villages, women take pride in handwoven clothes, carpets, and crochet blankets. Once we visited a village where we were providing scholarships to two sisters whose parents died and the girls were staying with the grandma. The house hardly had anything. When I was about to leave, the grandmother brought a handwoven blanket – which she had kept for the girls as dowry – and gave it to me as a gift. She was literally giving me all she had. I felt so unworthy of that extreme generosity.

Hospitality is a fundamental aspect of human interaction that transcends cultural boundaries. It embodies the values of warmth, kindness, and generosity. My question is: “What are the cultural norms of people in the United States regarding hospitality where individualism, respect for personal space, and time consciousness prevail?”

Sue: Thank you, Veda. Even though there are generous, hospitable people in the United States, nowadays many seem reluctant to open doors and hearts to strangers. I pray sacred hospitality will become a trend rather than an exception.

I cannot conclude without sharing your generosity to me when I visited last November. I was invited to preach at Naulakha Church by Rev. Majid Abel, where we worshipped in the 1990s when women were not allowed to preach. My sermon title was: “We are Vessels of God’s Love.” When I visited your office, a painting on your bookshelf captivated my attention. The picture embodied the message I had tried to deliver. Immediately, you offered me the painting. I knew I had made a mistake by expressing my love for it. In Pakistan, that means you will give it to me! I said, “No, please. I cannot take that.” You insisted. The next day you introduced me to the artist. The principal of Kinnaird told me later that this gorgeous painting, which pictures God’s overflowing love being poured into us, who are willing yet empty vessels, was done by Mahdifeh, an eighth-grade student who is Muslim. Her holy artwork travels with me as a symbol of sacred hospitality and overflowing love. Thank you, Mahdifeh and Veda, for being vessels of God’s love in my life!