Why it’s not ‘The Year of Safe Things’

Everywhere we go talking about our book The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us, we get questions about what it’s like to practice hospitality with those on the margins. After all, Tom and I have offered housing to the homeless, in our actual homes, on and off for over 15 years. Naturally, people are curious how that works. Isn’t it risky? How do you keep your kids safe? Have you ever been taken advantage of? Do you “screen” people ahead of time?

(In fact, one person wanted to know if there was some agency or other that screens people for being hosted in homes. I almost asked, shouldn’t possible host families be screened too? Because who’s to say we aren’t crazier than average? Another post for another time …)

You need courage to open up yourself to hospitality, covenantal friendship, sharing about your struggles. (Photo by Dave Wasinger)

Something we’re hearing from readers is just how “risky” so many of these small things sound. Sharing about your finances with covenantal friends… that requires real vulnerability. Sharing about your own struggles with mental health, including depression … that’s harrowing. And of course opening your life–whether it’s sharing meals, offering rides, helping with laundry, watching small children, providing housing to those on the margins–breaks every rule about privacy and self-protection that Americans value.

But this is not “The Year of Safe Things.” As C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable.” Safety is not one of the fruits of the spirit, nor is it listed in scripture among the promises of God. If anything, the call of the gospel is to risk outrageously for the sake of Jesus and for the vulnerable whom he loves.

What we propose in our book is to start making the turn. To move in baby steps away from the false promises of the American Dream–safety, security, independence, privacy–and to move closer to Jesus. And moving closer to Jesus moves us inevitably closer to (1) his Body, the community of faith, and (2) to those on the margins (and don’t think for a moment those two groups are separate). Because that’s where we find him hanging out.

So is this year of small things risky? Yup. Is it worth it? Well, here are some of our thoughts about that.

How about you? What are your thoughts on safety versus risk?

One thought on “Why it’s not ‘The Year of Safe Things’

  • May 14, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Sarah, thanks so much for sharing your practical, honest wisdom, born of your shared experience! I can definitely agree that A) there is no 100% safety anywhere on the planet and B) we become better people as we learn to rely on Divine Providence, as Jesus did, showing kindness to people far less privileged than oneself.

    I have experience sharing my home on five occasions, back to the ’90’s or so. The record shows that relying on my human preferences has not worked out the best for me. Relying on my heart is working out better than I could have imagined. The first mother-son pair that I welcomed my home in a different part of Michigan worked out fairly well for the first five months. As she moved all of her belongings out of her townhouse, it became evident that she is a hoarder. I could handle that, but it seemed that when the last load was packed into my home, it contained some of her toxic dysfunction.

    In a conversation about where the garbage cans SHOULD be put, not where my neighbor and I wanted them she became intolerably insistent. I told her that this is not negotiable, but she yelled her opinion at me through my bedroom door. I called the police who patiently explained that because there was no written lease and no rent charged, I was perfectly free to change the locks some day when she’s away, and put all her things out on the lawn. I told her “Change your behavior or change your address.” She was unable to do so, so she got help from her Mental Health caseworker to move out. On three other occasions, I invited people I thought I knew to use space that I didn’t need.

    One turned out to be a closet alcoholic who trashed the place. Her family cleaned it up when they sent her off for residential rehab.

    The other turned out to be a hoarder who thought it appropriate to store food in my basement along with a mess of other things. More than two years later, I tried to reach her, but after several months, she failed to respond. I told her via email that I considered it abandoned, would dispose of it, and changed the locks. After a couple of months when my neighbor helped me dispose of maybe 30% of it, she showed up at my workplace with a truck and a friend insisting I let her in to get “her” stuff back. I told her, “You mean what’s left of the stuff you abandoned?” She responded with “You sold my stuff?!!!” The church secretary told me she made stabbing motions behind my back as I left my self-assigned tasks at church. I had to call the police when she threatened to kick the door down if I locked it up again after four hours. In the end, no violence occurred so I considered all of these learning experience.

    There’s still a china cabinet in the basement that belongs to another couple who don’t have room for it. No problem there.

    This time, I let my heart lead me. When a mother-son family unit client of the nonprofit I volunteer with was threatened to a return to homelessness through no fault their own, I knew that such trauma would make it even harder for her to maintain her sobriety on methadone to overcome an addiction to prescribed meds. I would have felt eternally guilty to have that on my conscience. Within about three days, they came to live with me on their way to permanent housing.

    She is maintaining her sobriety. They are doing what they have to do to find a better option than my two-bedroom, one-bathroom 880 sq. ft. condo for the three of us. My home is cleaner and more orderly. I have someone to haul in the groceries that their food stamps bought, and the paper products and personal needs items that I buy. Sure, my utilities run a little higher, but delicious meals appear on my table at no cost to me. He can change lightbulbs in ceiling fixtures without using a ladder. Increasingly, she’s finding paid employment. I have formed an operating theory that all of us would probably benefit from practicing greater assertiveness. I’ve become aware that I can be toxically co-dependent, but they forgive me as I try to make strides.

    Nothing has been stolen or damaged. We cooperate and have meaningful conversations. I will miss them when they’re gone, but I am overjoyed to see how well they’re doing, and I will celebrate with them when they get their own place and she no longer needs a daily trip to get her dose, and maybe some individual or group counseling, and maybe a drug test.

    What I learned is that things go better when I let God select my housemates.


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