A Reflection on Being a Visitor
About 8 years ago I attended a regional Catholic Worker gathering for families like mine: people of faith who operated houses of hospitality. I lamented to the other leaders that our first resident volunteer had prematurely announced her departure the week before, leaving the co-founder and me to lead a growing organization with no help. An older man, long experienced in community building, offered this observation: “In the life of community there are birds and branches. Branches build the ecosystem, hold things together. Birds come and go. Birds bring beauty and music and build nests and create new life, but when the weather changes or better food is available elsewhere, they often leave. You need and want birds, but you can’t survive without strong branches.”
This metaphor has come up for me again and again as I’ve been a temporary resident, a bird if you will, in this mountain town of Montezuma, New Mexico where I’m spending a sabbatical volunteering at United World College of the American West, my alma mater. The scene of birds and branches is made more poignant by the recent wildfires, which burned out the forests around us. The animals all fled down into safety.
You need and want birds, but you can’t survive without strong branches.
However, if you drive up into the burn scar, you’ll find still living trees, black with soot, but complete with branches. Some of these branches are spindly and one wonders, “How could they have survived a fire that seemingly killed everything.” But they stand strong. Western mountain trees’ fire adaptations are many, including thicker bark and deeper roots. Designed for distress, the healthy trees have no intention of dying anytime soon and the unhealthy trees are taken by the fire, and turned into fertilizer which will nourish the ecosystem in the coming season of regrowth.
In my normal life, I strive to be this kind of fire-enduring species. Over the last decade, I’ve helped build Lydia’s House, an organization that went from an idea in a binder to multiple properties, 7 staff people, dozens of families served each year, a partner preschool, an advocacy arm, and millions of dollars raised and redistributed. The metaphorical fires came, the birds flew away, and (mostly) I still stood. There were plenty of times I felt frustrated with those that had less commitment, “Who do they think they are? Coming for a minute, building nothing, leaving!?” As I watched the birds come and go I became more and more determined to live life as a branch.
Over the last four months, I was a temporary inhabitant, perched if you will, but not rooted. The view of a bird who is typically a branch is, perhaps, a unique one. Unlike me as a bird in my early twenties, imagining my presence as simply a gift, a middle-aged me noticed the branches and lived in awe of and gratitude for them.
Much is said of freedom, and often it is exalted as the highest virtue in our culture. Indeed, one might aspire to be “as free as a bird!” Such bird-like freedom wouldn’t be fun at all, though, without thick-skinned, deep-rooted, fire-surviving branches. As I leave New Mexico, it’s in gratitude for those that came before me and have stayed, not only through forest fire, but drought and flood, and water shortage. Here on campus were maintenance workers who replaced my broken washing machine and cafeteria workers who made delicate sauces to cover the Tuesday flank steak or compliment the Wednesday burgers. There was an IT crew that “Frankensteined” my computer when I spilled wine on it and a security staff that let me on campus when I, repeatedly, forgot my key fob.
There are many metaphors for the Kingdom, but this one presents a place of rest and hospitality
In town, there were the Plaza Hotel workers who made the sourdough loaves and fresh orange juice that we regularly enjoyed and the barbers who cut a delicate “zig-zag” into Jacob’s hair. And nearby there was a devoted crew of Montezuma Hot Springs volunteers who actually drained and cleaned the springs on the first Sunday of the month. At the end of my time I made a donation to the effort, and once I volunteered to scrub algae, but along the way, I just enjoyed the hot baths by the lovely river, several times a week.
In the Bible Jesus says:
“What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19).
There are many metaphors for the Kingdom, but this one presents a place of rest and hospitality, an expansive bush-like tree, made complete by perching guests. Having been such a guest for this season, I understand more why God’s fullness comes in both offering and receiving unexpected shade and space to come and go. Dorothy Day often said, “The world will be saved by beauty,” emphasizing the value of the birds. Amen. I hope to appreciate the lovely perchers more when I return home, having dwelled among them. For today, though, I am filled by the hospitality of these branches.