Neighbour Nights (Part 4 of 4): Embracing the Paradox of Hospitality [By: Sam]

In this blog series, we have been discussing three core components of abundant community: gifts, association, and hospitality. To sum up the arc of our conversation:

If gifts are the basic building blocks of abundant community, and association is the primary process for connecting and exchanging gifts, then hospitality is the practice through which our repertoire of gifts abounds and even overflows.

Paradoxically, the hospitable act of receiving the gifts of the perceived outsider/stranger actually strengthens a community’s sense of belonging and abundance.

Here’s a simple example of how the paradoxical interplay between gifts, association, and hospitality plays out.

Over the last few months, I have become familiar with and even a bit attached to a physical asset in our neighbourhood. As a result of daily dog walking around Edgbaston Reservoir, I discovered a group of regular dog walkers. Through this group of dog walkers, I developed a regular rhythm of meeting them on the ‘playing field’ by the Reservoir. I could have been seen as an American newcomer infringing on their established 'Dog Club,' but fortunately, I was welcomed warmly into their informal association of dog walkers. Through this simple act of hospitality, they made room for one more, and I discovered a wonderful gift of green space – as well as some new neighbourhood networks.

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Consider another (related) example of how hospitality makes room for the gifts and the associations of the perceived outsider. Soon after I connected with the ‘Dog Club,’ I happened to be at a planning meeting with Martin Holcombe, the CEO of Birmingham Settlement (a city-wide community engagement charity) – the very charity who owns the field by the reservoir. Martin explained how the field had once been a sports field for a football club, and how nearly 30 years ago the pavilion had been burned down. Over the years, the fence had given way in places, and the field had been used for dog walking, picnics, exercise, and yes, some anti-social behaviour. Martin went on to explain how Birmingham Settlement wants to enable a community-led ‘re-launch’ of the field for diverse forms of community engagement. At one point Martin remarked, ‘I need to be in front of the local community’ and I had a ready-made offer: ‘Come to Neighbour Nights and let’s begin the conversation.’

That was Neighbour Nights #6, back in March. Martin came, and over 60 local residents showed up as well. That was the beginning of a dialogue between Martin Holcombe, representing Birmingham Settlement and local residents. Over the course of the conversation, Martin clarified that legally Birmingham Settlement owned the field and the field is covenanted for community use. In other words, Martin framed a scenario in which both Birmingham Settlement and local residents would benefit from what the other has to offer. Yet by being a de facto outsider, Martin also presented a future scenario that would require a posture of hospitality in order to move forward together. That is because local residents/users already access the field in various ways; Martin could be seen as a threatening outsider, an unwelcome presence ‘parachuting in' to disturb the neighbourhood peace. And yet, because of the legal structures in place, Martin could also be welcomed as a 'door opener' – that is, a friendly ally who has come to give permission and build cooperation.

What happened at Neighbour Nights # 6 (and since then) shows that hospitality is a delicate dance between guest and host. In the company of local residents, Companions for Hope took the lead by welcoming Martin as a guest into the neighbourhood, and with due respect, he then welcomed us to dream with him and Birmingham Settlement about how community engagement might happen on the field. During Q & A, residents made insightful observations about the history of the place, expressed passionate concerns about security, and even made requests for possible initiatives that could find a home on the field. One of our neighbourhood’s 'green initiatives' (focusing on horticulture, composting and skills sharing) shared the need for a new location in order to continue operation. Martin agreed to ‘re-home' this activity around the edges of the field, and already a small area of the site is being cleared to prepare for the horticultural activity, and so the dance of hospitality began…

Last week we gathered for Neighbour Nights #8. We invited Martin back for more Q & A with local residents about the future of the field. Some came for the catered meal provided by our friends at The Real Junk Food Project Birmingham, but after the meal, the attention turned to expressing our interests, concerns, and hopes for the field. Of course, it would have been more efficient for Martin (as CEO of Birmingham Settlement) to dictate vision and make it happen, but it would not have been effective as a community-led initiative.

 Martin Holcombe, with Birmingham Settlement, answers questions at Neighbour Nights #8

Martin Holcombe, with Birmingham Settlement, answers questions at Neighbour Nights #8

 Fortunately, Martin was again welcomed with a great turnout of residents (73 people showed up), and fortunately, Martin came as the ‘door opener,’ which welcomed residents to co-design what takes place on the field. As a next step, we agreed to throw a picnic / pop-up event on 28th May to raise the profile of the site, as well as to catch and store the energy around what might happen there in the future.

The point that I am making is NOT that Neighbour Nights offers a triumphalist formula for community organising, but rather it has offered a space for the dance of hospitality to begin. By welcoming an outsider, our repertoire of gifts and capacities has grown. That’s the simple power of hospitality.

In fact, these examples of meeting, gathering and welcoming are so simple, that only recently did I come to recognise that these ordinary acts of hospitality can conceal the paradox that I mentioned earlier: how making room for the gifts of the other/outsider/stranger actually strengthens a local community’s sense of belonging and security.

At first glance, you might think that a ‘Dog Club’ with stringent membership requirements would be more satisfying than an informal one that is easy to join; you might think an open field by the Reservoir would be made more secure by building a bigger fence to keep people out. But a second glance shows that behind the reaction to ‘keep outsiders out’ lurks a perception of scarcity – the belief there is not enough to go around. Alternatively, behind the response of welcome and hospitality is the awareness of ‘enough,’ the possibility of belonging to an abundant community.

For the last eight months, Neighbour Nights have been a space where (to shift the metaphor from dance to song) we have tried to form a neighbourhood choir with the following theme song: ‘cultivating abundant community from the ground up – by being neighbours on purpose.’ We are training our voices and learning our parts. We are also aware that there are other voices (not yet present) that belong in this choir. We will continue to listen for their voices and the parts they are called to sing. In the meantime, we are looking ahead to 28th May and to future Neighbour Nights as spaces where we can sing our theme song, find new choir members, and even learn some new songs in the key of hospitality. Songs like this:

“There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.” – W. B. Yeats.

-Sam