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Henri Nouwen, the treasured catholic teacher, activist and pastor, once described beloved community as “the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”
On its surface it seems to be a straightforward reminder not to expect perfection from the communities we join. And not to expect perfection from others. Indeed, it’s a plea to stick with those troublesome others. Forgive them. Accept them. Stay open to the whole of who they are, not just the caricatured sliver of them that makes it easy to write them off.
Besides the obvious calls to commitment, conflict resolution and hard work, there’s also a hidden call to hope woven into Nouwen’s words. To stay in community with difficult or offensive people, we have to hold on to the hope that they can change and grow. We have to believe that their better selves exist and will eventually show up. We have to have faith that giving them the benefit of the doubt is worth it. That assuming their good intentions isn’t foolish.
It’s a tall order. This kind of hopefulness and generosity toward others is not easy.
But here’s the catch, Nouwen doesn’t stop there. Right after that first sentence, he adds another. Here’s the whole quote:
“Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives…That person is always in your community somewhere; in the eyes of others, you might be that person.”
Ouch! Nouwen doesn’t pull his punches. Just when we were starting to feel good about being the ones who are magnanimous with these annoying and offensive folks, Nouwen reminds us that we are actually among them! But don’t get so caught up in this message of humility that you miss how Nouwen is also using this to call us to an even greater hopefulness.
By adding us to the mix of the unwanted, he’s pointing out that beloved community requires us to believe not only that others are worth our effort but also that we will be worth the effort in the eyes of others!
It’s an insight that we must not miss this month. We human beings run away from community not just because others let us down, but also because we doubt that others won’t step up when we let them down. Beloved community stays at arm’s length not just because it is hard to build, but also because we don’t trust that it will be there for us.
It’s all one big reminder that the work of beloved community is bigger than we usually imagine. It’s not just about building a better world; it’s also about building up each other’s faith. We are in a battle not just against the division between us, but also the doubt within us.
What we really need to hear about beloved community is not just that we can create it, but that we can count on it.
This month, may we make sure we all bless each other with both of those messages.