catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 17 :: 2007.09.21 — 2007.10.05


A year of life in "the zoo"

It has now been a year that I've lived in Oudezijds 100, a Christian community in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I affectionately refer to it as a zoo, as I live with 4 cats of varying friendliness, 15+ children displaying varying amounts of energy and good behaviour, and dozens of adults with varying personalities and at different levels of reliability and stability. In our home of five multi-storied buildings, we have a library, two chapels, a bike shop, and need schedules and lists and mailboxes and noteboards and bike parking places and sign-out sheets in order to be somewhat organized. If you combine all these elements with the fact that sitting on my porch or playing games out front with the children means that I get stared at and commented on as if we were also a tourist attraction, then it definitely feels a bit like a zoo. And in the midst of this zoo, I have learned a lot about community (besides the fact that it's never dull!).

When I first came here, someone commented that the community was different by my being here. In fact, it must be different with each new person who comes and goes—for we are all part of the community. For each person who comes adds something to the community, and we ought to make space for her while helping her adjust to the way things are here. And with each person who leaves, there is an empty place that takes awhile to adapt to. As part of this community, I have been accepted for who I am, lovingly teased, and challenged in many different ways. I have the privilege of regularly interacting with a range of people I don't think I'd meet all together anywhere else: homeless people, a nun, people who've spent time in jail, children of all ages, and more. The people with whom I live are very different from the people I grew up around and they have helped me see the world differently.

These others here, in varying ways and varying amounts, have nudged themselves into my space and my heart—and loving people different from myself has stretched me. C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, has a great description of this process of growing to love others who are different:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [´made for each other´]; people who, if they had not found themselves put down by fate in the same household or community, would have had nothing to do with each other. If Affection grows out of this their eyes begin to open. Growing fond of "old so-and-so", at first simply because he happens to be there, I presently begin to see that there is "something in him" after all. The moment when one first says, really meaning it, that though he is not "my sort of man" he is a very good man "in his own way" is one of liberation. It does not feel like that; we may feel only tolerant and indulgent. But really we have crossed a frontier. That "in his own way" means that we are getting beyond our own idiosyncrasies, that we are learning to appreciate goodness or intelligence in themselves, not merely goodness or intelligence flavoured and served to suit our own palate….The truly wide taste in humanity will find something to appreciate in the cross-section of humanity whom one has to meet every day. In my experience it is Affection that creates this taste, teaching us first to notice, then to endure, then to smile at, then to enjoy, and finally to appreciate, the people who "happen to be there". Made for us? Thank God, no. They are themselves, odder than you could have believed and worth far more than we guessed.

This describes life here well—especially the last line.

Yet, even as I am thankful for this opportunity to grow to love others who are different from myself, it has been hard. The following is something I wrote six months ago (entitled “i choose”) after having had a difficult week of trying to be joyful and faithful in the midst of the challenges of community:

Like most people, I choose to avoid difficult weeks as much as possible. But sometimes certain choices mean that I leave myself open to things I wouldn't normally choose. These are some of those choices in my life now.

I choose to write (blog) much about the joy and learning involved in life in a community. And I choose to write little about the people with whom I find difficult to live with—or the moments I just want to get as far away as possible (by bike preferably so I can get rid of my frustration).

I choose to focus on the amazing delight of having family here—of having a two-year-old ask me to pick her up, of having cats without having to clean up their litter boxes, of being teased about how to cut the cheese at breakfast, of having people to share chores with, of celebrating milestones together, and of rejoicing when a daughter turns back to God. And I choose not to focus so much on how the ´family´ here (like most families) is filled with dysfunctional people who don't always get along—although I also choose to mourn over how broken we all are.

I choose to live in this community that helps people become more independent. But that means that I have also chosen to live in a community that never stays the same—not only because all of us are discovering things (good and bad) about ourselves by being stuck with different people but also because people whom we´ve grown to care about leave and unknown people come and all of us must figure out how the community changes with each loss and growth.

I choose to live in community instead of by myself, which means that I choose to open myself to others and let others affect me on a very regular basis. And I don't always get to choose whether they affect me in a good way or a bad way—nor how often a certain person might bring joy into my life nor how much energy a person will demand in relating to him. And even if they treat me poorly, I don't get to treat them poorly in return (although I do choose to avoid them when that seems the healthiest thing for me to do).

I choose to live in this community—with people very different from myself culturally, religiously, experientially and age-wise. The hope is that I learn how to get beyond myself and appreciate the rest of the world better. But it also means that I have thus chosen to experience cultural clashes and to suffer the frustration and overwhelming-ness of learning to function in at least one other language besides English.

I choose to be a responsible part of this community. I choose to organize the kitchen things and make sure the bathroom gets cleaned, even if doing so has meant several arguments (including a rather nasty one with me being yelled at). I am still learning to choose not to be overly responsible (things will continue without me making sure that everything in the kitchen is perfect) and to ask someone to take care of my responsibilities when I feel too overwhelmed to do them.

I choose to combine my studying with living in a community with the hope that the community will help me understand how to live the Word of God I´m studying and that I´ll get to share that Word through what I say and what I do. Yet, as sometimes the life in the community becomes all-encompassing, that means that I sometimes choose not to study as much as I feel I ought to—and that I need to evaluate my choices regularly to see if this choice (or any other one) needs to be modified. 

I choose to live thousands of miles from my immediate family and from my friends and all that was once familiar to me. And I choose to love this city and my studies and the people here. And I think I do so not only because there is much that brings me joy and delight but because this is where I think God wants me to be—so that I might learn how better to serve Him.

And some days it doesn´t feel like the choices are worth all the pain and energy involved. At those times, I turn to God for reassurance that things will be well, and I try to focus on how amazing it is just to be accepted and helped by my family here and to be able to participate in a place where I see God working. The challenges involved make the necessity of prayer and relying on God's strength blatantly obvious.

And in spite of the fact that living in community is sometimes a struggle, I wouldn't want to live any other way. This past year I have seen how community is a way of showing and experiencing God in surprising and amazing ways, and I look forward to further joys and challenges as I learn more and more about what living in community means.

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