A Life of Grace (or Why My Family Lives in an Intentional Community)

Author Mark Van Steenwyk
Author Mark Van Steenwyk

My son is growing up in a house with homeless people.

In 2004, my wife Amy and I started an intentional community (with two hospitality houses) that centers its daily life around the practice of hospitality—welcoming the stranger. Most folks tell us that the work we do is noble. But when our son Jonas was born in 2008, folks assumed we’d stop welcoming strangers into our home. We had a number of difficult conversations; from the perspective of some family and friends, what was once noble had now become child endangerment. Amy and I, however, are more worried about what inhospitality will do to our son than we are about the risks associated with practicing hospitality. In other words, we don’t practice hospitality in spite of our son; we do it, in part, because of our son.

I am convinced that we live in a society that dehumanizes, but we want Jonas to grow up seeing the humanity of everyone around him. Injustice feeds off of apathy. Dehumanization requires indifference. Pope Francis names our societal problem with dehumanization when he writes:

How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape…We have created a “disposable” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

The cost of human lives is now factored in as commodity; using up human lives–in wars or in factories–is a cost of doing business. We have entered a new era of disposable humanity.

Dehumanizing Jesus

american-income-inequalityIn Matthew 25, Jesus reminds us that whatever we do “for one of the least of these brothers and sisters,” we do for him. This is a potent reminder that Jesus is somehow present in the homeless woman on the street, or in the little child playing in the slums. But this idea of seeing Jesus in the face of the “least of these” can easily become a nearly meaningless bit of sentimentalism. Rarely do we confess to dehumanizing others. Our first instinct, I suspect, is rather to blame others for dehumanization. We sympathize with the oppressed and cast off, but the problem, we say, has little to do with us.

This process of dehumanization has left its imprint on our souls. Researchers Lasana Harris from Duke University and Susan Fiske from Princeton University have authored a disturbing study that explores the way in which the brain recognizes the humanity in others. When we see another human face, there is increased activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC), an area of our brains that isn’t as active when looking at objects. Drawing upon a sampling of 18 Princeton undergraduates from diverse backgrounds, Harris and Fiske found that test subjects didn’t show increased activity in the mPFC when viewing images of people who belonged to an outgroup (like folks who look homeless). This wasn’t a choice that the test subjects made – the test measured an immediate physiological response.

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This is why my son is being raised in a hospitality house. While I worry about the slight risk that Jonas’ safety is being jeopardized, I worry a lot more about the larger risk of him learning to live in a way that is detached from homeless folks.
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In other words, if this study is indicative of the larger population, most of us see homeless people as objects, not people. This phenomenon is called infrahumanization: when we see our ingroup as more human than an outgroup. This raises some unsettling questions. If we share this instinct (and I believe the vast majority of us do), then how are we capable of nurturing a just world? How can we love people that we don’t see as human? We are a part of a system that dehumanizes people, and we seem predetermined to perpetuate that system.

Susan Fiske's Stereotype Content Model
Susan Fiske’s Stereotype Content Model

This is why my son is being raised in a hospitality house. While I worry about the slight risk that Jonas’ safety is being jeopardized (though I can’t think of a single situation where a guest has been inappropriate with him), I worry a lot more about the larger risk of him learning to live in a way that is detached from homeless folks. Unfortunately, being around homeless folks isn’t necessarily a guarantee that one will see their humanity. Over the past decade, I’ve encountered many people who retain deeply condescending attitudes towards the homeless and the poor while regularly serving in soup kitchens or working at shelters.

Fisk and Harris found that the reduction of mPFC brain function upon being shown images of those in outgroups was tied to feelings of disgust and the perception that those depicted lacked warmth and competence. In other words, underneath our instinctive dismissal of someone’s humanity lies a deeply rooted judgment that they are lacking in kindness and usefulness. It is easy to see how commonly held beliefs that homeless people are lazy, incompetent, and dangerous directly contribute to our inability to see them as human beings.

The Myth of Meritocracy

One night about five years ago, we were finishing a Wednesday community meal. On this particular night, there were probably a dozen people gathered around the table. We were feeling good–we didn’t want the night to end, so someone suggested, “Let’s go to a movie!” Within minutes, an outing was planned. At this point it might be worth mentioning that I have two major weaknesses: movies and gummy bears. I will never say “no” to either. My mind is a sad sponge, having absorbed thousands of meaningless film hours. And my body is a sad sponge as well–having absorbed hundreds of pounds of gummies.

gummy-bearsOver the past decade, we’ve received dozens of guests. Don (not his real name) stands out as a guest for a number of reasons. He had lost his apartment because he lost his job. He lost his job because he was no longer able to work. He was unable to work because his chemotherapy made him weak. And on top of all of that, he was HIV+. But those are just circumstances. What most stands out about Don is that, in retrospect, I realize that he is one of the warmest, kindest, people I’ve ever met.

As folks discussed going to a movie, I noticed Don sitting off to the side, quietly. He was the sort of man who was easy to overlook because he was so quiet and unassuming. When I noticed him, an internal monologue began: “I have just enough money to go to the movie and buy soda, popcorn, and gummies. Or I suppose I could invite Don to come with and pay for his ticket. I may even be able to get a small popcorn and soda and bring Don too…but that would mean no gummies.” That night, I went to the movies and got a large soda, large popcorn, and gummy bears. And Don wasn’t with me. I justified it because I thought I had “already done enough” for Don by opening my home to him. I can be an idiot sometimes.

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It seems strange to me that the tradition—Protestantism—which is centered around a deep understanding of God’s grace also nurtured a work ethic that birthed capitalism and meritocracy.
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That night I couldn’t sleep. It dawned on me that I had chosen gummy bears over relationship. But, even more, I realized that my life contained thousands of such moments when, intentionally or not, I chose self-indulgence over human beings…all on the basis that I somehow “earned” my money and, therefore, could spend it however I saw fit. I also realized that, up until that night, I had only seen Don as an object of charity, not as a friend.

povertyThis may seem like a silly example, but it is indicative of a larger issue. There is something toxic about making decisions based upon deservedness. It is easy to believe that we are entitled to our wealth while the poor are relatively underserving: this is what some call the “Myth of Meritocracy”—the myth that folks get in accordance to what they put in. When we hold such a view, sharing abundance with the undeserving is seen a form of enablement. We begin to resent welfare recipients and come to believe that the poor are lacking in competence and warmth. And then we begin to lose sight of their humanity.

It seems strange to me that the tradition—Protestantism—which is centered around a deep understanding of God’s grace also nurtured a work ethic that birthed capitalism and meritocracy. When Christian folk embrace a spirituality of grace (where God gives undeserved spiritual blessing) yet reject an economy of grace (wherein all receive material blessing regardless of “merit”) we show ourselves to be dualists. The “God” we construct gives a disembodied grace that only materializes to validate the privileged. My night around the table with Don, I was invited to share my abundance with him as a brother. But I felt entitled and determined that he wasn’t deserving. I don’t believe, in that moment, that I was recognizing his humanity.

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We don’t practice hospitality in spite of our son; we do it, in part, because of our son.
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Since that night, my community has begun to share resources more and more – according to need, not according to deservedness. We are to accept each person we see as a gift from God. And we are to share all of our resources as an extension of God’s grace. In words attributed to Dorothy Day: “The Gospel takes away our right, forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” And that is why I live in a house of hospitality: so that my whole family can learn to live a life of grace.

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AUTHOR BIO: Mark, along with his wife Amy, is the founder of the Mennonite Worker, an intentional community in Minneapolis that is committed to following Jesus’ way of hospitality, simplicity, prayer, peacemaking, and resistance. Mark is one of the facilitators and editors of JesusRadicals.com. He is also the producer of the Iconocast podcast. He is the author of The unKingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance.

Read more articles from the young adult issue.

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