Three summers ago, Chuck and I were visiting family in our hometown of Yuba City, California. Whenever we’re there, we spend a lot of time on our bikes. The terrain is flat and bike lanes are everywhere, very unlike our Nashville suburb with its hills and narrow two-lane roads. On this particular visit, we set off to tour the important landmarks of our youth — Chuck’s grammar school, his old neighborhood, the high school parking lot where we’d met in marching band rehearsals our freshman year, and finally, to the site of my grandparents' house, where they’d lived until the time of their death in the last half of the 70s.
I had driven by that house many times on previous visits, but this time it was different. Because of the bikes, my senses were more engaged. As we rode on the same cracked and lumpy sidewalks I’d walked on as a girl, I felt like I was entering another time zone. At the corner of B St. and Fruitvale, we got off our bikes and looked over the back fence. The house looked very different, mostly tattered and rundown. Minor efforts at repair only served to strip the home of its former character. But certain key things were still there and my memories filled in what wasn’t: the large tree that held my sister’s and my tree swing, the corner where my grandparents made us a sandbox from an old tire, and the shed where my grandfather worked repairing and restoring golf clubs. The shed also held a large freezer full of ice cream, ice milk, and sherbet, staples along with homemade cookies in the dessert life of my grandparents' home. Whenever we stayed for dinner, my grandmother walked us on the short path from the screened-in back porch to the shed to choose our flavor. We ate together at her tiny kitchen table, talking of everything and nothing, content and happy in our grandparents' care.
Many decades later that old house still holds my best memories of growing up. My grandfather loved us and we knew it, but it was my grandmother’s ordinary, consistent, and welcoming care that impacted us for life.
My sister, Paula, has a photograph of the two of us tucked into the wood framed bed we slept in when we spent the night. Just looking at that picture conjures up feelings of safety and my grandmother’s nighttime scent of Listerine and bath powder.
The places of our lives are a strong trigger for memories. As I stood at that fence so many years later, I breathed a silent, spontaneous prayer of overwhelming gratitude, Thank you, Lord, for giving me the shelter of this place and these people.
Since that day on my bike, I’ve thought a lot about shelter — it even became the theme of my talks for a retreat later that year. I explored our human hunger for shelter, becoming a shelter through our vocations, and creating physical shelters. The shelter my grandparents gave me made all the difference in a childhood marked with pain. While I knew nothing of it as a girl, I would grow up to have a calling that built on the hospitality my grandparents gave to me.
I am more and more convinced that part of the good work we can do in this life is to give shelter to each other, reflecting in small ways who and what God is for us, and learning what it means to be a hospitable people in the uniqueness of our individual stories. Hospitality to family, friends, and strangers is a way of life portrayed in the Bible and given as the best, most God-honoring way to live. Instead of hoarding, we’re called to share — to share resources, dinner tables, expertise, comfort, companionship, cups of coffee, beds, and couches. The realization that every good thing we have is a gift creates gratitude, and a view of hospitality as a giving way of life, rather than only an occasional evening of “entertaining.”
In the life of our family, hospitality has been a long obedience in the same direction, something we continue to learn and wrestle with year after year. In many ways a hospitable lifestyle has become second nature, but it’s never easily lived out. I’m an introvert who loves people and privacy. I need both to function well. But I’ve found there is no perfect balance in this life; instead there is grace in the tension.
I do have a longing for stability and a need to be deeply rooted to a spot on the map. This inclination has served us well. In this, Chuck and I look for kindred spirits, words from others that inspire our thinking and affirm the power of place. One day in my reading, I came across a passage in a favorite novel that struck me in its beauty.
In Wendell Berry’s story, Hannah Coulter, Hannah is a woman twice widowed who’s looking back on her life and sorting through her memories. Along the way she comes to tell of the house and land where she lived and farmed with her second husband, Nathan: “Sometimes I imagine another young couple, strong and full of desire, coming quietly into this old house that will be empty again of all that is of any use, and will be stale and silent and dingy with dust, and they will see it shining before them as Nathan and I saw it fifty-two years ago. And I say, “Welcome! Love each other. Love this place and use it well. Bless your hearts.”
For the last twenty years, our family has been stewarding a building and its land, loved and used well since 1910 when it was formally dedicated as the site of the Belleview Methodist Episcopal Church South. In 1969, the church moved to a new and larger building down the street and became the Bellevue United Methodist Church. There were some in-between years when the building was used for a variety of reasons other than church services. But eventually it became “stale and silent and dingy with dust,” with holes in the floor and ceiling. In 1978, Sybil and Lester Moore came along and purchased the church for their son to live in, but when he lost interest they moved in and began the long process of restoration, transforming the church building into their home. Sybil said that when her son lived in the place she would spend time there listening to classical music and drinking in the peace. That’s when she began to harbor a secret love affair with the old church.
Chuck and I understand completely. In 1990, the love affair was passed on to us. There have been times over the years when the overhead and sheer amount of labor to maintain things have been so overwhelming we’ve considered selling and running for our lives. But each time, our hearts and imaginations have been drawn back like a magnet. Since the very beginning, our pull to this place has been strong. After looking at the property for the first time, I wrote in my journal:
We looked inside the old church home today. Chuck and I both had intense emotional reactions to it. Is it the future home of the Art House and the future home of the Ashworths as well? We both feel yes to the first, and uncertain but leaning towards the second. There’s so much that seems perfectly fitted to us — the large kitchen, the walk-in pantry, the bookshelves that line the walls, the long dining table, all the different rooms, and the hardwood floor. So much could happen there.
What I meant was, a lot of good could happen, and though I could see it only dimly at the time, a calling began that’s been about what God would do with one family, in one place, if our lives were yielded to him. By God’s enabling and over many years, a lot has happened in our Art House years. Thousands of people have come through our doors for meals, overnights, conversations, retreats, weddings, to hear speakers and music, take classes, celebrate holidays, write songs, receive counsel, make music and record it, and attend parties and family dinners. In the midst of it all we’ve made a home, lived our marriage, raised our children, and now we welcome our grandchildren. All along, we’ve sought to create a shelter, a place that would mean something to our own family, but also make room for others. Like my grandmother did in her house, and Wendell Berry does through his own life and the lives of his fictional characters, we’ve tried to love our place and use it well.
In the beginning, it was extremely hard for me to adjust to life in a home that had so many different purposes. But with enough years, renovations, and experience, the old church has become the truest home I’ve ever known. I love the memory of the other houses we lived in when our children were growing up, each one holding a different part of our family history. But Chuck and I have lived in the Art House longer than anywhere else in our life, and the stories that have accumulated are part of our treasure.
At its essence, shelter is about people and place. Or as my husband always teaches, all the stories of our lives are about God, people, and place. It’s people who bring a place to life and make the intentional choices to create a shelter from whatever resources they have. And it’s God who moves among us, welcoming us to Himself, and asking us in turn to be a welcoming people. Eugene Peterson translates Romans 12:13 as, “be inventive in hospitality.” I love that. There is no cookie cutter way of doing things and no household that has the same callings to live out. In addition, there is no year in anyone’s life where the needs we come across will be the same as the year before.
In the last twelve months, the stories of our household have been unique to this year. It’s normal for us to have a steady stream of house and dinner guests, people working with us, being mentored, or passing through town on some business or another who need a place to stay. Yet this year has been particularly heavy in that regard. Hotel prices are prohibitive, and for some people weary of life on the road, just plain unwanted. A few weeks ago we housed a rock star for the night, a friend who could have easily afforded a hotel room, but who much preferred the warmth of a home with people in it. Sheltering travelers is a practice as old as the human race, as necessary today as it’s been throughout history.
Other stories from the past year include hosting a member’s retreat for the Wedgwood Circle, our niece’s wedding, and two house concerts. The first concert featured Jill Phillips, Andy Gullahorn, and Thad Cockrell, and the second was a concert/filming with Brooke Waggoner. The evening resulted in the beautiful and inspiring documentary, And The World Opened Up. Also in November, the current congregation from the Bellevue United Methodist Church came to visit and view the site of their original church building. It was part of their year long, bicentennial celebration, and they came with their own stories and memories to share.
View from behind our house.In April after the historic Nashville flood, due to its elevation on a small hill, our house was one of the few in our area of town that survived. The needs all around us were overwhelming and it was difficult to know where to start in offering help. We prayed for guidance and had a full house that first week, but subsequently became a part of providing a home base for our 82-year old friend, Betty. She lost most of her belongings and like hundreds of others affected by the flood, her home had to be gutted and rebuilt. The needs in Nashville after the flood were astronomical, but in the midst of the devastation a beautiful thing happened. People showed up in droves to help. Friends and strangers dragged ruined furniture and other soggy items to the street, brought sandwiches and water to the workers, and tore down moldy dry wall. Others opened their homes and offered shelter to those who’d lost their own. We were not the only people to host our friend, Betty. Other friends offered their homes, too, and she has moved among us, never without people who love her during this terribly difficult and disorienting time.
This picture from our Nashville community is a reminder to me of the way God has called us to live. No one can do it all. Each person has a role to play, gifts to share, and the particular needs of place and communities to consider and respond to. And everyone needs cycles of rest and refreshment.
In the coming months, Chuck and I are entering a time of sabbatical from overnight guests. In order to concentrate on other aspects of Art House hospitality and mentoring, we need a break from that particular form. In all our years of practicing hospitality we’ve learned that in order to continue offering it, it’s wise to rest when weariness sets in. We’re excited to enter a new season, and by God’s grace have new stories to tell.