Christiana's life sounds dreamy to Wendell-Berry-loving-Christians like myself - intentional community on a farm, strawberry picking, freshly laid eggs, magic around every corner. But it turns out that such a life is a bit more complex than we imagine it to be.
The banging gong
James* came bounding through the heavy wooden door of the common building right before church one Sunday morning in the middle of the growing season. With his stained teeth, bleached hair, and funky floral shirt, he appeared to be an ex-hippie, a recovering addict, or both. He had the personality of an enthusiast, one who loves people, loves storytelling, and seems to love it when people love him back. In our small Mennonite intentional community, where we are nourished by hospitality to the stranger, one extra was noticeable and welcome.
That first Sunday, James felt free to chime in during teaching, offering up examples from his own life of working with the homeless and growing up in an Amish community. His stories were fascinating and foreign: divorced parents who left the Amish, several siblings who had ended up in strange messianic cults, a son from a previous relationship, a radio show where he interviewed the likes of Jennifer Knapp.
James spent his days helping on the farm with my husband. We welcomed him into our home for meals. My husband lent James his old computer to use in the apartment he was staying in up the hill. He read to our children and talked about his own young son from a divorce. He talked about his upbringing in an Amish community and answered our questions about the quirks of such a life.
A few things were odd. James said he was keeping a blog about his time here and when I found it online, he had posted pictures of actual Amish folks, claiming he was ministering to the folks at our community (the folks in our community do not dress like the Amish or Old Order Mennonites). When my husband confronted him about the lie, James was quick to say that he and his editor had miscommunicated and it would be fixed. I didn’t believe him but we’d become so accustomed to odd ducks in this intentional community that we forgave a few white lies.
One evening, my husband received an email from a woman claiming to be James’ sister, one of the sisters who had been involved in a messianic cult. James’ sister wrote that their mother had died and she’d not been able to reach her brother: could my husband have James contact her?
My husband, who was wondering at this point how to tell a virtual stranger that his mother had died, called another man from the community and they went to talk to James.
James reacted as one might expect when you hear your mother has died unexpectedly: tears, questions, deep emotion.
But something didn’t ring true.
When my husband went to fetch the computer he had lent, he discovered that James had recently created an email address, the very email address that had sent the message about his mother’s death. At nearly the same time, while sitting at home and feeling strange about the whole thing, I found an online article sending James off from a job to care for his ailing father after his mother’s death. The article was several years old.
When my husband confronted James, our visitor grew defensive and the cracks began to show. The next day, James was driven to the bus station and given a one-way ticket back to his home state (if that really was his home state).
Initially I felt violated and fearful for my children. We were new to intentional community and probably prided ourselves a bit that we welcomed strangers into our home. But after James, we felt naïve, unprotected, and angry that someone had duped us so easily. And while I don’t think the kids were in any real danger, my husband and I began to feel a little shell-shocked about having strangers in our home.
After a few more strange visitors, I began to feel hostile to the idea of hospitality in general. I wondered if we should allow strangers into our home anymore. I felt wounded by rudeness, fear, lies, and odd ideas.
These visitors during our first years in community led me to question my naïve ideals about hospitality and my prideful, childish views of love for one’s neighbor.
As we live longer in community and experienced the often chaotic, stressful happenings, I feel an unpleasant sense that the hostility I was feeling toward James, extended not only to strangers in our community but to some of my neighbors as well.
Frankly, sometimes I think we are more likely to be willing to extend hospitality to the stranger than to our own neighbors or our own brothers and sisters in Christ. In my community, strangers and visitors are not usually permanent. We can present to them our best selves for a while, offering good meals, clean beds, and unchallenging conversation. But even if those visitors are unpleasant or offer strange experiences like James, in the end, they will leave. And once the shock has worn off, they have at least left us with good stories to tell.
But to live beside others day after day, to be confronted with their flaws and to be shamed by our own, to offer love in the midst of continual hurt or annoyance: this is another challenge.
As someone who used to consider herself a relatively nice person, I am relearning what real love and hospitality mean. The daily discipline of loving my neighbor is often ugly and painful. In our larger churches, we don’t always have to face these unpleasant people every day. Once we are home, we take the memory of them off as we shed our Sunday dress. But intentionally nurturing neighborly love means a recognition that this love cannot be taken off.
In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen says that “when we have seen and acknowledged our own hostilities and fears without hesitation, it is more likely that we also will be able to sense from within the other pole toward which we want to lead not only ourselves but our neighbors as well.” This other pole Nouwen refers to is hospitality. He says that our hope is always to move towards hospitality. That these angry feelings are normal and that what we feel might always be a bit uglier than what we show but that we can take comfort that moving toward openness is a journey.
Admitting that we don’t always feel open to loving others is a first step. Converting hostility to hospitality is a spiritual discipline, one that began for me with a visitor named James. I realized that I didn’t really know what it meant to love another person, especially an unpleasant person who felt more like an enemy than a friend. And without love, I was only a clanging symbol or a banging gong. I hope now that I am on the journey toward hospitality, daily crawling up on the altar of sacrificial love and staying there even when it gets hot.
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published poetry in Catapult, Literary Mama, and Curator Magazine as well as articles on fairy tales and farm life at her.meneutics and Art House America. You can find her blog and links to her other writing atthebeautyofthishour.wordpress.com or on Twitter at @renewsustain.