UNLESS you are an Airbnb host, it is hard to see the ironing of pillowcases and the relentless washing of sheets and towels as a sacramental activity — part of a eucharistic ministry grounded in that of the wider Church.
Airbnb is an online marketplace that lets people rent out their properties or spare rooms to guests. I had always thought that being an Airbnb host would be either a monumental waste of time and effort — because we would not get enough custom to warrant doing it at all — or an unmitigated slog, which it would be largely up to me to own.
I could not have been more mistaken. The load is shared, with a little extra help from time to time, and it has been a truly life-enhancing experience. The strangers who come to stay in a part of our house are a blessing, whether they come for two nights or for a week.
IN ONE sense, the guests are not even strangers. We will have been imagining them from their profile on the Airbnb website, just as they will have been imagining us. But seldom do the profile pictures resemble the reality. This obliges us all to refocus quickly our thinking when we first meet — in terms of what we expect one another to look like, and what all parties expect or imagine each other’s dogs to be like.
We welcome dogs, and we have an enthusiastic canine host to help us. Dogs ease the initial encounter between host and guests by prioritising their own immediate social needs, so deflecting what might otherwise be a rather nervous mutual sizing-up of guests and hosts.
This initial encounter, often made chaotic by the dogs, releases laughter and, with it, the possibility of friendship. The understanding and the trust that come with friendship depend on the will to make the Airbnb experience work for all parties. We are all, therefore, obliged to relearn the arts of courtesy and kindness, not just because we shall have to write a “review” of our experience as host or guest, but because the place — and the moment — make the immediate benefits of courtesy and kindness something to be desired. We have never yet had disruptive or noisy guests.
AS HOSTS, we have had to learn the courtesy required of us, too, especially when it comes to knowing when to be there for people, and when to give them the space they need. These things are sensed. There are times when ministry is required. The guests know that I am an Anglican priest, and they will sometimes want to talk about their faith journey, or about their lives in general.
The place itself speaks peace, as guests have often remarked in signing the visitors’ book, and this peace is instantly felt by our guests when they arrive. There is a moment of awed silence as they look around on getting out of the car, and it is important to allow this graced moment to work its effect on the newly arrived guests — and on us, as hosts who are privileged to share in it.
The blessing of the moment comes with the place, and is given in equal measure to both guests and host. It sets an agenda of peace and healing which the guests will feel for the duration of their stay. It seems to evoke the recognition of a person’s need for God. As a result, the Airbnb model of hospitality also becomes a model for a particular kind of chaplaincy ministry, and possibly one for the Church as a whole, since all Christian ministry is about being there for people.
AS HOSTS, also, we provide unexpected extras, such as home-made bread and Welsh cakes. It takes attention to detail to make the Airbnb experience feel like a gift for the guests, who almost always receive it as such, and return the gift in equal measure as they rest and slow down.
With this exchange, the whole event, however long it lasts, acquires something of the sacramental. It is both a hallowing of matter, in the ordinariness of bread and Welsh cakes, and a blessing, in the place itself and in the people who visit.
The blessing that falls on the hosts comes, in our case, in the unexpected fun of doing something that originally promised to consist mainly of hard work. Now that we are well into our second year as hosts, we have come to know people from all over the world — most of them younger than us — and from many different professional backgrounds.
Some have become friends. Among these are doctors, engineers, a retired probation officer, and a paramedic, none of whom we would have met had it not been for this ministry of eucharistic hospitality.
Hospitality teaches gratitude, and gratitude is the essence of the eucharist. Without the gratitude and appreciation that we receive from our guests, we may well have become ungrateful ourselves — taking for granted something that others describe as a little piece of heaven.
The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is a priest in the Church in Wales.