Thinking of “Home”

Friends, I’ve been struggling recently with the concept of home. We hold “home” so dearly. We want “home” so badly. “Home” evokes a sense of comfort, a feeling of rootedness, the idea that this, more than any other place, is where we belong. “Home” means safety, implies security—“made it home.Phew.

In Hong Kong, the land of my ancestry, there have been tremendous fights in recent years over the “right of abode”—the legal prerogative to call that city home, with all the benefits that accompany it. In the Reformed Church in America, my denomination, we’ve been wrestling over questions of whether our family of faith can be the spiritual home of diverse people who hold different views on sexuality—should the RCA be a place where I, as a non-celibate, married gay man, can marry or seek ordination? In the United States, the land of my birth and citizenship, this rancorous election season has raised important, as-yet-unanswered questions about who belongs.

In each of these three cases, what seems clear is that, to so many of us, creating one person’s “home” requires destroying another’s. Walls and boundaries, fences and barriers—these are the building blocks of the fortress mentality. Exclusion and alienation, rejection and bigotry—these are the construction tools of the modern home.

Is “home” primarily a matter of place? I hope not: I’ve never really felt truly at home in any geographic location. Of course there are places I’ve loved, places I’ve lived for many years. The San Francisco Bay Area should be my home—that’s where I was born, that’s where I have suffered some of my greatest grief, that’s where I roamed the streets and grew up. Miami should be home—that’s where I went to high school, and yet, beyond Cuban pastries and arroz con pollo, there’s not a lot about the place that draws me back. London should be home—that’s where I spent my early adulthood, but everything from my passport to my accent reminded me and those around me that I did not entirely belong. New York City should be home—I’ve lived here for the past decade, making a life with the man who is now my husband, and yet we often feel lost here.

When I was in high school, I complained to a teacher that I didn’t feel at home anywhere. She responded that she didn’t think I ever would, serving up some eschatological triteness about how we’re just en route to heaven. And I knew better than to seek a second opinion from my mom. Inevitably, she’d begin singing a hymn: “This world is not my home/ I’m just a-passing through…”

More and more, I’ve wondered whether home is less a geographic locale than a sentimental state. These feelings crystallized the other day in a text-message conversation with my friend Nate. I was in the midst of an exhausting reporting trip to Singapore, where I’d been talking with members of ethnic minorities about their sense of alienation and exclusion. “I don’t identify home with a place or a culture anymore,” I told Nate. “In terms of that sense of home, it really has become about relationship.”

Nate challenged me gently, suggesting that place still has importance as a fundamental component of “home.” “Can place be located solely in relationship?” he asked. “I don’t know.” But when I asked him where he feels at home, he too responded with a list that suggested to me community rather than geography: With his family. In Michigan (“going back has a certain nostalgic comfort that will always be home-ish to me”). “In any kind of woods. In certain activities that I love. And with certain friends.”

Home-ish. I like that word very much. Texting with Nate through the haze of jet lag, from a country not my own, I felt a little bit of home. Home-ish.

What is it—anger? hopelessness? fear?—that moves us to keep building our walls? Have our mindsets of scarcity have contributed to an impoverished idea of home? Time. Money. Energy. Beauty. Love. What causes us to hoard these things? What myopia compels us to see the abundance around us—and within us—as insufficient?

In my mind, the perfect home is built around the kitchen, around the dining table. My culture, my Cantonese upbringing, has taught me that this is the center of life together. I find “home” at my stove, hovering over my wok, getting splashed with hot oil, fretting over whether there will be the right amount of food—which is to say, too much. (“Just enough” for the Chinese cook means the failure of “not enough.”) And my conception of “home” is never a meal for one. It requires the presence of others.

Aptly, as a Christian, I have come, more and more, to find home at the table of faith, too—in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. It’s such a powerful symbol of unity with Jesus and with the family of faith that he has brought together. At my church, we celebrate the sacrament weekly, and the experience is never the same. Words emerge from the liturgy with varying power and meaning from week to week. Sometimes, it’s in hearing “the body of Christ, broken for you” that I am stirred nearly to tears; other times, it’s Psalm 103—bless the Lord, O my soul!—that moves me beyond myself.

Wesley Hill, in his book Spiritual Friendship, writes beautifully about taking Communion with friends: “None of us could know how long we’d be together in the same place. But [the minister] prayed, still, that God would show us how to care for one another in the meantime and how to make our friendship a blessing for others… The peace of the blessing and the sense of communion lingered in the room, like a whiff of incense. We didn’t say anything for a few seconds. The candlelight wavered on the table. We smiled at each other. In that moment, I don’t think any of us felt alone.”

Maybe that, more than anything, is what I imagine to be the feeling of home: Communion and companionship (in the most literal sense, rooted in the concept of the breaking of bread with one another… com- = with, panis = bread). Equality. Belonging.

Where is my home? The concept morphs from day to day, week to week, as surely as my reactions to the Communion liturgy. I find home in relationship. I find home in shared laughter and on long walks with my husband. I find home in intimate conversation. I find home in the comforting glance of a concerned friend, and in that rare, reassuring silence that one enjoys only with true confidants. I find home in the places where, through the grace of others, I glimpse elements of my true self. I find home in the invitations of those who love me to deconstruct the deceptively secure fortress I build to protect myself from the world. I find home in their welcome, in their embrace.

“Holy friendship changes the world,” my friend Noah said recently, and he is right. It reconfigures the concept of home from a place centered on me and my wants, my perceived needs and my overemphasized rights, into one enlivened by hospitality and by others. The emotional architecture here disfavors walls—and rightly so: Shouldn’t “home” be progressively more open-plan? I’m pretty sure, too, that these spaces aren’t safe; if home-ish is a thing, then perhaps we can say that they are safe-ish at best. But that is okay, and more than okay, because at its heart, “home” is love.

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