I recently had the pleasure of visiting my friend Matthew Loftus in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of inner city Baltimore, where he has lived with his family and worked as a physician for the past few years. Matthew has been a longtime friend of this blog—he was one of our early regulars in the combox, and he recently published his first guest post with us. But it struck me, visiting him, that one of the best gifts Matthew brings to us at SF is the witness of his life and the question mark it puts over all of our talk here about “community” and “hospitality.”
Matthew and his wife Maggie and their children are “relocators”: they moved from the suburbs of Baltimore to Sandtown in order to be part of a remarkable multiethnic church there and live among the urban poor. And when I stayed with them, they shared their small(ish) home with a single woman, a friend who, in the time she had been with them, had become like an aunt to their children. This kind of “thick” practice of community—where it isn’t just a dinner table that’s opened up but an entire home, and where mobility is off the table (at least until God calls you elsewhere)—is something we’ve paid comparatively little attention to here on this blog. We need to change that.
One of the most crucial areas where prejudice and privilege can (and must) be put to death in contemporary society has to do with where and how we live. While explicit segregation by race is no longer allowed by law, it still happens by default in many places where the poor are isolated. Far too often, when considering a place to live, we ask how comfortable it is, how safe the neighborhood is, and how well it fits our needs as individuals or families. What if, instead of asking whether our neighbors who don’t look like us would steal from us, we asked how we could bless our neighbors? What if, instead of asking how well a house could contain our stuff, we asked how well it could be used to host others?
We might even consider living together in the same home. My wife stayed with a family after she finished high school; the time with a stable family was invaluable for her growth as she watched how a husband and wife dealt with conflicts and learned to raise a child together. We’ve since taken on several single housemates in our five years of marriage, finding them to be a blessing to our growing family and an opportunity to be changed as we learn to love one another. Other friends of ours have intentionally made space in their home for the homeless and other people in crisis. There’s a whole movement to intentionally relocate to neighborhoods in need. Such commitments aren’t to be entered into lightly, but they do need to be considered more often as a means of fellowship, witness, and working for justice.
There is no ideal living situation that will meet all our needs. There will also be some seasons when we should always expect to be investing ourselves—our emotional and financial resources—in loving others and asking ourselves how our choice of where to live, work, worship, and play can affect our ability to form relationships and build community. As we elect not to submit to the limits of place, we will find ourselves open to deeper friendships and mutuality.
And here’s another reflection of Matthew’s, this one from his review of my Spiritual Friendship book:
[I]f we want to promote the sort of friendship that Wesley wants, we’re going to have to push back against the forces that put each of us at a comfortable distance from one another. I think that one key way to do this (amplifying the final suggestion he gives in the book) is to increase our physical proximity to each other across the board and intentionally promote the understanding that more proximity should bring with it more responsibility to those that we are close to…
Furthermore, a stronger focus on tying the spiritual community to the physical community will not only help us to welcome those who we’d otherwise pass by as we’re driving from one place to another—it will lower the barriers to life together as we live, work, play, and worship together.
One of the ways that this has played out in my life has been in communal living; Wesley briefly discusses his experience with it but doesn’t go much further than that, as most of his firsthand stories about shared living quarters “have ended with disappointment.” While I understand his reticence to jump in with any definitive pronouncements, I’ll go ahead and say that more families—yes, even families with small children—should open their homes to single adults. My friends and I may represent only a small sample, but I’m happy to say that we’ve had four housemates in five years of marriage and all involved have judged the experience as positive. Our other friends in the neighborhood—some single, some married—have reported similar blessings from this sort of fellowship. Much of this, I think, is because we all worship together and share the same commitments to loving one another. This has been particularly powerful when people in great need have taken up residence with us. While a lease is a far cry from a vowed friendship, it might be enough of a commitment to get us started.
I think Matthew is exactly right that this should probably be the next frontier, so to speak, for some of us who write here at SF. There’s a backlog of posts we’ve developed about eating together, sharing each other’s disorganized space, working together, doing advocacy work together, cultivating fondness for each other, etc.—but what we need more of is serious reflection on the possibility of friends’ permanently sharing the same apartment or house, and doing so with a view to serving and strengthening their surrounding community. What are the reasons for attempting to do that? What are the specific gains it offers? What are the opportunities for service and care it affords? What are the temptations and pitfalls and losses you may incur by doing so? And, maybe most importantly, where are the people who have done this well and how can we hear from them and learn from their stories?
I currently live with a married couple, and Matthew’s emphasis on communal living is making me think through how I’d like to try to write about my situation in the future. Of course I don’t want to “overshare,” and I’m always concerned to guard the privacy of my housemates (not to mention my own!), but Matthew’s right: Some of us, at least, need to find ways to celebrate this way of life and to try to push for it to become more mainstream in our churches.
For now, I’ll offer one thought about how our emphasis on “vowed friendships” might intertwine with an emphasis on communal living. On the one hand, I want to continue to try to ward off the misunderstanding that we’re really hoping to encourage people towards gay partnerships under the guise of friendship. That’s really not what our project is about, despite the ongoing incomprehension we encounter on that score.
Speaking positively, I myself am interested in thinking through how a kind of commitment—some verbalized, community-understood-and-supported, prayed-over “vow” (of sorts)—may be the basis for certain sorts of ventures in shared living space. At the most basic and trivial level, it’s hard to sign a lease if you’re not committed to your friends, at least for a season! And I’d like to see us expand on that thought. How might intentionally pledging to belong to someone’s family—for instance, by vowing to help raise their children in the Christian faith—become the ground or means by which a communal living situation arises? And how might these experiments in closer communal living, in turn, teach all of us—whether we’re sexual minorities or not—more about belonging more to and with one another across our various differences (gay/straight, married/single, Catholic/Protestant, black/white, rich/poor, etc.)?
Consider this a teaser trailer for a longer set of posts I hope to write in the future. And in the meantime, please use the combox to tell me what’s worked for you in this regard and what hasn’t.
My husband and I share our home with a single young woman that we have known for years. It has been such a cool situation. I was greatly encouraged while reading the Spiritual Friendship book that this kind of situation should not be unique. I am praying for it to pop up all over the church!
Wes, I’ve shared space with others for long seasons- sometimes “successfully,” sometimes not so much. I think key to the success of these relationships is the individuals’ commitments to “lean into the discomfort” with the Lord and others. In other words, to stay vulnerable with the Lord and our housemates as we navigate life. We all hit inner obstacles that we want to run from, but once we start running, it’s only a matter of time before it all blows up. And that just means we get to gather the pieces, heal a bit, and dive in again!
I live in Charleston, and met you once on John’s Island, but would’ve loved to have seen you when you came several weeks ago… can you please post on your blog when you’ll be speaking out and about? I didn’t see any promo in the various Diocesan news I receive.
You message is timely for us. My husband and I have been married for almost thirty years and just moved our youngest son into his own home for his sophomore year of college in another town. We thought we were “done” with raising children. We have home educated our own two sons and thought like most people our age, fifties, that these are now to be our golden years. The time dedicated to “me time”.
We have been involved with our nieces life because she lost her mom at ten years old and has had a very un disciplined lifestyle being raised by her grandparents. She is thirty years old and literally has no one left to help her but us.
She is what most people from the outside would look at as the epitome of what’s wrong with our country. She is single, has five daughters who their fathers are either completely absent or completely unfit to be near them. She is on government aid and has been for over a decade and no chance of that changing in the near future.
Recently she had hit rock bottom and was unable to pay her rent or utilities. This of course isn’t the first time that has happened and in the past we have helped her monetarily to be able to live on her own but it was always a terrible struggle for her.
We made the decision when this happened about three months ago to invite her and her five girls ages four to twelve to live in our home with us. We thought,” How can we best help her and make a difference in their lives”, so we offered and she readily accepted.
We still do not know how long this will last but we are praying and preparing for it to become long term. She has agreed to stay until at least the end of the year.
It is at times so wonderful to have our home so full of life and laughter. We have two sons so we’ve never gotten to experience all of the things that young girls bring and it is delightful. The girls are so open to our rules and love the things we just automatically do in our home like prepare meals daily and eat together and ask them about their day. I sew up hems of too long dance pants for one and teach two others how to make a rosary out of colorful beads and pipe cleaners.
It is also many times a struggle for us all. There are messy rooms, there are some serious fights between sisters, many unkind words, and screams and temper tantrums at the dinner table because the youngest is not allowed to play on her mom’s smart phone while eating dinner.
We are trying to learn not to impose what we think is the correct way for things to be done and to allow her to be the mother she is and to love each other unconditionally but she is very open to our suggestions and has asked us to help her in disciplining them when we see she need the help. If she was not such a fun and happy person to be around and open to our suggestions it would be much harder. She makes it easy to love her. She is truly a beautiful person and a joy to be around, and is trying to discern how to please God for the first time in her life and want help in raising her girls to know and love God.
She redially agreed when we offered to pay for the youngest two to go to a catholic school near by. It is so fulfilling to see them learning the litergy and making the sign of the cross many times during the day and to hear them saying the prayers they are learning and then teaching their older sisters to pray.
We are starting to realize that this is what our calling is at this time in our lives and it is growing us deeper into a relationship with our Father and burning away much of the ugliness of selfishness that was before unseen in our lives. We are learning to serve, to die to our own desires, to humbly ask for forgiveness when we so haughtily assume that our way is the best way to do things. I hope we are in the process of becoming saints. That is our goal now. We are starting to see, through a glass dimly, that we are here to love and to serve others and it is so wonderful to know that our Father trusts us and loves us so much to allow us to be an influence in these six lives.
I hope this is in line with what you are talking about with sharing our lives and our homes with others and I apologize if it is too lengthy.
I’m looking forward to your posts on the subject.
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I’ve shared a space – or I should say someone else has shared his home with me – for the last eight years. I really don’t think I would have “stayed the course” without that friendship option grounded in the real lived experiences of “doing life” with someone else. That may sound a little pompous but I still don’t think the evangelical world (or that of any other orthodox Christian denomination) holds much promise for those who aren’t already part of the club (as gay/ssa people certainly aren’t)
My husband and I had a roommate for two months as they prepared to move to another city. We were hoping for this experience to deepen our friendship and grow our commitment to each other in Christ, especially before their big move, but our schedules weren’t conducive it. They worked nights and we worked days and we saw each other only briefly and rarely on weekends. It wasn’t a bad experience, but it didn’t give the opportunity for shared meals and prayers we had imagined. I hope we can try again in the future.
Wes, I’m really looking forward to reading more posts about living arrangements for celibate gay Christians because I believe this often-neglected component is crucial for the long term health and sustainability of persons pursuing celibacy. I’m in my mid-twenties and for the past year have lived in a house with a straight man my age who has since become my closest friend. Our friendship has formed slowly over time by our sharing ordinary life together, day in and day out. I know for a fact that we would never have experienced this level of deep spiritual friendship if we did not physically live with each other.
Now he is engaged to a girl, and in the next few months we’ll have to live in separate homes. Honestly, while I’m very happy for him and his fiancé, I’m sad that our living situation must change. Even as a strong introvert, I definitely need to live with other people; otherwise I easily slip into sinful patterns of lust and despondency. One of the biggest struggles of being single is a loss of stability and the lack of having a permanent home and family that marriage brings.
Surely a lifetime of celibacy is possible with God’s help, but our Western culture is so fragmented and individualistic that I hope to see much more of the kinds of communal living that you and Matthew are advocating for. We in the American church need our imaginations expanded. Thank you for writing this post.