She was small in stature; smaller than me, standing no more than about five feet. With warmth that radiated from her heart-center, she embraced me and welcomed me across the threshold of her humble home—a 10 x 10 slum clearance building in the city of Chennai, South India.
We called her, “Ammi.” (Ah-me) Ammi means mother in Urdu.
My husband, Chris and I had become friends with Ammi’s sons, Mansoor, Adil and Jeelan—three of the kindest, most honorable young men I have ever known. Over time, Ammi’s sons became our brothers and their mother took us in as her own—Chris assuming the role of oldest son and me, the beloved first daughter-in-law. The daughter she had perhaps always longed for but didn’t have until we were brought into one another’s lives.
As the years passed by during our annual visits to Chennai for work, we spent as much time with Ammi as we would our biological mothers. Hers was our home away from home.
In Ammi’s modest kitchen, which composed of the floor space between the latrine and sitting area, she would cook some of the most exquisite Indian food that I have ever eaten: egg masala, chicken curry, and the most special of them all, mutton biryani.
Each night, after having eaten until we thought our tummies would explode, we would lounge around together discussing our brothers’ education and dreams, local politics and faith. We’d often watch movies late into the night and I’d usually drift off to sleep before the film ended.
Slum clearance buildings are some of the roughest places to live. Ammi’s little home didn’t get much airflow, and so even with the ceiling fan, it could be ninety degrees inside in the summer. I remember one night, it was so steaming hot, that we all took mats up to the rooftop and slept in the open air under the stars. Humble dwellings have a way of bringing its members close together and causing them to be grateful for each and every gift of life. Even now, that experience gives me pause tinged with a little longing for the simple things.
When our annual visits to Chennai would come to an end, and it would be time for Chris and me to return to the states, we’d always spend our last evening with Ammi and the guys. Saying goodbye never failed to be heart breaking. After filling our bellies to the brim, gently and boldly Ammi would walk us to the threshold of her home, put her sari over her head and breathe prayers over us. With a tender embrace, she would bid us farewell and we would walk away with full tummies and even fuller hearts.
Before meeting Ammi I’d never before been the guest of a Muslim.
And I’d certainly never been prayed for by a Muslim.
Ammi had a way of confounding my paradigms for who is “in” and who is “out”; for who is welcome at “the table” and who is not. Free from the unspoken boundaries of race, religion and nationality, Ammi’s life was one who welcomed all, regardless of differences.
Ammi taught me how to open my home and my heart to “the other.” It’s easy to offer hospitality to people who look like me, live like me and believe like me. But Ammi didn’t let my race, religion or nationality create a barrier between us. With a love as pure as any love I can imagine, Ammi embraced me and called me her own.
Ammi showed me that hospitality is universal and transcends our differences. She taught me the hospitality of Jesus. True hospitality doesn’t discriminate against those unlike ourselves. Jesus calls us to love as we’ve been loved by Him, with:
1. Warm Openness. Arms wide open, no holding back.
2. Extravagant Generosity. Giving everything one has to give.
3. Unconditional Acceptance. All are welcome at the table.
Ammi, a poor South Indian Muslim woman, showed me, a rich American Christian woman, how to love. For true hospitality is love. And true love has no borders.