Bethany J. Welch
About this same time two summers ago, I had the privilege to be welcomed into a home, to break bread, to sing, to celebrate, to soak in life. Plenty of my friends are gracious hosts, but this encounter was different. I would even say radically different.
The night began with a tour of the expansive garden the house residents had created. The plot extended for nearly four city lots and contained every manner of vegetable and herb. Gorgeous purple eggplants peeked out from under dark green leaves. A brush by enormous basil plants released a spicy fragrance into the heady evening air.
We were soon called in for the meal and crowded around the dining room table. Hands stretched out to pray a blessing. Heaps of homemade lasagna, brown bread, cucumber tomato salad, and beans and greens were piled onto our plates. Most of us topped off the fruit of the garden’s harvest with an additional scoop of arroz con gandules still hot from the cast iron pan. A few people sat in the living room with plates balanced on their knees.
A quiet hum of English, Spanish, and Arabic flowed over and above the humble feast for nearly an hour. I reached for my water glass, a jar with flecks of a Goya label peeling off, and wondered what its contents used to be. The hum turned into a louder buzz as two young boys described a recent trip and another woman discussed the advance of her pregnancy. One woman had a bad case of poison ivy and nearly everyone there offered up a tried and true home remedy to relieve the itch. Across the table a visitor introduced himself quietly to the woman on his left. At the far end of the table two new guests sat eating without speaking. Someone skipped into the kitchen for more water.
The meal came to an end with a birthday cake for one of the neighbors. A tri-lingual choir of voices belted out “Happy Birthday.” Cutting into a slice of cake, I became overwhelmed by what I am starting to think of as “radical hospitality”– the peculiar uniting of seemingly unlike or unconnected people around a single thread: welcoming the stranger.
This feeling intensified when one of the residents invited me to see her living space. She proudly pulled out a set of photos to introduce me to her family: her mother, her brothers, her sisters, all smiled back at us from within the frame. Perched on the edge of a mattress on the floor, I reached for another photo from Alima’s hand. This one showed another sister. It was obviously taken some years ago. The woman appeared tall, stately. “Six years. Died,” Alima remarked when I inquired about her. “From the bombs,” and she gestured to show something dropping from the sky.
A part of my heart went dim. The oppressive summer humidity felt even more confining. I shifted my feet and looked at the floor, counting floor boards and dust piles. The persistent sirens outside the window did little to alleviate the silence in the room.
“Oh.” “Wow.” “I am, well, uh, wow, sorry Alima.” “I cannot begin to explain how sorry I am for your loss.” “To lose your sister…” I stumbled on, mumbling my embarrassment and regret. Alima looks at me bright eyed. “Die!” she practically bellowed again, exchanging use of her new English language skills for a resounding emphasis on that one syllable word to ensure that I understood. “In war!” “I miss she.” “But we are here, we are safe.”
Alima and her mother were indeed safe that night. They were Iraqi refugees, now living in a Catholic Worker house in North Philadelphia. For months I had been getting to know Alima in English classes at my place of work. I had regularly expressed admiration for her determination to learn not only English but also some simple Spanish words so that she could communicate with fellow ESL students. In turn, she would wish me “As-Salamu Alaykum” (Peace be upon you) and marvel at my green eyes.
But that evening, that was the first time that I heard about her sister. And the first moment that I took in the full weight of the war in Iraq.
In 2001 I had protested the war. In 2003 I purchased a “Pace” (peace) rainbow flag in Italy and proudly hung it at every apartment since, proclaiming my opposition as a Catholic and a member of the human race. In 2005, 2006, and 2007 I participated in rallies and prayer gatherings to petition heaven for peace.
In 2009, Alima invited me to dinner and it changed everything. Her radical hospitality expressed genuine, unconditional and undeserving charity, what C.S. Lewis characterizes as the agape form of love. Around the table, a recipient of her gracious invitation, it did not seem to matter that my nationality implicated me in her sister’s death.
Arm in arm we walked back downstairs through the crowded dining room where dishes were being cleared away. I paused before we got to the front door, suddenly feeling the need to be forgiven for every bomb, for every death, for every time I walk by and fail to truly see the stranger or even to behold with love one who has done me harm. Instead of indulging my guilt, Alima gave me a kiss on each cheek in farewell and a reminder that she would see me in English class the following Thursday.
Bethany J. Welch is the Executive Director of Providence Center, a faith-based neighborhood center that provides education and enrichment opportunities in the Kensington community of North Philadelphia. Providence Center is a service site for JusticeworX 2011.