Heather Caliri is a new friend but her words are so rich and needed. I’m glad to share her story of hospitality with you today. I hope her experience with a generous Argentinian man leaves you smiling and determined to do something similar.
By the very first hour of his invitation, Topo had already changed my life.
And I didn’t even know his last name.
It started on Palm Sunday. At the Presbyterian church I’d been attending for a few months in Buenos Aires, Topo stopped me outside the sanctuary. I had no idea who he was, but he clearly knew me: the lone American exchange student giving shy smiles to people, my mouth firmly shut for fear of using the wrong Spanish verb tense. Most people, if they talked to me at all, would pat me on the head and cluck kindly. This was better than nothing, but it made me feel a bit like everyone’s favorite zoo animal.
Topo, however, was all business. He greeted me with a typical Argentine kiss on the cheek, then introduced himself with a big smile. “Topo,” he said. “You have plans for Easter?”
He’s a big man, with a shock of white hair, still thick. He was maybe sixty, his eyes tilted down at the corners in perpetual amusement. He is known for cooking. He has been a leader in the church for decades. Also, the man can talk. Fast. Even now that my Spanish is fluent, I have trouble keeping up; back then, he had to repeat every question three times.
“Easter plans?” he repeated. He didn’t wait for me to answer, but started talking again. I struggled to follow him. Pick me up, group at the Puerta Abierta Church, Saturday night, his daughter, spend the night, very late, home too far, would I like to come?
I blinked a few times. Was the man inviting me places? I desperately wanted to say yes, even though I didn’t quite know what I was agreeing to. Several kind people had invited me to outings, but even so, I could go weeks at a time without talking. I’d moved a lot growing up; I knew what it was like to start from scratch, but being a foreigner was another level altogether. I was so terribly lonely.
Also, the idea of spending my first holiday in Buenos Aires alone had already been sending icy needles into my stomach.
“Me gustaría. Muchas gracias.” I said. “I would love to. Thank you so much.”
I don’t ride roller coasters because I hate careening through space without any way of stopping. But in Buenos Aires, I was getting over it. Anytime something interesting happened to me, I had that same whooshing feeling in the bottom of my stomach. I never understood anyone well enough to control what happened.
So it was with Topo. I thought I was signing up for Easter services at a different church—but I was really signing up for an entire weekend. Saturday night, he and his daughter Florencia, a medical student, picked me up. We drove to the Puerta Abierta—an evangelical church in the middle of the city with a giant youth group. The event started at nine and went on after midnigh. There were at least two hundred kids there, from junior high to post-college. And the kids from the Presbyterian church that had been greeting me politely—and nothing more–for weeks? They were there too.
“What are you doing here?” a girl named Cami asked me. A cluster of kids around her all stared at me, smiling. Cami was a leader at the Presbyterian church, tall, with pale skin and dark hair. She wore red Converse, and her low, vivacious laugh was always rising up above the chatter of the group.
“Topo invited me,” I said.
Everyone nodded; of course he had.
And just like that, a door opened. I had been looking in at all of the kids at the Presbyterian church behind some sort of barrier. I was outside, with no hope of joining in.
But after Topo, I belonged. The people who hadn’t really noticed me before? They all became my friends. Fifteen years after Topo’s invitation, I count the people I met that night among my brothers and sisters.
Recently, on a trip back to Argentina, I asked Cami about it. “Do you remember when I started coming to the Presbyterian church?”
Cami shook her head no. “But you showed up one day at the Puerta Abierta, and then suddenly, you were always there.”
I still wonder: does Topo know that he was Jesus to me that weekend? Does he realize how big of a difference he made in my life? I saw him on my most recent trip back to Argentina, and wished I could explain, but with my slow Spanish and his quick wit, I have never been able to get out the words.
I realized, after meeting Topo, that sometimes love is even simpler than we realize. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to show up in a gigantic way for someone else. Surely Topo couldn’t have known how his intentional, generous, but short-term invitation would bless me.
I am still amazed at the amazing grace one gesture of hospitality can be. How generosity can take someone out of a pit of aloneness and fill their life with good things. After meeting Topo, I am hoping that someday, God willing, I’m able to be Topo to someone else.
Heather Caliri is a writer and mom from San Diego. Two years ago, she started saying little yeses to faith, art, and life. The results shocked her. Get my free e-book, Dancing Back to Jesus: Post-perfectionist Faith in Five Easy Verbs, on her blog.
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