Radical Spaces of Welcome

Radical Spaces of Welcome November 14, 2016
The author teaching at the Welcome Center for new parents at her daughter's school.
The author teaching at the Welcome Center for new parents at her daughter’s school.

“That’s one kind of localism, I guess, and one kind of politics – doing your utmost to keep that chain connected, unbroken. Our arms are linked – we try to be neighbors of His, and to speak up for his principles. That’s a lifetime’s job.” –Dorothy Day

Growing up in a conservative Christian family, I found my role models as I could: usually missionary biographies depicting strong, intense, driven women who went out into the world and changed it, despite severe challenges and pushbacks. When I was in my early 20s, I first heard of Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and I knew I had found my person. The first quote I heard of hers was this one: “if you have two coats, you have stolen one from the poor.” I actually bought a button that said this and proudly wore it on my one, orange-plaid corduroy coat for many years. Finally, here was somebody who didn’t sugarcoat the inequalities of our world, and the responsibilities of those who had more than our fair share. But as I grew older I realized how nuanced Day was–both strident and compassionate, self-assured and humble, a tireless worker and yet also an advocate for silence and prayer and contemplation.

These complexities and contradictions are important for me to dwell on, as I’ve tried to follow Jesus on a path that only ever seems to lead downward. For the past decade I’ve lived within refugee and immigrant communities, and I’ve seen and experienced the reality of generational poverty in the US as well. Trying to live with my neighbors in solidarity (instead of resorting to hierarchy or charity) has been challenging. Trying to interact with a church that seems to be utterly removed from the realities of my neighborhood has been personally devastating. I swing the pendulum between being overwhelmed by the struggles the poor in America face to being angry that the church of Jesus is not doing their work. I wish I was doing more, yet know that I’m already on the path to burnout.

I woke up on November 9th like many: in disbelief, despondent, willing my faith in a good and loving God to kick in. I couldn’t muster it up, however, and have spent much of my time crying uncontrollably. Surprise and shock is even worse when deep down you knew it could happen. Fear and sadness is even worse when you know the people who ushered this in, and you know how deep the fear goes.

So I tried to think of Dorothy, living in her neighborhoods, weathering the great depression and WWII to constant criticism of those within the religious establishment, a never-ending line of needs stretching constantly in front of her. And I think of her severe face and tender heart and weathered hands; her compelling newspaper, the houses of hospitality, the endless pots of soup and loaves of bread, the constant flow of young people who came to learn from her. I thought of how she viewed politics: her arms, linked with her neighbors’ arms, linked with Christians throughout the centuries who tried to live as if the words of Jesus were real: that the poor, the sick, the sad, and the oppressed are the ones who are blessed, the ones who are heralds of a new kingdom.

Throughout the years, I’ve tried in my own pathetic way to model Dorothy. And I’ve met others who are trying as well, trying to make the words and vision of Jesus known in their communities. Now, more than ever, is the time to continue and bolster these efforts. Now, more than ever, is the time to eschew religion for the sake of self-sacrificial love in a time of great fear. Now, more than ever, is the time to create radical spaces of welcome in our hearts and homes and schools and churches and neighborhoods.

Currently I am living this out in a very specific way. Every Tuesday morning at my daughter’s elementary school we have a Welcome Center for the parents. This particular school is one of the lowest-rated in all of Oregon, but you would never know it from the bright and bustling hallways. Majority Spanish speaking, with 28 other language groups represented, it truly is a picture of a new America. On Tuesdays we meet in a corner of the cafeteria that has been set up with a few couches and a coffee pot, four computers and a clothing closet. We meet together, parents from all around the world, and help each other. We do English tutoring and computer literacy and we share resources and discuss ways we want to get involved at the school. We get to know each other week by week, people from different cultures and religions and ethnic groups, we eat ginger cookies and drink coffee with way too much sugar. We are changing our school and our neighborhood with every meeting.

Throughout the past decade of my life and work, these spaces have changed based on the needs of my neighbors. For those who want to join in this work, it’s both easy and fraught with ways to do it wrong. And yet I would encourage those who want to be a part of the resistance to move forward in this pursuit. In any major city, there are bound to be neighborhoods where lower-income folks are forced to live. Find those spaces, and get as close to them as you can. I have learned to take a year or two to listen to the needs, find people from the neighborhood who are already doing this work and join them, move in and learn, orient your life towards finding the pockets of minorities, refugees, immigrants, and other marginalized folks. Fall in love with them, and see how closely your goodwill is tied up with theirs.

After you have listened and learned and heard the needs, start to link arms. I’ve started homework clubs for kids who were desperately behind, art classes to fill up the long school breaks, English classes at apartment complexes for busy adults. I have friends who match-up tutors with kids who are hungry to learn, people who start female-only gyms for Muslim women, churches who turn parking lots into gardens that feed hundreds of families. The ways to get involved are endless, and impossibly filled with creativity. What can you do? Fix cars? Connect people to resources? Bake bread? Go over short vowel sounds? Drive people to appointments? Have an extra room in your house for those who need it? Be available and hang out long enough to be of use when the next crisis comes?

Our country is becoming less welcoming to the other. May we push back against this with our prayers and our lives. Let us create radical spaces of welcome. May we become more like Dorothy Day–and may we recognize that her kind of work will take up our entire lifetime. May those who find themselves adrift in the church find their home with Christ, on the margins of our world.

D.L. Mayfield lives and writes on the edges Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two small children. Mayfield likes to write about refugees, theology, and downward mobility, among other topics. Her book of essays, Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith was recently released by HarperOne. She blogs at dlmayfield.com and is on twitter at @d_l_mayfield.

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