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Waiting to be Welcomed

Learning to Be a Guest, Not a Giver

Chico Fajardo-Heflin


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  • Carolee Uits

    Tatiana and Chico are not the only ones who struggle with being a have in a have-not world. It is something that churches struggle with too (Church, meaning US, the body of Christ, wherever we are. This is most certainly an ongoing discussion at the 100 year old inner city church I am a member of in Columbus, Ohio. Our neighborhood is one of those backwater communities sliced by an expressway and streets widened to haste the rush of wealthy, privileged commuters past former glory-houses, rag-tag shuttered homes, struggling businesses, and storefront and aging church structures filled with variously alive groups of people of faith seeking to live God’s way and to be responsive to their neighbors. The long lessons of Discipleship and its relationship to people confronting poverty started long before us. While Chicho speaks of Jesus not “feed the poor but one time,” shelter the homeless, or clothe the naked, I think his answer is only part of the picture.. Jesus, “the Bread of Life”, who is telling us to “eat my body”, and “drink my blood”, literally is telling us that He gives us His all – to and through the Cross - and everything in life we really need. – and that is what we are to do too. So, if we ask “What did Jesus do,” we miss Jesus’ point. Jesus was trying to tell his disciples (then and now) that when they/we see His actions and hear His words, they/we see/hear the Father. For Jesus, it is ultimately about The Father, His Kingdom Come, His will be done (like in Jesus’ Prayer we too pray.” So what is it that is Jesus want us to do? He is saying “Have this attitude…’What would God do”, What would God have me do to be a part of the coming of God’s Kingdom, now, in this place, with my neighbor(s)?” Chico addresses the conundrum we face. The old patterns of our being neighbor are riddled with not having learned the lessons of Jesus. He never made anyone dependent on Him to their detriment as a human being. He did not be a “lord or lady bountiful” who bequeathed His trinkets of used clothes, handouts, and the rest on people, He did not handout school supplies, proffer change to a man holding a sign, or fall for people trying to hoodwink. What He did do is go to the heart of their suffering, listen to their taunts, have the long discussions with women at the wells, lepers, grieving mothers and others racing after Him for healing and resurrection. And we are told He had compassion on her, He healed them, He told people to get off their high-horse (tree), quit legally robbing others (tax collectors), and gave dignity to women and men caught up in hard living, sinning big-time by His insistence to love. A love to bring life, healing, and wholeness, dignity and respect to their personhood. And he best did it exactly where Chico is, he and his wife when they eat at a neighbor’s house. The old saw says, “It is not what we do but how we do it.” There is another truth- it happens as God intends when the heart is in the right place – in reciprocal love, mercy and justice in the unfolding Kingdom of God.

  • Nicole Solomon

    It really helped me in struggling with a situation tonight to read your article, because I realize now that saying "no" and being able to show my own human need and weakness is more honest than putting my family's well-being in harm's way because I think God wouldn't want me to say no, sorry I can't. It never struck me before how much more humbling it is to reach out to others as the needy ones ourselves!! Thank you for being willing to share your own struggle with us so we can also learn. It really helped!!

  • Don Ruhl

    Exceedingly interesting and eye-opening! Thanks.

In church tradition the ancient practice of offering hospitality is sometimes called “welcoming the stranger.” In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus shocked his listeners by suggesting that their own eternal welcome would depend on whether or not they welcomed others here on earth: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25). Galvanized by these words, Christians in every age have sought to meet Christ at the door. Groups like the Benedictines, Franciscans, and Catholic Worker turned hospitality into an art form.

My wife Tatiana and I were fascinated by the tales of these wild saints. Dreaming of ways to make hospitality central to our life together, we prepared to move to a nearby struggling community. But it only took one walk down our block to make it clear to us that, in our impoverished, all-black town, our neighbors were not the strangers – we were.

Ford Heights is a small, crumbling town about fifteen miles south of Chicago. Technically a suburb, its leafy-green streets are blighted by abandoned and burned out houses. Stray dogs and crack addicts roam the streets. Bordered by a tire incinerator, a junkyard, cornfields, and a Ford factory, the residents limp on in poverty and isolation. We expected our arrival to arouse suspicion, but we had no idea how much our crossing the tracks would set everyone on edge.

Kids playing in front yards stopped and stared, and boisterous neighbors lowered their conversations to a hush as we walked by. Whenever we were bold enough to initiate conversation, our greetings were met by stony silence. Everywhere we went, the air seemed to crackle with tension.

Ford Heights is used to strangers. They intrude on our town with a badge and a handgun or with a smile and a truckload of clothes. Although annoyed, I couldn’t fault my neighbors. From their experience, strangers came to town to hurt or to help, but never to know. Those who didn’t think we were undercover cops treated us like a wandering social service unit. They’d see us walking down the sidewalk and holler out:

“When y’all handing out school supplies?”

“Lemme get some of them peppers in your garden.”

“Here, come fix this bike.”

Folks badgered us to hand out food, give them rides, and replace their broke-down basketball rims. Folks we didn’t know, folks who didn’t care to know us. We felt sick to our stomachs.

I suppose if we had moved to Ford Heights simply with the desire to relieve our neighbors’ poverty, all would have been well. We would have received our pushy neighbors as “Jesus in disguise” and interpreted these encounters as opportunities to practice the works of mercy. But our hearts longed for something more. We longed for relationship. For friendship. For kinship. Mother Teresa once diagnosed the world’s ills by saying: “We have simply forgotten that we belong to one another.” While we respect activists and community organizers, Tatiana and I sensed that our calling had less to do with agitating for justice, and more to do with re-learning to whom we belonged. We came to Ford Heights praying that God would weave us and our neighbors together into family.

It turned out to be a far more difficult prayer than we had imagined.

I find it curious that, although the parable of the sheep and the goats demands a life rooted in the works of mercy, Jesus himself rarely practiced them. Think about it. When did Jesus clothe the naked? Give drink to the thirsty? Visit the prisoner? Shelter the homeless? As far as we know, Jesus fed the hungry one time.

The gospels reveal that some of Jesus’ most transformative interactions occurred when he was the guest, not the host: Levi the tax collector invited Jesus to dinner, the woman from Samaria drew water for him, and the resurrected Christ was not revealed until Cleopas and his companions welcomed Jesus as a stranger to a shared meal. When Jesus sent out the seventy-two, he stripped them of their resources and made them dependent on hospitality. Being strangers ourselves seems to be as important as welcoming them.

It was difficult for Tatiana and me to let our neighbors’ needs go unaddressed, but we took a deep breath and waited, as strangers, to be welcomed.

This posture confused our neighbors. When kids came to the door asking for food, we turned them away hungry. When single moms pressed us to give them rides, we politely declined. When homeless neighbors showed up on our front stoop asking to spend the night, there was no room for them in the inn. We didn’t fix bikes, host “open meals,” or start a nonprofit. Once during a season when it seemed like everyone was asking for produce from our garden, some young guys on the corner spotted me heading down the sidewalk and yelled out across the street, “Yo, where my green tomatoes at?” Instead of bringing sweet Jesus his share, I snapped back that we weren’t a food pantry.

I’m not going to pretend that we knew what we were doing. We only knew that we had come for community and treating our neighbors like “the least of these” only reinforced the patron–client relationship they expected. We were determined to overturn this paradigm – even if it meant being counted among the goats.

abstract painting of breakfast table with fried eggs Denis Barsukov, Breakfast at the Dacha
Do you have a comment? Join the conversation. 3 Comments
Contributed By Chico Fajardo-Heflin

Chico Fajardo-Heflin and his wife Tatiana live in Ford Heights, Illinois, in an internet-free household.

Then, one day, we were invited to a barbecue. And then another. Soon after that, another family welcomed us inside to watch the basketball game. Noticing us standing at bus stops, folks started pulling over and offering us rides home. One neighbor, upon hearing we had no washing machine, told us we could use hers whenever we wanted to. Someone else gave us their extra air-conditioner. Our next door neighbor Clement started bringing over food, and Tamara, a single mother, flagged me down one day and handed me a big red coat. There had been a used clothes giveaway earlier that day and, noticing I wasn’t there, she snagged one she thought I might like. I have that coat
to this day.

It started slowly and awkwardly, but once our neighbors realized we were not on some kind of extended mission trip, they started reaching out to us, treating us like the vulnerable pilgrims we were. Every time our neighbors fed us, clothed us, and welcomed us, healing descended. Roles were scrambled and castes came undone. A space opened up for friendship to be born.

It’s been nearly six years since those first tumultuous walks down the block, and every day we feel less like outsiders. Waiting to be welcomed has allowed belonging to take root. We watch TV together, look out for one another, and eat at each other’s homes. Children are raised, birthdays celebrated, and losses mourned together. While things are far from perfect in these relationships – six years of backyard barbecues won’t fix four hundred years of deformed race relations – we are, I think, touching the fringes of a garment called kinship. It is a garment that Jesus wears and that brings healing. It is a garment he wore, not only as host of the banquet, but as a guest as well.

painting of coffee cup
drawings of yellow buttercups and white yarrow

Why We’re Off the Grid

While the wider American society lives enamored with the global and instantaneous reach of the internet, we are learning a more human-sized meaning of “community.” If I am going to make myself available to God’s word of reconciliation, I need to really be here. I need to become dependent on my neighbors the way my neighbors are dependent on one another.

I believe I am seeking a greater good, choosing family over fixing, laboring by hand instead of by machine. The inefficient labor of cultivating soil with a hoe or writing newsletters by hand builds the strength needed within us to become family across racial divisions. We work slow in order to learn to live slow – to love in small, daily ways, to wait on conversion. No matter how long that conversion might take.

–Tatiana Fajardo-Heflin