Hospitality and Italian Teenagers
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as a native among you, you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
In a modern world of hotels, motels, and time shares, practicing hospitality by inviting strangers to stay in our homes appears as an exception rather than the norm of Biblical times. Now days, we hide inside our cell phones and behind legal waivers fearing new people, food allergies and law suits. So, to open one’s home to strangers, especially foreign teenagers, seems radical and unnerving. In truth, it is a great blessing and creates lasting friendships which span an ocean and make the world a smaller more welcoming place.
For the last four years our family has participated in the St. Mary’s Youth Cultural Exchange founded by Karen Antonacio Oliver, the Academic Dean at Chesapeake Public Charter School. The SMYCE is a non-profit organization that promotes citizen diplomacy through an exchange program with the Collegio San Carlo in Milan, Italy. Each October, some fifty 8th graders from Milan come to St. Mary’s County for ten days where they stay with volunteer host families and attend classes at Chesapeake Public Charter School located on Great Mills Road. Then, in February, a group of American 7th graders from St. Mary’s County have the opportunity to stay with host families in Milan and attend Collegio San Carlo.
The Rau family and the Slade family of Good Samaritan have experienced both sides of the exchange. My daughter Katie went to Milan in 2017 and Maddie Slade traveled abroad in 2018. Then, October 23rd to November 1st of this year the Slades hosted an Italian student named Isobel, the Rau family hosted Claudia, and the Thurbers fearlessly welcomed two teenage boys, Pietro and Tomaso.
Strangely enough, we were not going to host a student this year. After three years of hosting, I felt like a break, but Kelly Thurber mentioned she was hosting, some families from my daughter Holly’s soccer team were planning to host, and Ms. Antonacio kept sending out emails searching for families. Then one Sunday at church, the message spoke of “Radical Hospitality” and I thought, “Okay God, real subtle!” I remembered how much we’d enjoyed Italian students in past years and how we still keep in touch with our first student, Francesca. I remembered how that time with the Italians actually brought our own family and school community closer together as we made time for each other and planned activities.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Claudia Bertoluzzo was not planning to come to America this year. Collegio San Carlo has 2,000 students and 8th graders get to come here through a lottery. Claudia was not picked and her name ranked several slots down on the waitlist. Miraculously two people declined their spots and the opportunity opened for Claudia. She was placed with our family and sent me an email. She has three sisters and the eldest hosted one of Katie’s classmates in 2017. We soon discovered that Katie actually slept at Claudia’s apartment the last night she stayed in Milan. We had a great time talking about the coincidence of it all on FaceTime and I knew then that it was meant to be. God had friendship planned for our two families.
Our time with Claudia flew by. She and our daughters became fast friends. We shared stories and learned about her family and her life in Milan and she learned about us. We took her shopping, laughed about why Christmas items were out in stores before Halloween, toured historic Annapolis, carved pumpkins, and trick-or-treated. While the girls attended school, Claudia went on field trips to D.C. and St. Mary’s Manor and students attended a picnic and a Halloween Dance. I thought to myself, if I had taken that break I’d planned this year, I would have missed all of this.
We hope to see Claudia again as her mom even offered to host Holly and/or Noelle if they go to Milan in a few years. The girls and I cried when she left us—a great deal of love is wrapped up in hospitality. Thanks to the St. Mary’s Youth Culture Exchange, a group of American and Italian youth has a better understanding of one another and in many cases, lasting friendships that will positively shape their world views throughout their lives.
And also wrapped up in that hospitality is the shared experience the three host families from Good Sam now have in common. The conversations, shared stories and group support have sparked a sense of neighborly or community hospitality—a feeling of closeness fostered by “the Italians.”
For the Thurbers, it was a little glimpse of their future—life with teenage boys. Kelly says, “Running her two Italian teenage boys all over the county, hearing about crushes, navigating the differences and diets, making sure there was enough food and water in the house, getting them to bathe and making sure they put their phones away at night so they actually get slept were challenges she’s hasn’t yet experienced. But along with those revelations, her two boys helped with the gardens at church during Wednesday’s Family Eat & Play, made some Italian dishes from scratch for the family and went to Sunday School with the high schoolers—along with the Slade’s visiting student.
For all, hosting these great Italian students revealed much about our own lives, how we interact with strangers and what it truly feels like to understand and engage in hospitality. Undoubtedly, we are all richer for the experience.
by Martha Rau (with input from Kelly Thurber)