Blessed Are the Homesick: Hospitality for Mobile Millennials

Blessed Are the Homesick: Hospitality for Mobile Millennials December 11, 2013

The independent rootlessness of emerging adults presents potent opportunities for the practice of hospitality. 

Shana Tovah! It was Rosh Hashanah in Washington, D.C. I unexpectedly found myself on my neighbor’s patio, ringing in the lunar New Year with a small gathering of his Jewish friends. Everyone was in his or her twenties, a bipartisan collection of government staffers, advocacy workers, and writers. California. Georgia. New Jersey. Everyone was from somewhere else.

Our host interrupted the lively conversation to sing a blessing over the apples, honey, and wine. The cicadas sang along. Another guest prayed and cut the challah.

“Religion is something practiced with the family, so it’s hard to be away from family during the holidays,” my neighbor said as he set out the feast. The brisket is marinated in a gallon of Coca-Cola—his mother’s special recipe. “You make do and start new traditions with other people who are in similar situations.”

My neighbor is not alone. The federal city is full of sojourners. When I moved into my brownstone flat in the Eastern Market neighborhood last year, it was my third residence in as many years. My little Anglican church down the street announces newcomer’s dinners and farewell parties in the same breath. So while I can navigate the concrete arteries of Washington with increasing ease, I cannot shake the sense that I am, as T.S. Eliot says, “familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.”

Diagnosing Homesickness

Although Washington is distinctly transient due to the election cycle, temporary professional opportunities, and dense student population, it is by no means an anomaly in the United States. A 2008 Pew Research Report found that four in ten Americans say they are very likely or somewhat likely to move within the next five years, especially the young, unmarried, or foreign born. Nearly 38 percent of U.S. born Americans say the place they consider home is not where they are living now.

Instead of creating new homes, millennials embrace independent rootlessness. Jeanne Meister wrote in Forbes that 91 percent of millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years. Five million 18-34 year-olds live alone in the US, as opposed to 500,000 in 1950, Eric Klinenberg reported in The Guardian.  Satirical news rag The Onion mocked cosmopolitan disdain for the “townie” in an article titled: “Unambitious Loser With Happy Fulfilling Life Still Lives in Hometown.” “Getting out” means making educational and career choices that will take one far away from places and families of origin.

The decreasing presence of unified homes and families of origin further destabilizes peripatetic millennials. Divorce splits families along geographic as well as psychological lines. In the wake of the post-industrial focus on the nuclear family, young professionals walk the career tightrope without the safety net of extended family and broader community. The oft-discussed rise of the religious “nones” further loosens the ties between individual and institution. While many young people form local “urban tribes” of their peers, they are increasingly separated from the tightest ties of community—blood, marriage, faith, and geographic roots. Deciding where to go for holidays has never been more difficult.

In the face of overwhelming social trends, it is easy to long for an earlier era. My father grew up in sleepy southern Minnesota in the 1950s, when couples courted on porch swings and sodas cost a nickel. He spent his weekends shucking sweet corn on Uncle Hilbert’s farm and worshipping in a grand and crannied Evangelical United Brethren church. In hindsight those years seem rooted, interdependent, and humane. Although technology, mobility, and accessible higher education present unprecedented opportunity, they have also uprooted families and separated communities.

Yet nostalgia is deceptive. Millennials are only the most recent iteration of the restless American spirit. America is a nation of immigrants and rugged individuals. Roanoke, Jamestown, and Plymouth were all great experiments in relocation, cutting ties with land and kin for the hope of religious freedom, wealth, and a new world. The doctrine of “Manifest Destiny” drove Western Expansion, pushing past the Eastern Seaboard, into the wild but fertile lands west of the Mississippi. The California Gold Rush of 1849, the Oregon Trail, and the Homestead Act of 1862 all expressed what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “restive curiosity” of the American people. “One will then see men change course continuously,” he said, “for fear of missing the shortest road that would lead them to happiness.”

Opportunity does not come without cost. In Homesickness: An American History, Susan J. Matt explores immigrant letters and diaries from the Puritans to present day, revealing the emotional content of American transience. Beneath fierce independence, she reveals not only longing, but debilitating sorrow. Matt describes alcoholism among early colonists, riots caused by Forty-Niners at the post office, and the silent pain of wives and mothers following their homesteading husbands. During the Mexican-American War, U.S. Army physicians even considered nostalgia and homesickness to be diagnosable conditions and recorded them in medical journals of the day. Every generation, from Plymouth to Vietnam, has had its own experience with displacement.

The American experience with homesickness is not exceptional. Swiss Scholar Johannes Hoefer coined the term “nostalgia” in 1688, merging the Greek words nostos (return home) and algia (pain). Unlike our faint notion of sentimentality, Hoefer used nostalgia to describe an actual psychological condition—the longing for home. Ancient and modern literature testify to the enduring motif of the pilgrim—Odysseus in exile from Ithaca, Dante’s winding journey to Paradiso, Christian en route to the Celestial City. Homesickness is not just a millennial condition, or an American condition, but a human condition. The desire for homecoming taps into a memory before memory. C.S. Lewis says in The Weight of Glory:

Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

The “old ache” is as old as our exile from Eden. Humans are made for another City. Earthly homes serve only as reminders of Heaven. Even those who never had homes, or had absent parents or unhappy experiences, still seek to find or create places of association and acceptance. The root of our restlessness is a case of mortal nostalgia.

Hospitality as an Antidote

We cannot turn back the clock on a timeless problem, but there are ways, in the words of Parker Palmer, “to deal creatively with broken hearts.” These solutions are proximate not ultimate, acknowledging the fallenness and fragility of earthly work and cherishing hope in the final restoration of the world to come. Hospitality, the welcome of strangers into place and relationship, is one such solution.

Hospitality is a gesture of peace. It says to the stranger, “I trust you to come into my home, to eat my food, to take up my time.” In an age of privacy and autonomy, this invitation is astonishing. It bears a stronger resemblance to the Good Samaritan’s care for the abused Israelite than the dinner scenes in Norman Rockwell’s Americana. Earthly hospitality reflects the transformative power of God’s atoning, adopting hospitality, which turns strangers and aliens into sons and daughters. It is a dim foreshadowing of the final welcome the children of God will experience in eternity.

Far from the benign, cozy gesture we think of today, hospitality was once a serious responsibility. In ancient times when commercial inns were scarce, travelers relied on the goodwill of foreign hosts for food, shelter, and protection. Old Testament Scriptures reinforced the existing practice, commanding the people of Israel to, “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” The Early Church emphasized the centrality of the Lord’s Supper, special care for the weak and marginalized, and the welcome of itinerant saints.

Today we associate women with hospitality, but historically both men and women partnered in the work of caring for strangers. Men had a central role, screening guests at the city gate and offering provision and protection. During the Middle Ages, an order even emerged called “The Knights Hospitallers,” whose job was to care for sick and injured pilgrims in the Holy Land. Hospitality was no issue of Martha Stewart Living. It was a messy and demanding practice, requiring risk, personal sacrifice, and loss of privacy for the practitioner.

Hospitality for Modern Pilgrims

How do we re-imagine ancient hospitality for our modern pilgrims—graduate students, jet-setting consultants, starving artists, foreign immigrants? How do we open our homes when we too are on the move?

Hospitality is not only for homeowners. A mortgage and disposable income are not prerequisites for a warm welcome. The most powerful expressions of hospitality  are offered from weakness, poverty, and the margins of society. The widow of Zarephath made bread for Elijah, though it was her last meal, and miraculously found her flour and oil multiplied many times over. Rahab the prostitute lodged and protected the Israelite spies in Jericho and was later protected by God from the city’s destruction.

During his ministry, Jesus himself lived in a state of social marginality, dependent on the hospitality of friends and followers. Yet in these relationships, he often took on the role of host. He turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. He taught in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. He healed in the home of Peter. He even hosted an abundant outdoor feast for five thousand with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes. Christine Pohl says in Making Room, “Like Jesus, the best hosts are not completely ‘at home’ themselves, but still make a place of welcome for others.”

Hospitality “on the move” displays deep self-giving generosity. “Babette’s Feast,” the classic short story by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), tells the story of a French widow called Babette, exiled to a windswept fishing village on the fjords of Norway. After coming into an unexpected fortune, she spends everything to cook an extravagant meal for the cold and calloused Lutheran congregation in her new home. The feast transforms everyone at the table, dislodging old grudges, rekindling lost loves, and healing broken dreams. Babette’s feast created, in Blixen’s words, “one hour of the millennium.”

As hospitality is hands-on by nature, discussion would be incomplete without practical steps for integrating it into our lives. What does it look like to welcome others creatively within the conditions of a mobile and fragmented age?

Simple welcomes: Simple spaces and simple meals are within the reach of modern pilgrims—an air mattress on the floor of a studio apartment, tuna sandwiches, folding chairs around a card table. However humble our homeplaces—dorm rooms, crowded group houses, or attic apartments—we should not forsake them for trendier third places. Meeting at home, instead of Starbucks or a Sunday school room, is an act of self-disclosure that interrupts our independence. When you open your home, you open up part of yourself, dirty dishes and unfolded laundry included. This act of vulnerability paves the way for guests to open up as well.

Open families: Those who do live with families can “adopt” modern pilgrims into their everyday lives. Rather than isolated units, families were once sprawling, multigenerational webs of parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins. It is a model worth revisiting. Even the most mundane activities—Sunday dinners, evening prayer, football games—are opportunities for pilgrims to experience membership, accountability, and care. Modern pilgrims can seek out such adoptions, resisting the cultural drift toward age and life-stage segregated communities.

Unstructured time: The accelerated pace of modern life means time is one of the most significant obstacles to practicing hospitality. “‘Being busy’ has become a status symbol,” says Henri Nouwen, “and most people keep encouraging each other to keep their body and mind in constant motion.” If we fill every spare moment of our lives, we will not be free to welcome unexpected guests or have the energy to care for them. Leaving unstructured time in our schedules is a countercultural act, which faithfully anticipates divine encounters. A late-night conversation. Another plate at dinner. Three strangers by the Oaks of Mamre.

Presence of mind: In an increasingly distracted society, giving your undivided attention is one of the most meaningful acts of welcome. Although digital communication has softened the blow of modern mobility, it poses a formidable obstacle to presence of mind. Unless it is an imminent responsibility, the simple practice of keeping the cell phone stowed during conversations protects mental boundaries and is a tremendous show of respect to guests.

Solitude and stillness: Solitude seems a counterintuitive practice for modern pilgrims, many of whom are already isolated from others. But there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness is isolation from God and others, but solitude is human enjoyment of the hospitality of God. We cannot enjoy fellowship with others, nor meet their needs, when our own spiritual needs are unmet. The health of the inner life underwrites the health of our life together. Resting on the Sabbath, establishing daily fixed-hour prayers, and even taking regular retreats (as opposed to action-packed vacations), allow us the strength and creativity to reach out to others.

Rosh Hashanah wrapped up with Manischewitz and sugar-dusted beignets. Everyone returned on ribbon roads to their own brownstones and high rises. Dinner always ends too soon.

Hospitality creates a brief hour of the Millennium. For modern pilgrims, it is a proximate response to the problem of displacement and an act of hope in the God who has gone to prepare a place for his people. Encounters with hospitality are what Lewis calls “pleasant inns” along our earthly pilgrimage, but they only serve as a reminder and guarantor of glory. We await the feast that never ends. Blessed are the homesick, for they shall indeed come home.

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