A Hospitality of Words

By Sherrene DeLong
June 18, 2024

Have you ever had someone make an incorrect assumption about you? Maybe someone guessed you were younger than you really are, or maybe someone assumed you’d seen that super popular movie when you actually haven’t. Or perhaps you’ve experienced the more frustrating kind of assumptions, like when you’re forty-five years old and get offered the senior citizen discount. Other assumptions can be downright hurtful. There is a reason why it is culturally unacceptable in the United States to ever ask a woman if she is pregnant. I am still shocked at how often that actually happens. 

Take a moment to think about the last time a hurtful assumption was made about you. How frustrated were you? How often did you think about it after it happened? 

Depending on the severity of the assumption, you may have been able to let it go. But what happens when that assumption is made about you repeatedly over time? The woman who is asked if she is

pregnant more than once or twice is likely to experience a great deal of shame, anger, and hurt. She is likely to be very self-conscious about her choice of clothes (she may never wear those outfits again), the places she frequents (she may avoid places where comments have happened before), and her body itself (she may go on a shame-fueled rampage to lose any semblance of a baby bump).

It’s amazing what a few inappropriate words can stir up in the heart of the hearer. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can be just as powerful and debilitating. Now, take a moment to think about the person who made the assumption about you. Was the person trying to attack you? Was she intentionally rude and hurtful? The man offering the senior citizen discount genuinely wants to be of service to the guest to help him save money. The person asking about the woman’s due date may be genuinely happy for the “expecting” mother and want to share in her joy. Nine times out of ten, the people who make assumptions about us don’t mean to be hurtful. But that doesn’t really make us feel less hurt, does it? The not-pregnant lady will be plagued by those well-meaning comments for a long time. 

No matter who you are, you’ve more than likely experienced the hurt that comes from incorrect assumptions from well-meaning people.

Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, you may also be one of those who has unintentionally made incorrect assumptions about others. We may not have asked a woman about her due date (I hope not!), but we have unwittingly made other assumptions and hurt those around us, and we probably didn’t even know it. Unfortunately, too many hurtful assumptions about individuals are made unintentionally by God’s people against God’s people every day. For people of color like myself, the repeated assumptions laced in everyday conversations can be staggering. Though unintentional and well-meaning, the frequent expression of assumptions based on skin color or ethnicity drive a wedge between God’s people and hinder the brotherly love we are called to have toward one another in Christ (Rom. 12:10; 1 Thess. 4:9; Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22, 3:8; 2 Pet. 1:7). 

Do you mind if we pause for a moment? As you think about your own personal experiences with hurtful assumptions, and even start to wonder about ways you may have unintentionally hurt others, would you pray that God would grow empathy in your heart for the people of color around you who experience hurtful assumptions from well-meaning people nearly every single day?

My Story

Like many other people of color, my story is chock full of inaccurate assumptions based on my skin color and ethnicity. Here’s what you need to know about me: I am American. I was born and raised in southern California, and I have never lived anywhere other than the United States. I am also a child of immigrants. Both of my parents were born and raised in India. They were married in India and immigrated to the States in the early ’80s, and they are now citizens of the United States.

My husband is American too, but we don’t look alike at all. He has blonde hair, blue eyes, and a reddish beard. I have black hair, dark brown eyes, and olive skin. We’re both American, but we have very different backgrounds. My husband and I met in seminary in California. Before attending seminary, my husband was working in Alabama. He had committed to return to his job in Alabama at the completion of his studies, which he did. After I finished my degree a year later, we got married, and I moved from my southern California home to Alabama, where he continued to work.

Let me tell you—culture shock is no joke. I went from heavily populated city life to more rural and small-town country life. I went from seeing Starbucks on every corner to seeing churches on every corner. I also went from a beautifully diverse area with people from all over the world and a variety of languages spoken, to a homogenous area of people whose families have lived there for generations. I arrived in Alabama devastated by leaving my sprawling Indian family and amazing church family in southern California, but eager to meet people, make friends, and start a new life with my husband. I didn’t really know anyone other than my husband, and I looked to church to fill the gap and be my new family. I’m an extrovert (ENFJ!), so I’m fairly comfortable meeting new people and initiating conversations. It came as a surprise, then, that after my best efforts, I was not making connections and building relationships as quickly as I thought I would.

Seven months later, I found myself at a women’s retreat, parched by loneliness and hoping the event would give me a good opportunity to connect with the women who had been surrounding me for most of a year. It was in this context that I finally learned about one of the major factors contributing to my situation. I shared with two women about my struggle to connect, and they apologetically told me, “We thought you were a mail-order bride! We didn’t know you spoke English!” 

Initially, I didn’t know what to make of these words. Well, I’m not, so that means we can be friends, right? I really believed that once people at church knew the truth, then they wouldn’t shy away from me anymore. In a warped way, I received those words with hope for change, and I was desperate for people to give me a chance. Yet, as the words of the women sunk in, I slowly realized their assumptions about me were based on my skin color, and behind their unintentional assumptions was a serious questioning of my identity.

Someone who looks like you and is married to a White man must have been ordered via catalog. Someone with your skin color should not speak English. You are not one of us. There is a language barrier between us, so we cannot connect with you. You can be around us, but you are not part of our community. You are too different for us to be friends. 

Like the assumptions hidden in asking a woman about her due date because of her size or clothing, the assumptions based on the color of my skin cut me deeply. While the women did not intend to hurt me by their assumptions, the impact of their words became very real to me. 

Over time, more and more assumption-filled comments based on my ethnicity would make their way to my ears. “I’m glad they hired someone… [long pause]… impure!” The woman speaking said this to me to affirm me and to commend the school for branching out in diversity. The underlying assumptions, however, hinted that the previously all-White staff was pure in its homogeneity, a person of color like me is polluted in some way, and adding me to the staff is an adulteration of the natural, clean, and ordinary. You are contaminated. You are not normal. You are not one of us. They hired you because of your skin color, not because of your education or skills. They took you in so you can be their token person of color to improve their statistics. I am sure she did not intend to express any of those underlying assumptions. Her choice of words, however, were extremely poor. They hurt. I’m not impure.

On a different occasion, I was sharing with an elder that my parents are from India. As he heard me talking, a puzzled look came on his face. He exclaimed, “Wow! If I talked to you on the phone, I would have never known you were Indian!” He said this to compliment my English skills and neutral accent. Unfortunately, his statement revealed his expectations. 

You look like a foreigner who should not speak English. All Indian people have accents. Who you are does not make sense. You are an anomaly. He did not intend to be hurtful, but the assumptions in his comment impacted me greatly, especially because comments about my English have come from many others before him and many others after.

Even more frequent than the questions about my English is the question, “Where are you from?” When “southern California” is not a sufficient answer, I know the person is not asking about my home- town, but about my skin color. I don’t mind people knowing that my parents are from India and why I look the way I do, but when conversation ends there, it is evident the person was not trying to get to know me, but she was just curious about my pigmentation. Once she knows the answers, I have served her purpose, and she moves on. 

Sometimes it feels like I am an exotic animal at the zoo. A few people make assumptions and guess what’s inside. Others ask or look for the info placard. Even more just stare. In the end, they all end up walking away. This has been my experience being a minority in a dominant culture.

The repeated effect of all these comments and assumptions is wearying. It feels like who I am, the person God has made me, with my particular shade of skin, with my unique family and culture, is beyond true acceptance in the church’s covenant community. Even though I am American, my skin color makes me a perpetual outsider, too different to be truly received and respected. Even though I am a Christian, my skin color has become a hang-up in the development of meaningful relationships with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Again, no one stated their assumptions directly to me. No one had to. That is how assumptions work. By definition, an assumption is “a fact or statement taken for granted.” These “facts,” taken as truth regardless of reality, dictate how a person interacts with someone. When we operate on faulty assumptions, we can hurt one another even when we don’t mean to do so. I wholeheartedly believe that none of the individuals who have made assumptions about me intended to be malicious. They did not mean to question my identity or make assumptions based on race. While I’m grateful for the lack of ill intent, I am weary of how these assumptions erode relationships between the people of God.

When we believe something is true about another person and it is actually false, we sabotage our own ability to love that person well. We interact with that person with a level of pride in our own knowledge, however faulty, and fail to take a posture of humility to care for a person through listening and learning. If a husband gives his wife a circular saw when she is not interested in woodworking, he has neglected to learn about his wife and care for her appropriately. In the same way, when we make assumptions about people because of their skin color or ethnicity, we neglect to love them well and our imposition can cause great hurt, frustration, and angst, especially when multiplied by the number of times it is done by others in the person’s life.

While there’s no quick and easy solution to this problem, I would like to offer a working theory about how to resist making unintentional assumptions about people of other ethnicities so that the body of Christ can flourish together. We can start by recovering biblical assumptions.

Biblical Assumptions

While false assumptions can hurt, true assumptions can help. The only absolutely true assumptions we should seek to hold about one another, especially about those in the family of God, are found in Scripture.

  • Assume the person is made in the image of God and has inherent dignity, value, and honor as a human being (Gen.1:27–28). 
  • Assume you are called to love that person with brotherly affection and go above and beyond to show him or her honor (Rom. 12:10). 
  • Assume you are called to unity with that person as one body (John 17:20–21).
  • Assume the person is more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3).
  • Assume you need to be compassionate, kind, and patient (Col. 3:12).

If you look closely, many times, the faulty assumptions made based on skin color or ethnicity actually violate these true, biblical assumptions we are called to hold as the people of God. Assuming someone does not speak English may inadvertently cause you to avoid him, hindering the unity we are called to as one body. One Sunday morning, a Korean man walked into our church before the service and sat alone in the pew. I overheard a woman saying, “Wow, he’s early!” intimating that the only reason he would be present is for the Korean congregation that met later in the afternoon. She didn’t realize he was actually our guest from California, my husband’s previous pastor, who was there to preach at his ordination service later that evening. Her assumption about who he was stopped her from introducing herself and welcoming him as an honored guest in our community. 

Verbal expressions founded upon incorrect assumptions reveal the posture of a person’s heart toward his or her neighbor (See Luke 6:43–45). They say, “I am going to interact with this person based on something that I believe I know,” (pride) instead of, “I don’t know the details about this person but would like to learn from this person directly” (humility). They say, “I am going to make a judgment about this person’s identity because of his or her ethnicity” (affirming the value I assign) instead of, “I am going to learn more about this person because he or she is made in God’s image” (affirming the value God assigns).

Again, these faulty assumptions are deceptively benign and unintentional but tremendously powerful when repeated over time. This is the reality of many people of color. Our identities are subtly prodded and probed from countless unknowing people day by day, leaving us bruised and weary. A friend described it as, “death by a thousand paper cuts.” Imagine what it would be like for biblical assumptions to be affirmed day in and day out instead! What healing would come from being respected and heard instead of judged and dismissed! The people of God need to pursue such unity and strive to love our neighbors, even in everyday conversations.


One way to think about avoiding faulty assumptions in conversations is through the lens of hospitality. I know when you hear the word “hospitality,” your heart may swell with pride, especially if you’re Southern. 

You might be known for your hospitality. You may be able to put on a dinner party like no one’s business. You may have an elegant home with family heirlooms and custom paintings of your children. You might pull out all the stops for a guest who comes to your home: the silver goblets, the fine china, the perfectly prepared extravagant meal served on your best platters on a themed table-scape that rivals those in Southern Living magazine. Your home is usually pristine, your family is flawless (or at least appears so), and you put your best forward as your guest enters your home. Hospitality? The South has it covered. Or does it?

My husband preached a sermon on hospitality to a church we’d never been to, and I will never forget what a church member said to him afterward: “I love it when I hear sermons on things we’re good at. It makes me feel so good.” The ironic thing was my husband was preaching on welcoming the foreigner among us, while precious few actually said hello and introduced themselves to me, the “foreigner” with darker skin in the pew. This man’s version of hospitality was limited to opening up one’s home. While this is an important aspect of hospitality, there is much more to the concept we as a church need to consider.

Scripture challenges our surface-level hospitality throughout its pages. Just as Jesus explained that hatred in one’s heart is tantamount to murder and lusting after another in one’s heart is tantamount to adultery, he also explained that hospitality is more than what is superficially seen. The Greek word for hospitality (philoxenia) literally means “love for strangers.” Note it is not defined by “entertainment of guests,” “kindness toward those in your circles,” or “one-time pleasantries exchanged for the sake of politeness.”

Instead, the focus is on showing love for those we do not know. This is the opposite of what we are naturally inclined toward, isn’t it? We gravitate toward those who are like us and toward those who are familiar to us. Especially in the South, there are such close-knit circles based on established families, small towns, and football. Many times, the camaraderie around these networks is the very sense of closeness many Southerners feel when they consider the South, and the very same closeness they miss when they leave. 

But imagine if someone came to you who didn’t know a thing about football and who wasn’t related to anyone locally. What if the person had never lived in a small town where everyone knows everyone else by two or three degrees? What if he did not look like others in your community? That person may be warmly welcomed through general first-time meeting pleasantries, but for the person of color, many of these first-time pleasantries are laced with hurtful assumptions that are the opposite of warm and welcoming.

In these moments, the initial pleasantries, the everyday conversations, the meetings and greetings, we have an opportunity for micro-hospitality. While full-fledged hospitality can and should involve opening up one’s home and offering a meal, micro-hospitality starts with the heart and moves to our mouths. This is hospitality on a smaller scale. 

Henri Nouwen puts it this way: “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” The creation of free space Nouwen refers to should not be limited to dining tables and coffee houses. Love of strangers begins with the heart and follows with our words, all before we open up our homes.

In our everyday conversations with people of color, we have an opportunity to show micro-hospitality through shedding the false assumptions we have and humbly showing respect with our words. Jesus teaches us that out of the abundance of our hearts, our mouths speak (Matt. 12:34). 

The late Dr. Christine Pohl, formerly one of the leading scholars on hospitality, reminds us of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Pohl argues Jesus was not referring to any particular physical location for hospitality. Instead, the verse “challenges us to examine our practices of welcome to strangers in every setting,” and reminds us Jesus is more concerned about “relationships than with location—I was a stranger and you received me into your group” (emphasis mine). 

Relational hospitality must begin with the attitudes of our hearts and requires a willingness to truly welcome people into our communities. This willingness to welcome must not be negated by faulty assumptions made in conversations, however unintentional they may be. It is time for intentionality. The type of hospitality Jesus calls his people to demands us to be intentional in our love, not neglectful and haphazard. We as the people of God must reexamine the assumptions we make about one another and strive for better.

We Need One Another

It’s easy to say to someone, “Don’t make incorrect assumptions about people,” but it is much harder to do it. Many times, the assumptions we hold about those around us are extremely hard to see. It is vital for Christians to pray for the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to the false assumptions we hold dear, especially those that are culturally acceptable in our communities. It is also important for us to move toward people different from us with humility and a desire to learn. When the majority of our relationships revolve around those who are familiar to us, they tend to be one-dimensional. In his book Befriend, Scott Sauls says that these types of relationships “prioritize sameness, so views and convictions and practices are never challenged and blind spots are never uncovered.” 

We are in desperate need of outside perspectives to love us enough to show us our weaknesses and point us to Christ. We are in desperate need of the Holy Spirit to convict us of our love affair with our own comfort and give us opportunities to flourish amidst the beautiful diversity of the people of God. One-dimensional friendships “can’t offer the natural, redemptive, character-forming tension that diversity brings to our lives.” 

Without people from other ethnic backgrounds in our lives, we miss out on one of the greatest tools God uses in our own sanctification. It is uncomfortable, yes, but it is worth it. God uses our differences to challenge each other and make us more like him.

Micro-Hospitality Verses Micro-Aggressions

In the academic world, what I refer to as hurtful comments based on assumptions is sometimes known as micro-aggressions. I have a love-hate relationship with this term. I love it because it embodies how I feel—people have been aggressive toward me and it hurts. I hate it because “aggression” seems to imply intent, and I know those who have incorrect assumptions don’t intend to hurt me. Although the formal definition does leave room for the unintentional nature of micro-aggressions, the term itself can be misleading. For this reason, I have avoided using it until now. 

Regardless of what we call it, the slights made against people of color in the Church is a reality today. With an eye toward hospitality, even on a micro level, we can combat the micro-aggressions that plague the body of Christ and recover the biblical assumptions we are called to hold dear. It is my prayer that as awareness of these issues grows, the body of Christ would increasingly be a hospital for healing rather than a haunt for harm.

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Rom. 15:5–7)


Dr. Sherrene DeLong (she/her) holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education from Azusa Pacific University. Her research is on South Asian American identity and navigating white supremacy in higher education. Most recently, Dr. DeLong was the DEI Educational Programming Manager at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and is known for launching NOVA’s inaugural DEI Common Read program, conducting interactive workshops on DEI for faculty and staff, and training Healing Circle facilitators for NOVA’s Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Center. Dr. DeLong’s work is characterized by her dedication to promoting honest conversations about tough topics in order to reduce the effects of white supremacy in higher education and beyond.

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