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.