More than Offering a Spare Room
As I write this, Malaysia has extended its 3rd round of Covid-19 lockdown to June 28. When they first announced their movement control in March last year, my husband and I had wanted to help Malaysians stranded in Singapore. Residing in a 5-room HDB flat, we have extra rooms to offer to those in need of temporary shelter.
During that same time, Homeless Hearts (an NGO that supports the isolated and displaced) was seeking out host homes to shelter our Malaysian friends. So my husband and I registered our interest with them. Soon, we were linked up with the first potential Malaysian stayer. We even had a meaningful dialogue over WhatsApp. However, she pulled out of the boarding arrangement just hours prior check-in.
The reason? She had called home to her mom back in Malaysia about the offer of shelter. To which her mom reacted: “Don’t take up the offer. Nothing comes free in Singapore!”
So the arrangement was dropped. We continued our offer and received the same reaction. I did cry once to God out of frustration: “Lord, we just want to make room. Why is reciprocity so tough?”
To provide free boarding to strangers in need.
To welcome the unknown person without strings attached.
This offer must be so radical that both hosts and guests hesitate to take a step forward.
I wonder when did the notion of “strangers are dangerous” begin for most of us?
For me, it was since my childhood.
I was taught that strangers have the potential power to trick or harm me.
“Mind your own business.”
“Don’t interfere in the problems of others.”
“Don’t talk to the vagabond.”
“Don’t accept candy from a stranger.”
These statements from my parents were good counsel. It came at a crucial time when I was a child that needed proper boundaries for safety. You too, have needed those boundaries as a kid.
But now we are all grown up. We have great capacity to discern, calculate risk and do the right thing. Yet, we can’t shake off the voice that had once schooled us: “Don’t acknowledge the stranger. It is risky and unwise.”
So we stay indifferent towards outsiders. We shy away from saying “hi” to neighbours in the lift lobby. And hesitate to open our doors and our hearts in Singapore, even if it is a place that ranks 4th as the safest place to live during this pandemic.
The heightened alert in the pandemic has raised a new level of loneliness. As we interact lesser with our extended family and at our workplaces, the absence of meaningful social relationships has become more pronounced. I’ve got family members and friends who have experienced more anxiety, frustration, isolation, stress and sadness.
How about those with no or low social connection?
How have the homeless, marginalised and vulnerable in our society been helped by us?
Neighbour Labour of Love
This has led my husband and I to re-think how we want to live our lives. We recognise that we can’t live happily and meaningfully if we were to ignore what God cares about: to love a neighbour-in-need during the pandemic and extend hospitality and help (Luke 10:25-37).
Hospitality is first and foremost an astonishing expression of love. God first demonstrated it in the ground-breaking act of offering his Son Jesus to strangers like us. In the Gospels, Jesus created a space of belonging and welcome for all.
He made room to include people unlike him:
the sick and diseased,
the least and the lost,
the misfits and those who made mistakes,
even people who posed him hard questions.
They were welcomed not because they were full of goodness. But because Jesus is merciful, generous and hospitable.
During Covid-19, Jesus showed my husband and I that for us to really live, we are to respond to his love and come alive to the practical needs of others. So despite fear of the unknown and the heightened alert, we commit to open our hearts and our home to strangers in need. Our parents were of course anxious over our decision. But we want to share in the life of Jesus and live out the Gospel message authentically.
Finally, 3 strangers came through our door.
The first was a Malaysian who came to attend to her hospitalized brother for 6 weeks. Care-giving can be a lot to bear during Covid-19 restrictions. We witnessed her pressure to get on top of things at the expense of self-care. Giving her the safe space to be by herself to grieve and lament while offering our presence and assurance have helped to recharge her for her role.
Our current homestay guests are a homeless single mom and her toddler.
We’ve crossed 6 months as hosts. There are another 6 months to go before they move into their rental flat. Nothing too dramatic happened in the previous homestay assignment. This round, however, we’ve been stretched out of our comfort zone.
We have to deal with food crumbs on the floor. Things taken and not returned to where they belong. Our personal playlist changing to “Baby Shark” and “Na Na Na Na”. Dirty dishes and clothes not immediately washed. Midnight knocks on the bedroom door asking for help.
A limitation of personal space.
We have let them in. And they have disrupted the rhythm of our independent living. Life is not what it used to be because we have acquired a new norm of serving the homeless for a longer period. And suddenly, hospitality surfaced some selfish and stingy thoughts within me.
It took 6 months for me to realise that my generosity is actually quite conditional, (though admired by friends when they heard our story). We do welcome some people but not others. Not unless they shed a bit of themselves to fit into our social norms. This is what I have noticed when I take time to reflect on our conversations. Or when they behave in a manner that contradicts my values.
Whenever that happens, my living room becomes sacred ground where God will show up to speak into my heart. And I experience Jesus in unexpected ways.
Welcoming the Unlike
To be receptive to the strangeness in others has been hard and uncomfortable. It is also a blessing in disguise. For our homeless friends have sharpened my husband and I to spot and nab the robbers of true living: namely our need to control everything, our self-centredness, bias and criticism towards those unlike us.
I believe God has orchestrated the mother and child coming to our home: to fortify our character and conviction, to acquaint us with the compassion of Jesus in every unexpected need, to school us to be a voice for the homeless and helpless in the community.
I’ve come to this realisation:
The homeless are not problems to be solved. They are people to be befriended.
They can contribute and give to others. They are worth more than they appear. All lives matter, even the lives of the homeless. If we believe that, we will put our beliefs into hospitable actions.
We may have given our homeless friends a portion of what we own. But they have given us their all by:
trusting us with their lives,
extending their friendship,
sharing with us stories of resilience,
teaching us not to take simple things for granted.
Extending welcome is transforming my husband and I. It is also having a communal impact on our neighbours. For since our neighbours took notice of the mother-daughter duo, they have been mindfully curious and contributing to their welfare. In this way, hospitality transforms the community to be more attentive towards others too.
We have a choice to live differently each day. To form bonds beyond affinity and similarities. To extend friendships with open hearts and open front doors. Covid or no covid, let’s be neighbours to strangers in need.
Who knows, we may encounter the Divine who comes through strangers (Matthew 25:35-40) and be given something in life that we never knew was missing.