Toledo, Ohio, is a small city with big-city problems. But cheap housing makes it a perfect place for creative types. One aspiring collective—about a dozen proverbial "starving artists"—recently rehabbed an old house that now hosts a once-a-week meal to which anyone is welcome. About 300 homeless folks, fellow artists, and college students show up.
"They're all seekers," explained a young man involved in this outreach. "Most of them say they're looking for community."
In a culture where so many people feel alienated from family and clan, a place of genuine welcome is attractive. And though the starving artists of Toledo may not realize it, hospitality is a thoroughly Christian practice. Christine D. Pohl, associate provost and professor of Christian social ethics at Asbury Theological Seminary, has reflected deeply on what it means to welcome the stranger not simply as "client" or "guest," but as Christ.
While researching her classic Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Pohl noted a recurring lament from experienced workers: Practicing long-term hospitality requires the infrastructure of community, but sustaining community is hard—much harder than merely opening it up to strangers. Living into Community: Cultivating Practices That Sustain Us (Eerdmans) is Pohl's attempt to resolve this dilemma.
Why do communities come unglued? Paradoxically, Pohl argues, the very fragmentation of contemporary life that makes us crave community also makes most of us poor candidates for committed membership. "Despite the fact that many of us claim to be dissatisfied with individualism," she writes, "we cherish our capacity to make individual choices and to seek opportunities for personal growth." It might be exciting to visit the Toledo artists' collective and meet 300 fellow seekers. But if everyone remains a "seeker" on their own terms, there won't be food on the table—or a community around it—for very long.
How, then, can we truly belong to one another amid the trials of community? Pohl recommends four practices that provide the basic structures of life together: hospitality, which Pohl places at "the heart of the Christian life," along with gratitude, promise-keeping, and truth-telling—three legs of a stool on which hospitality can stand.
For each practice, Pohl reflects on its importance and identifies factors that strengthen or weaken its realization. Take promise-keeping. "Promises," Pohl writes, "provide the internal framework for every relationship and every community—they function like the 'hidden supports in a well-built house.'" For Christians, the making and keeping of promises is rooted in our relationship with a covenant-making God. But promises are complicated. They make claims about an unknowable future, when we'd prefer to "keep our options open." They assume our best intentions, when we are often given to self-deception.
All four practices, Pohl stresses, are tightly interwoven. The pillars of hospitality stand or fall together. Again, consider promise-keeping: Can the pledge of shared life survive a breakdown in gratitude for the gift of shared life? Can it survive a failure of truth-telling when sinful passions arise?
While painfully honest about the challenges of contemporary culture, Pohl exudes confidence in God's grace to knit us together despite ourselves. Ideal communities don't exist. But Pohl reminds us that practices of "truth and hospitality" are "at the heart of our grateful response to the one who 'became flesh and lived among us … full of grace and truth.'"
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Paraclete Press).
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Living into Community is available from Christianbook.com and other retailers.
Previous Christianity Today articles on missions and ministry include:
Cost-Effective Compassion: The 10 Most Popular Strategies for Helping the Poor | Economists rate impact. (February 17, 2012)
Calling All Callings: Amy Sherman on 'Kingdom Calling' | Christians can build thriving communities by exercising their vocational gifts. (February 9, 2012)
Blessed Are the Jobless: How Ministries Aid the Unemployed | For millions of discouraged workers, the church can turn job loss into a gift. (January 13, 2012)
How Charity Can Be Toxic | Bob Lupton explains how to avoid destroying dignity. (December 21, 2011)
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