When people ask me where I'm from, I usually pause and take a deep breath before I answer the question: "I live in the Bay area but I'm from Philadelphia." I have lived in the San Francisco Bay area long enough (over twenty years) to call it home, and Philly is the place I grew up that has that old, familiar, familial home. Both of these places are home to me, although at times I feel a little bit out of place in both.
Home is more than a geographic location. Home is also the feeling of being known. Of knowing my way around and of hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting comfort. There are certain people with whom I feel completely and effortlessly at home. At its best, home is love.
Home is also a state of being, of mind, heart and soul. Feeling at home with myself, with others, means I can be all of who I am and not leave anything out. This is not always easy when most of us are socialized to think about who's in and who's out, who's one of us and who's not to be trusted.
My particular history, and my mosaic of intersecting identities, means that wherever I am, I am usually the only ____________ (fill in the blank). This also means that I come from a long lineage of generations of persecution and trauma.
How can I possibly feel at home anywhere?
In 2007 I attended my first Circle of TrustÂ® retreat, sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal. Twenty-nine clergy and congregational lay leaders sat together in a circle: 27 mainstream Protestants, one Jesuit priest, and me. I looked around the room and thought to my self, "Oh my god, what was I thinking? I'm nothing like these people!" As we began the retreat, the facilitators reviewed our guidelines for creating a safe and welcoming environment for all group members. If this was going to be our home together for the next three days, we were going to need some shared ethical agreements.
The first of these guidelines was "Presume welcome and extend welcome," and it left me breathless with fear and hope. What would it feel like to presume welcome when I've been taught that the world is a dangerous inhospitable, unsafe place to be? And are there really people out there who actually presume they are welcomed wherever they go? What must that feel like? And aren't I simply buying into the paradigm of fear if I start out with mistrust? After all, mistrust (or open hostility) is no protection against hatred. If they're gonna kill me, they're gonna kill me, so I might as well go down with love.
I began a daily practice of the kavannah (sacred intention) of reciprocal welcoming, which involved focusing my mind and breath on the idea of extending and receiving welcome, and its impact over these past five years has been extraordinary. I have a felt sense of home within myself, which I then share with others.
I am not advocating a Pollyanna-ish, delusional, reckless way of moving through the world. Violence, brutality, and hatred are rampant. The very concept and language of home is laden with evocative political ramifications: homeland, motherland, borders and bulldozers. What I am advocating for, and what I do my very best to embody, is to be generous with my welcome, to be curious instead of paranoid, with a hefty helping of common sense. I want to extend the same feeling of home to others as the one I long for myself.
I used to refer to this as my desire to "see the face of God in every person." That has morphed into a holy intention to see the world through God's eyes, to hear with God's ears and to speak with God's mouth. For me, the words home, God and love are synonymous. So if the word God doesn't work for you, feel free to substitute something else. See the face of home in every person. See the face of love in every person. And may others see that same love in your face, your eyes, your words. (Full disclosure here: I fall short much of the time, but I keep picking myself back up and working at it.)
Every one of us is a holy spark of the Divine. May we see ourselves through the eyes of love, speak to each other with the mouths of God, and hear each other with lev shomea, a listening heart. Welcome home.
Karen Erlichman is a teacher, writer, and social worker. She was an Ask Big Questions faculty member at our summer 2011 institute.