Displacement: An Introduction

True to form, there was a new group of people sitting around the dining room table, which had only gotten more chipped and rickety in the past few months.  Again we came from very different backgrounds, but this group was particularly unique in that most were from out of town: people who had also chosen to move into the “inner city” of their communities and share their stories & experiences.  Also present was X, who had recovered from his hoarseness and was back to his peppy, sassy self.  Or at least, nearly so.  “Man, when I first met D,” he said, gesturing to me, “I was like, ‘Who is this dude?’, and someone said, ‘He’s a doctor,’ and I said, ‘No way man!  Are you kidding me?’ and so I asked you, ‘Are you a doctor?’ and you said, ‘Yes.’ and I was like, ‘Whaaaaaat?  What’s a doctor doing here?’”  He paused, and then in a surprisingly serious tone said, “All you guys in this house, you are like my brothers.”

I hesitate a lot in writing this, mainly because I fear appearing as if I am tooting my own horn and praising myself.  I am a very new neighbor, still very shy and still very paranoid and fearful about the newness of the world around me.  I continue to hide behind and learn from my intrepid roommate, whose daily courage and savoir-faire continues to teach me how to live, whose actions of neighborly love towards X have far exceeded my own in critical timing and influence.  But I describe this moment to introduce one of the first true and genuine expressions of acceptance into this neighborhood, which has taken nearly four months to happen.

Over the next few posts, some of the other people sitting around the table that night will share their stories as “guest authors” here.  All of them have gone through their own journeys of displacement, described as Henri Nouwen so aptly put it:

The paradox of the Christian community is that people are gathered together in voluntary displacement.  The togetherness of those who form a Christian community is a being-gathered-in-displacement.  According to Webster’s dictionary, displacement means, to move or to shift from the ordinary or proper place.  This becomes a telling definition when we realize the extent to which we are preoccupied with adapting ourselves to the prevalent norms and values of our millieu.  We want to be ordinary and proper people who live ordinary and proper lives…  This is quite understandable since the ordinary and proper behavior that gives shape to an ordinary and proper life offers us the comforting illusion that things are under control and that everything extraordinary and improper can be kept outside the walls of our self-created fortress.

The call to community as we hear it from our Lord is the call to move away from the ordinary and proper places.  Leave your father and mother.  Let the dead bury the dead.  Keep your hand on the plow and do not look back.  Sell what you own, give the money to the poor and come follow me.  The Gospels confront us with this persistent voice inviting us to move from where it is comfortable, from where we want to stay, from where we feel at home.

Why is this so central?  It is central because in voluntary displacement, we cast off the illusion of “having it together” and thus begin to experience our true condition, which is that we, like everyone else, are pilgrims on the way, sinners in need of grace.  Through voluntary displacement, we counteract the tendency to become settled in a false comfort and to forget the fundamentally unsettled position that we share with all people.  Voluntary displacement leads us to the existential recognition of our inner brokenness and thus brings us to a deeper solidarity with the brokenness of our fellow human beings…

In voluntary displacement community is formed, deepened, and strengthened.  In voluntary displacement we discover each other as members of the same human family with whom we can share our joys and sorrows.  Each time we want to move back to what is ordinary and proper, each time we yearn to be settled and feel at home, we erect walls between ourselves and others, undermine community, and reduce compassion to the soft part of an essentially competitive life. – Henri Nouwen, Compassion

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One response to “Displacement: An Introduction”

  1. […] try to understand what is so beautiful and tragic about my neighborhood, about life in the city. Some have come out to visit and sit with my roommates and neighbors. In those moments and in them I have great hope and joy. And through them, I have come to realize […]

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