The People We Hope to Be



My 16-year-old self sat in the front corner desk of my high school history class absorbed in the stories of courageous citizens in occupied territories who defied the Nazis and hid, harbored, and otherwise showed brave kindness to Jews and others condemned by the regime.

I listened to the heroism of ordinary citizens, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, and felt a glow of pride, as if these were my family, my kin. It was not so much that they were related to me as that I related to them. I identified with those who, at any cost, would do the right thing, would be valiant and honorable, even sacrificial. I counted myself as one of them – one who would find ways to smuggle bread out of trolley windows into ghettos, one who would build a false room in my house to hide neighbors and strangers who were marked for death, one who would stand tall in the presence of the Gestapo and the SS on behalf of my brothers and sisters who could not. I liked those stories because I imagined they were my story, if only I had been alive fifty years earlier.

It is easy to be brave from the sidelines of history.


I am now twice my high school age and a little more aware of all there is to fear in this world. Having walked the grounds of Auschwitz and the streets of Krakow and Budapest, I realize more of the complexity of this period in history. Jews and gypsies and others specifically marked for extermination were not the only ones living in hell during this time. Consider this account by Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands) from Ukraine:

Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died.

These were people who had lived through great oppression, who were struggling for survival in an occupied land with a ruthless military government. They had almost as much to fear as their Jewish neighbors and they lived with the constant reminder that the difference between life and death hung in a precarious balance. Those who stood out or stood up were eliminated quickly. A crusty loaf handed through a train window could cost one her entire family. So it is with wonder rather than pride that I now consider those who, in the face of all this, still chose to risk all to save others. Would I really be one of them? I know my own anxiety and fear, how it chokes me with even the slightest threat. Would I have that kind of courage, that kind of capacity for love, which overcomes the impulse for self-preservation? While I would like to think I would be one of those who would choose the way of Jesus – choose to put others before myself, choose generosity and kindness, choose to forfeit my life before I forfeit my soul, I must shake my head in honest confession: I do not know if I would.

But I would like to be that kind of person.

I do not know if I will ever encounter moral dilemmas as drastic as those faced daily in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, but I do know that I don’t have to look far to find examples of brutality and oppression. We live in a world scarred by violence. Violence is a legacy left by every empire, every nation, every religion, every generation. We as a people have bought wholeheartedly into the myth of redemptive violence – that “good” violence overcomes “bad” violence. The problem is that the “good” guys change depending on which side of the line you find yourself standing. So we perpetuate violence with violence, we justify our violence by the violence of others, and in the end our world is less safe, less whole, and less beautiful…for us all.

Times of violence and conflict and injustice do not inspire selflessness. Dire circumstances do not inject people with a greater capacity for kindness. Ordinary people do not wake up one morning with the moral courage to go against the status quo. It is quite the opposite: desperate times breed desperate measures.


Unless something else has already been cultivated, unless another way of living has already been so deeply engrained that something other than self-preservation becomes the automatic response. It is not in times of crisis that we develop our best selves, it is now, today, every day of our everyday lives. We continually make choices to either live for ourselves or for others. We often choose out of fear – fear of losing face, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of the unknown, fear of not having enough, fear of the other, fear of getting hurt, fear of real and imagined dangers, fear of death.

We are afraid. I am afraid.

I also know that when I am motivated by fear it will always, always, always win over my best intentions.tea_handsSo perhaps cultivating the kind of character that chooses love over self-preservation involves facing fear. Perhaps we cannot overcome violence when we are afraid, perhaps when we are afraid we cannot love. But perhaps the converse is true: when we love, we overcome fear.  Perhaps John’s declaration, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,” (1 John 4:18)  is not only receptive, “I am loved, therefore I do not need to fear,” but also responsive, “I live in love, and that trumps my fear.”

One of the main ways in which we are learning to love beyond our fear is through shared tea, shared meals, shared homes, shared stories, shared lives…in short, through relationships made possible through hospitality. Our experiences traversing this world suggest that resisting violence, embodying love and creating a better world require a simple, but radical hospitality that extends beyond the borders of family, friends and people ‘like us.’

Hospitality has the capacity to make strangers into friends and enemies into family. Compelled by this vision we are exploring the many forms of hospitality we have encountered on this journey – and we have invited others to share their experiences as well. Join us as we seek to cultivate togetherness over otherness, trust over suspicion, generosity over selfishness, love over fear;  as we seek to be the kind of people we hope to be in a world of unbearable violence.


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