PROTECTIVE HOSPITALITY - Jayme Reaves
Jayme Reaves writes about creating safety amidst violent conflict, in a society where the impossible hopes of a previous generation that we might learn to live together have actually been coming true.
I used to live along one of the “peace” walls in West Belfast, on an interface between two of the most famous neighborhoods in Northern Ireland: the Irish Catholic Falls Road and British Protestant Shankill Road areas. I lived in the Mennonite House, bought by the parents of the distinguished peace teacher and activist John Paul Lederach to be used as accommodation for peace-related volunteers and students, and to provide hospitality and a safe space on this conflicted interface. I lived next to the pedestrian gate in the wall, which was opened at dawn and closed at dusk every day by the police unless there was trouble afoot.
In the long spring and summer evenings, I’d notice the kids throwing things at one another through the gate and over the wall built to keep them apart. Running up to and sometimes through the gate, they taunted and teased each other, trolling for trouble, and then retreated to their respective neighborhoods when there was just enough of a threat to warrant it. They knew the adults on their side of the wall would defend them. They knew their community would take their side.
Riots were known to start over smaller matters than this. Always on a slow simmer, it didn’t take much for the steam to build up and the lid to pop. Property damaged, injuries sustained, and a lingering legacy of unrest remained in my neighborhood despite the decade long “peace” of the 1998 Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement.
“I hate Catholics,” said one of my nine-year-old neighbors who lived on my street. Shocked at such a blatant statement, I asked her why.
“Because, see that wall over there? My daddy says that I need to be extra careful because they’ll come through that wall and beat me up. They make me scared and they hate me, so I hate them back.”
My heart sank.
“So much for the new generation,” I thought to myself, trying to figure out how to explain to this young girl that all Catholics aren’t bad. Maybe if I lied and told her I was a Catholic, it might have opened her eyes. But such a statement might put me and my own safety at risk, so I let it go. In hindsight, I should have pressed her on it, but at the time my gut told me to be wary. Who knows whom she’d tell? I was pretty sure her dad was a local paramilitary leader.
And then there was the graffiti on the wall. Marking their territory, words and slogans are written to demarcate boundaries and to antagonize the other side. Occasionally the letters “KAH” were tagged on the Protestant side of the wall. Painted by kids from the Catholic community, they would dare to breach the wall, paint the abbreviation of the genocidal “Kill all Huns” and then run back into the safety of their own. They have been subjected to their own version for years; “KAT” or “Kill all Taigs” can still be found peppered throughout the city as well. The common nature of such statements is astounding. Protestant “Huns”, Catholic “Taigs”, language that denies the invitation to see each other’s faces.
I expect the implications of these tags are not really taken literally, or even seriously by most of those who paint them. I often dreamed that, in a stroke of madness, I would catch some of the writers in the act, and shout, “Do you know what you’re really saying?! You’re calling for mass murder!” But I never did. I kept my mouth shut except to those I knew shared my views and with whom I felt safe to express my opinion. You never know who you might offend otherwise. And in this area, offense is not taken lightly. It’s best to keep your head down or a Molotov cocktail might find its way through your window.
But if I’m honest, I also kept my mouth shut because, deep down, I was glad the wall was there. I hated the wall, yet I appreciated its presence. Despite the kids, my street was a fairly quiet neighborhood because of the wall. Despite the kids, the wall made me feel safe. If this had been a middle-class, leafy neighborhood relatively untouched by the conflict, I wouldn’t have worried. The wall would have been unnecessary. Yet in a working-class area defined by decades of segregation, sectarianism, and violence between the two communities, the wall provided security to residents on either side, even residents such as me who were working to eventually bring those same walls down.
I have to admit that if I was glad the wall was there, how much more were those who felt they had more to fear than me, like that little nine-year-old girl who was afraid of being beaten up by her neighbors on the other side? Every time I looked at the wall and saw “KAH” painted there, I was disgusted, but those feelings were always tempered by a twinge of guilt because I knew that both my disgust and comfort in its presence were intertwined with a keen awareness of the irony.
At that time, I was a public theologian working on my PhD, exploring the concepts of hospitality and protection. The fact that I both loathed and appreciated a very hostile, impenetrable concrete wall with a locked gate, high railing, and barbed wire at the end of my street felt contradictory and hypocritical. As long as those walls remained, Northern Ireland would never become a truly peaceful and integrated society. Yet, I understood the need to feel protected. I understood what it was like to feel as if danger is just beyond your doorstep. I understood why the wall was put there, why it remains, and why it will probably be there for many years to come. The wall provided both protection for those within its boundaries, and exclusion of those who are unknown and unwanted. I came to understand that these types of contradictions repeatedly mark a society in conflict, when ideas that are apparently mutually exclusive often reside side by side. Often it is the inability to reconcile these ideas that makes building peace so difficult.
In my old neighborhood, the wall is both the antithesis of hospitality and the boundary that made some acts of hospitality possible. Because of this wall, a group of women from each side go back and forth through the gate for tea on a regular basis, making intentional efforts to know one another and work together on communal issues. Would they make such efforts if the wall wasn’t there? Maybe. But maybe not. The wall reminds these women there is still a lot of work to do. The wall affirms their identities, making encounters with the other a little less threatening, giving confidence via the knowledge that they can retreat into its safety when the need arises.
A story about the walls I will never forget was told to me by the famous Northern Irish civil rights activist Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. She informed me that barriers like the one bordering my neighborhood enabled some communities to shelter and provide sanctuary for “battered women” from the other side in the 1970s-80s. In a time when domestic abuse shelters didn’t exist, Protestant women on one side of the divide secretly harbored Catholic women who had been abused, and Catholic women did the same on their side. Giving shelter to an abused woman on the other side was the most effective way to remove her from the reach of her partner or the enforcement of her return by her own community and its respective paramilitary forces. The host women knew those seeking the woman being given refuge wouldn’t consider the possibility that she had crossed the boundaries into “enemy territory,” and even if they thought it possible, they wouldn’t have means of investigating out of fear of the paramilitaries who enforced the wall’s exclusion. What I love about this story is that these brave women were not part of a systematic movement. There was no policy in place, and it is still relatively undocumented, but they took it upon themselves to put together a grassroots initiative that subverted the sectarian divide and strategically used the presence of a wall to help ensure the safety of women in need of refuge.
My neighborhood’s wall, along with other similar walls throughout the world, both include and exclude. They provide refuge and identity as well as sustain conflict by concretizing division. Such is the nature of walls. Duality resides along its parapets. That same duality appears in the practice of hospitality itself. Arising from the same linguistic root, the tension between hospes (hospitality) and hostis (hostility) is constantly present. We like to talk about hospitality as if it is a nice, polite, welcoming free-for-all, but in reality it’s not. Genuine hospitality requires solid boundaries to provide safety and protection, as well as radical welcome to those who appear both invited and uninvited from beyond those same boundaries. Finding the balance is a particularly tricky and risky endeavor, requiring reflexivity and flexibility, a commitment to the wellbeing of all and an awareness that, as with anything in life, there are no guarantees of success.
If we look for them, we can find defiant examples of people reaching out beyond their own identity to welcome and provide safe haven and assistance to someone from the other side in practically every narrative of conflict and oppression around the globe. There are numerous stories I have encountered over the years of courage and hospitality in difficult times. Once, a mixed marriage family (wife was Catholic, husband was Protestant, 2 kids) received an anonymous threat to leave or they would be burned out of their house, and so their neighbor sat all night in front of the house with a fire extinguisher. Or the group of Croat Catholic, Serb Orthodox, and Bosnian Muslim clergy who made a deliberate point to be seen having coffee and a laugh on a regular basis in their small, rural town as a means of modeling a different way of living together during the war in Bosnia. The opportunities we are presented with now are no different.
Each one of us is an heir to this heritage of resistance—all we need do is open our eyes to see and act accordingly. It is in our social and political history and it is also in our religious traditions. We are the ones who define what is important: the stories we choose to tell our children and each other are the stories that define our values. From meaningful, healthy remembrance of this heritage comes shared action, and they are dangerous memories because they challenge the status quo, highlight injustice and inform and motivate further acts of resistance as a means of continuing the tradition.
As we consider the threat of physical and metaphorical walls being built through travel bans and immigration policies, we must not forget that these policies have also served to awaken and galvanize a significant number of people who wouldn’t normally have gotten involved. The upsurge of churches, synagogues, mosques, universities, cities, and counties declaring themselves sanctuaries is not a fluke. During the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s, approximately 500 sanctuaries were formed as a resistance to Reagan’s policies related to Central and South America. At the time of writing, the number now stands at more than 800 and continues to grow.
When times like these lead us to despair, let us remember we are never without options. While ideological and actual wars rage around us, opportunities will emerge to subvert the power that divides us in order to do good and provide protective hospitality to a threatened other. What it requires of us is to stay alert and be willing to put ourselves at risk for our neighbor.
Thinking back to the days when I lived by that wall in Belfast, my memories have been positively tainted by the stories of those who resisted and subverted the wall’s purpose. I have been included in that heritage by living within its shadow, being told the stories, and being allowed to share them with others. The opportunity to preserve the heritage by creating new, dangerous memories in these trying times lies before us. Our own humanity and commitments to that which is greater than ourselves calls us to act, and those who have gone before us urge us to persevere. They will tell our stories one day, too.
Jayme R. Reaves is a public theologian. You can check out her book, Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality, or follow her on Facebook or Twitter (@jaymereaves).