The Common Good
September-October 2003

The First Cup Is for The Guest

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 2003

Holy leisure and radical hospitality are necessary components for surviving the vicissitudes of empire.

Let me tell you a story about two cups of coffee. A few years ago in Cusco, Peru—capital of the 15th century Inca empire—I spent an entire morning searching for Edilberto Merida. Merida's clay crosses with an Inca Jesus writhing in agony defined a generation of Peruvian art—the people's art, the art of the real. Photos of his work were on the covers of books by theologians Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Everyone had heard of Merida, but no one knew where he lived. I was ready to give up when a man approached me. Are you lost, he said? I'm looking for the great artist Merida. He was astonished. I am Merida, he said, extending his large rough hands. Are you the sculptor who makes the crosses? I am he.

Señor Merida led me to his house wrapped around an open courtyard. Before taking me through the gallery he insisted on a small refreshment. With great ceremony he boiled water and milk on a gas ring. He mixed them with a coffee extract that looked like soy sauce. The coffee was served in a lovely china cup with a cloth napkin. He watched me with absolute delight as I drank in its rich aroma. It was delicious.

We spent the afternoon discussing his work, particularly "Mother Hunger"—a grotesque sculpture of a gaunt woman with her starving children pushing out through the prison of her rib cage. It was a conversation about life—and the process of "becoming children of God," as John's gospel puts it—disciplined, always, by the groans of those begging for, demanding, freedom.

THE SECOND STORY is from a Kosovar refugee camp outside Sarajevo. The people living there had their houses, businesses, and land stripped from them by Serb forces. Eighty-year-old Adem had lost 30 members of his family. "I am alone," he said. "Better I should have died than to be left like this." We were invited into a converted cattle barn where 40 families were living in curtained-off, 6-by-8-foot quarters. Crammed into the common kitchen, the men recounted in a detached manner how Serb irregulars had driven them at gunpoint from their homes.

The "artwork" in the refugee camp consisted of graffiti someone had scratched into a wall. It showed a teenage boy holding a gun to his own head. There was no doctor in the camp. The children were sick. One woman needed tuberculosis pills. They ate only bread and canned vegetables. The outhouses were overflowing.

I asked about the experience of the women, who stood outside of the ring of conversation holding their children. Hajrija, in her mid-30s, spoke up. She was angry. Words fired out of her. "How can I live with my neighbor who stood in our yard while I was hanging my laundry and described how she was going to kill me and my children? She was trying to decide between a mortar shell or sniper fire. How can I go back and live with this person?" Hajrija demanded that we do something. "Did you just come here to stir up this pain or are you going to help us?" Eventually, she began to cry. Her tears wouldn't stop.

Then I heard a clatter of dishes. The women had gathered together their rations and were making us coffee. They served it in chipped Turkish cups—the few items small enough to carry with them. I have never felt so ashamed in my life as when Hajrija not only poured me the last of her coffee, but offered the remainder of her sugar as well in a small red and white bowl. Her hands still shaking with anger and emotion, she gently touched my shoulder as she placed the coffee in front of me. "Drink," she said.

This haphazard community was born of bloodshed and betrayal. Yet they still had a habit of hospitality that, as Henri Nouwen says, transforms strangers into guests and allows them to "reveal to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them."

Holy leisure and radical hospitality are necessary components for surviving the vicissitudes of empire. This combination is not merely a social grace—it can be a matter of life and death. When imperial structures shift they disrupt, displace, and dehumanize many people. Empires make refugees and nomads of all but the most powerful. In this context, I remember the Bedouin honorific: "He is one who makes coffee day and night." Or that first century itinerant rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, still wet with resurrection, who said, "Come. Have breakfast."

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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