I had planned for this letter to be written in the month of November. But November ticked by, full of consuming events: First, All Saints’ Day; then my first Remembrance Day worship service with the British Ambassasdor for Slovakia sitting in the front row; a Thanksgiving celebration with all the ELCA volunteer teachers from around Slovakia and Poland, along with the four YAGM’s who came to Bratislava from Hungary for a weekend retreat. (We baked banana cake and sweet potatoes and apple crisp and good Midwestern green bean casserole for the big feast, and each of them led our little group in worship one of these days. So we reflected, drew, sang, walked a makeshift labyrinth, listened to scripture, and prayed.)
All this to say, November got away from me, as we counted the days toward my due date. And then Esme Asher Blyth surprised us by being born a week early. After 27 hours of labor (not that I was counting), she came into the world on November 27th, remarkably calm and a little purple. We brought her home from the Hainburg hospital a couple of days later.
I had been planning — back before November got away from me — to write a pastor’s letter about “home.” Now, this letter must begin in a new way — after we have recently journeyed with a fragile bundle, a newly alive creature, across a border, across a river, to our home in Bratislava.
Esme is home now, though she has no words for “home” yet, though she can see this home only vaguely (through a glass darkly, you might say). But all the same, it is home for her. She knows it by smell and touch. Her father holds her close and changes her diaper. I nurse her when she squalls for milk. Her sister rests her on her lap, adoringly. Our dear friend walks her around our flat, showing her the Christmas tree. Esme is home; and at two weeks old, home is not particularly complex. As long as she is fed, and warm, and loved, she is home.
But for most of us who have a few years on Esme, home has gotten more complicated. I have called many places home in my 36 years: At least 25 apartments, rooms or houses have been home for me, for at least a few months. It should not be surprising that I am adept at quickly making a “home” of any space, and that I married someone who does so even better.
Yet, even with our well-honed home-making abilities, we continue to long for a home that is not quite where we are: A home that fulfills all our desires – closeness to family and friends who live thousands of miles away from each other; a backdrop of high, boulder-strewn mountains; proximity to the treasures of dense urban areas coupled with the almost silent nights you only find in States like Montana with its blue-black star-splattered night skies. Incompatible, impossible desires, of course. We will not find one such home in this world. So the verse from Hebrews comes to mind: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” We long for a city, or maybe just a small town, or yurt, or even a really nice tent that fulfills our deep longings for an abiding home.
In my work here in Central Europe, I find myself talking with many people who long for a home that evades reality. Many come to the Bratislava International Church who have left their homes-of-origin. These ex-patriots are living in Bratislava temporarily, and from here they may go on to another place, and still another. Though all of these locations may become “homes” in some sense of the word, none of them quite lives up to the longing for a lasting, abiding home.
The Bratislava International Church also draws bi-cultural families: A Slovak married to an American, or a Ghanaian, or a Tanzanian. These unions, for all that they are rich in love, shatter any simplistic notion either partner may once have had of home. Home for these families now spans continents. Travel, sometimes long and expensive plane flights, is required for at least one partner to “go home.” Home is bifurcated, appropriated, and ever-evolving for these bi-cultural families. Not simple.
There are also Slovaks who make their way to our pews Sunday after Sunday: Slovaks who have spent time out of this country, sometimes years. They arrive back changed by years of living abroad, and Slovakia no longer feels quite like “home” — but neither does the United States, or Germany, or Great Britain. So these members of our Sunday assembly feel home-less on an existential if not practical level.
I think also of my four Young Adults in Global Mission, who are struggling to live in a place that is not home for a year. Some of them hoped that their placement sites would quickly feel like home, but they have learned that home is not necessarily easy to come by, especially when you are a foreigner who cannot yet speak complex sentences in Hungarian (or even express your feelings!), especially when you are far away from everything familiar, far from everyone who has loved you since before you can remember. It is not easy for these young adults. They want to feel at home. Their hosts have welcomed them. Yet they are not, quite, at home. I am hopeful that by the end of the year perhaps one or two of them will find that their site in Hungary has become, surprisingly, “home” and they don’t know how or when it happened. But I imagine that others of the YAGM’s will spend the whole year somewhat off-kilter. Trying to inhabit a home that is not theirs. Longing for a home that is not where they are.
One additional thought: In October, I attended a conference with the YAGM’s: The European Boogieman Complex: Challenging Antigypsyism, run by Phiren Amenca out of Budapest, a volunteer network of Roma and non-Roma engaging the difficult issues surrounding Roma communities in Europe today. I began wondering, as the conference flooded me with ideas and information, about the relationship of the Roma peoples to “home.” While the prevalent theory is that the Roma have their origin in India, India (of a thousand years ago) bears no stamp of “home” for most modern-day Romani. Home is every country in Europe, and beyond. Home is many small villages, large cities, and mid-sized towns that Roma communities have populated for decades or centuries. Yet the Roma, for centuries now, have continually been driven out of this home and that home. Their homes have been terrorized, even burned down. How would it be to fight constantly for the right to call any place “home”? I will never understand, of course, what this is like.
It is December now. The snow is falling thick outside, as all these thoughts of “home” swirl in my head. I hear Esme, making those odd and lovely baby sounds out of deep sleep. I have a sudden and strong urge to protect her from the sorrow, the longing that she will no doubt feel one day — for an abiding, lasting home, a home that continually evades her.
In the meantime, I will hold her, feed her, and sing to her. And I will read her the children’s board book that I read to her older sister many times (written by Carol Wehrheim, illustrated by Betsy James.) The words are simple:
The bird has a cosy nest.
The squirrel sleeps in a tree.
The fish lives in water.
No matter where we live…God is our home.
I pray that Esme will come to believe this. (Though I am not sure I have the words to explain what this statement of faith really means.)
Perhaps, with her help, I will come to believe it, more deeply and strongly, today, and again tomorrow. That no matter where we live…God is, indeed, our home.