Waking from a Dream of Separateness: A View from West Virginia

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

                   ~Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out

I carry Nouwen’s image of hospitality with me as I scrub toilets, sweep floors, and throw together last-minute meals for a full house of guests. I am two months in to living and working at a hospitality house in West Virginia, a not-for-profit bed-and-breakfast serving family and friends of women incarcerated at FPC-Alderson. Over the 4th of July weekend, a few encounters shed new light onto Nouwen’s insight about the meaning of hospitality, and they start with Nouwen’s namesake, four-year-old Micah Henri.

Micah is an incredibly articulate kid with a mohawk who paints his nails and decides every morning, dressing accordingly, which kind of animal he will be that day. On the 4th of July, we grilled out with the guests, and Dog-Micah had been running at will between the grilling team outside and the cooking team inside. As I washed dishes, I smiled at the motley crew gathered around the grill, representing several different states, legal histories, income brackets, and races. Micah was later telling a story about the guys at the grill to his mom.

“So the white guy…,” he began, and his mom recounted feeling a twinge of disappointment that race had been the first way he had differentiated the characters in his story. “So the white guy,” he continued, “said such-and-such to the red guy, and then the green guy laughed.” Our first impressions had misled us. Micah was not differentiating by race, but by t-shirt color.

Micah Henri on a typical day

Although Micah still seems to be largely oblivious to racial distinction, I, socially conditioned as I am, am not – nor should I be, as it would be ignorant to suggest that I am living in a post-racial society. Throughout the long weekend, this meant that I was constantly delighted and amazed as fellowship formed, was strengthened, and expanded between black, white, Asian, Latino.

One evening, I was sitting on the front porch playing guitar and singing, surrounded by a crowd of guests, mostly men visiting their wives at the prison. I was singing a familiar bridge about the lines being blurred “between you and me, between right and wrong, between us and them.” I got chills while singing that last line as I looked around and realized that that was what was happening in that instant. Hospitality offers a space where there is “freedom not disturbed by dividing lines” – where the dividing lines dissipate and we, like Micah, can find no way to distinguish people but by the colors of their shirts.

In Thomas Merton’s famed epiphany on the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, he describes a sensation “like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.” This unity is ineffable: “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

It is not every day that we perceive the reality of our hidden oneness quite as sharply as Merton did, but it breaks through our consciousness in spurts, in so-called raids on the unspeakable – the wisdom of a four-year-old, the simple warmth of fellowship, or the mystical language of music. I am lucky enough to call home a place where, if I am attuned, these raids on my divided constructions of reality are a near daily occurrence. They are, of course, partnered with challenging reminders of the pervasiveness of racism.

I know that I cannot go through life as if race were a distinction as benign as t-shirt choice. It would be naive and impoverishing to overlook valid and rich cultural distinctions that shape truly different experiences among different groups of people. It would be even more naive, and indeed harmful, to ignore the fact that we have made race into a distinction which implies privilege for some at the expense of others. It’s hard to forget this working in a job so closely tied to the prison industrial complex. However, as I engage in the earnest effort to understand the stories of the guests who come through this house, the interruptions of our interconnectedness are crucial components in my ability to hear them as they are.

Paradoxically, it is only through the realization of our oneness that I can avoid conflating our stories, that I can approach authentic relationship with people who are different from me.

For more information about the hospitality house, visit our website.

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