“There is nothing greater than giving people space to be,” says Nicola Bartel, executive director at Mercy Canada. “To go into those dark places and not be alone. That’s the love of God when he promises that he will never leave us. And when he sits with us in that dark place and in the presence of somebody – a neighbour, a friend, whoever that is – he works in that community, in that beautiful space, and helps someone walk through it and out of it.”
Young women come to Mercy from across Canada to find healing and acceptance. In short, they come for the hospitality. The residential care facility and wellness centre in Surrey, B.C., serves women between the ages of 19 and 30 who are struggling with a wide variety of life-controlling issues.
Some of them are struggling with eating disorders, others are overcoming addictions to drugs and alcohol, wrestling with the fear and uncertainties of unplanned pregnancies, or conquering the pain and trauma of being trafficked.
At Mercy they meet women, like Bartel, who genuinely love them for who they are. People who are willing to sit with them as they grapple with their pain and problems. “Every single woman who has come through [Mercy] will talk about how they felt so loved, so accepted, and not judged. That the time that was given to sit in those dark places and [have someone] just sit with them and be present allowed them to go on their own journeys. To experience God on their own terms,” says Bartel.
She says that simply being with people who are struggling, and letting them experience all of their emotions as they walk through their challenges is one of the best things we can do.
But helping out and being truly present isn’t always easy. The commitment involved can be overwhelming. Our perceptions about those before us get in the way. The busyness or stressors in our own lives cloud our compassion. Sometimes we just don’t want to get involved.
Bartel is fully aware of the amount of emotional fortitude it can take to walk alongside someone who is struggling. She’s been helping hurting women for almost 25 years, and she’s quick to point out that she’s not doing it alone. There is a process to helping others: “It’s connecting to God. It’s connecting to self. And then, you can connect with others.”
While that might seem like common sense in Christian circles, Bartel went on to explain why it’s so important to be connected with God and self first: “If I’m not in a good place with God, and I’m not filling myself up, and I’m not being present with him and I’m not listening to him, then I’m not allowing him to love me. I’m just doing my job. Then the Holy Spirit doesn’t do the work in others and he certainly doesn’t do the work in me. I’m not my best self, and I’m not my fully present self to others.”
Alexandra Kuykendall, author of Loving My Actual Neighbour, agrees. “As an introvert I need my downtime,” says Kuykendall. “That doesn’t mean I can’t have an uncomfortable conversation. It doesn’t mean I can’t walk up to somebody and introduce myself. But if I do that, I need to make sure I have balance. That I have some energy-replenishing time in my day. That I am spending some time alone and in quiet so that I can refuel.”
Kuykendall has some advice for people who are trying to be more hospitable but feel overwhelmed by the idea of something like hosting dinners or committing to weekly or biweekly meetings. “Love your neighbours within the context of their actual lives,” said Kuykendall. “You can have this idea of being interruptible –
having enough space in your life that if somebody is talking to you in the checkout line in the grocery store, you carry on a conversation with them.”
One of the benefits of Kuykendall’s method is that it takes little extra effort. “It’s a little bit of civility, but it’s also just noticing who God has put in front of you right now,” she continues. “It allows you to love your neighbour as you’re going around doing things you would be doing anyway.”
The simple act of noticing and engaging with those around you can build up your community, and as a result help heal those around you. “It’s not okay to do it alone,” says Bartel. “Isolation is death. God built us for community. He himself is in community: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are the hands and feet of Jesus, and we communicate that with his people when we live in relationships, and love even when it’s hard.”
And when loving someone gets hard or uncomfortable, Kuykendall says you should question why you feel that way. “Ask yourself, if something was different about this person, would it change my opinion about them?”
That doesn’t mean you ignore your sense of ill-ease, but, if it is safe, you remain anyway. Kuykendall calls the practice of showing up, “standing in the awkward.” “It is standing in that uncomfortable place and not leaving when it’s hard for the person we’re trying to love,” explains Kuykendall. You can insert in there any hard circumstance where you stay with your neighbours and you support them in that, so grief, disappointment, heartache, or conflict.
“We tend to flee when there’s conflict if we are not a part of it,” continued Kuykendall, “but sometimes we need to be with people when they are in their conflict. That doesn’t mean we enter into the conflict, it just means that we are a support for them as they are working through things in their own lives.”
It also doesn’t mean we need to have all of the answers. As Bartel points out, “Even when you don’t have the answers, you can still be present and withhold judgement, and, certainly, challenge. Challenge is needed and accountability, but it’s the love of God that leads people out of darkness.”
Just Be You
While this kind of radical hospitality, or sitting with someone who is actively hurting, can seem intense or difficult for most people, Kuykendall points out that it’s important for us to focus on what we do well: “Instead of focusing on what we can’t do or don’t do well, focus on what can I do and what is going to help this person in front of me feel loved in a way that feels natural and not forced.”
Because as Bartel points out, being genuine is important: “The women we serve can spot a fake a mile away. They know [if I’m just doing tasks]. They are really good sensors.”
The nice thing about focusing on activities and actions that you are already good at means that helping or being kind to others doesn’t have to be a big production. “It’s a bit of a perspective shift,” says Kuykendall. “It’s noticing who God put in front of you right now, and loving your neighbour while doing your life as you would be already.”
Because hospitality isn’t about perfection. Our homes, our lives, our children’s behaviours, none of it needs to be perfect. As Cheryl Buchanan, a spiritual director who along with her husband, Mark is researching biblical hospitality and how it relates to the village of Le Chambon in France, explains, “Part of what I’ve learned is it really doesn’t matter what my house looks like or what I’m serving to eat. [My indigenous friends] will give you a baloney sandwich if that’s what they have in the house, and there’s no shame in that. They think ‘Let’s share together what we have.’ They are the most hospitable people I know.”
Another aspect of hospitality is letting others serve your needs. “Biblically, hospitality is not something we extend, but something we receive,” explained Mark Buchanan. “We’re sharing in the depths of the heart of God when we receive the hospitality of others and eat whatever is put before us. Some of it is weird, but there’s something about going into a person’s home. They’re honoured when you invite them into your home, but they’re more honoured when you go to theirs.”
Letting them serve you also enriches your life. “When we are offering someone hospitality, which means we are welcoming them into our lives somehow, we are opening ourselves up to be loved by our neighbours,” says Kuykendall. “They are not our projects, and my life is so much richer because they have loved me.”
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