Ten years ago, after wrapping up a final college class and defending my art thesis, I left home. I boarded a plane and headed south, a continent away. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “It's a dangerous business . . . going out your door,” a danger I did not fully grasp until going out my own front door, alone. A danger not fully realized until one week into my year in South America when I found myself lost in a new city. I lived on an island mission, a taxi boat ride from the city—a ride required for grocery shopping and registering with the government as a volunteer. I thought I had a grasp on navigating this new system of transportation, but after exiting the boat, left alone on a lone, rickety dock, the realization sunk in: I was lost. The friend I expected to meet was nowhere in sight. I had no phone or GPS to guide me.
Dread took root in my stomach, tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I’d exited at the wrong location. My Spanish was abysmal. I knew before I left for an unknown country I would have been safer at home, in my familiar small town where I know the language, the customs, the collective ideologies, and the worldviews. On that dock, I felt the fullness of being a foreigner. And it was terrifying, dangerous.
I wiped my teary eyes and slung my backpack onto my sun-kissed shoulders. The only way to un-lose myself was to step off the dock and onto the sidewalk. And so I mustered my courage and moved in the direction I felt certain I should head.
For twenty-one years, I had grown accustomed to the familiar. Even in college, I stayed in my hometown, lived at home, commuted to class and work. I was surrounded by like-minded friends and peers. I was comfortable, accepted, rarely challenged. I was convinced I knew much, certain I understood the ways of the world. Like Orleanna Price in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, “So long as I was only surrounded by what I knew, that’s what life had to offer and I took it.”
I looked at my unbroken circle and thought, “This is enough.” I had friends, community, church, safety. I was content to remain in a space of certainty and sameness. There was no doubt, no questions, no reexamination of everything I had always known and believed. Familiarity led to complacency.
I was embarrassingly naïve when I stepped foot onto my liberal college campus, maybe even more so when I left home for one year to live and serve on the island village. Leaving home had its share of physical dangers. I got lost in the city within my first week, slept in a hammock in a jungle exposed to all manners of bugs, wildlife, and tourists drunk on Cuba Libres. I rode in rickety taxi boats every weekend to the city, and motorcycle taxis (without a helmet) in the countryside. But the far more dangerous business of leaving home was emotional, mental, and spiritual.
I possessed a limited understanding of missions, colonialism, and my own hubris. The island mission was populated for a time by mostly Germans and Colombians. The primary languages were Spanish and German; English was an afterthought. Our shared community was a mixture of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. Though we were Christians, our worldviews, perspectives, and theologies often clashed.
I lived in the mission overlooking the gentle Caribbean. Mornings were welcomed by strong Colombian coffee and the ambient beats of Champeta blasting in the houses outside our walls; we shared daily meals of fish, rice, and plantains. In this family forged by proximity, I slowly began to realize the world is far bigger, greater, and more complex than I had known. My perspective was mine alone. My knowledge was finite; my own culture just one of thousands.
My husband and I move frequently; each move a paradox of sorrow and anticipation.
Uproot, replant. Goodbyes and hellos.
Each move is a “dangerous business,” a new opportunity to venture into unknown territory. With each move I am reminded I was once welcomed into the unfamiliar, graciously taught the language, allowed into a world that was not my own. Through the years we have met countless folks adept at the practice of hospitality, who prefer to maintain homes with open doors rather than barricades. In Pensacola, we met a pastor and his family whose dinner table was always full. Strangers and friends alike wandered through the door, some neighbors, some church members, others invited for dinner while standing in line at Walmart. I have a friend in Georgia who befriended a few proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses. Instead of sending them away, she invited them in. Instead of arguing or debating, she listened.
Henri Nouwen said, “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.” I think often of that lone dock, the eventual feeling of relief upon reuniting with my friend after wandering the streets for far too long. I think of that breezy island mission, the shared table, the lessons learned there. Through the years, encounters with strangers-turned-friends have shown me an example of Nouwen’s words. These interactions demonstrate the vital importance of crossing the boundaries that would otherwise keep us sheltered and safe at home, the dangerous business that offers eternal goodness for our souls.
Cover image by Viktor Forgacs.