On a beach near Borth-y-Gest during August 2021 a visiting family greeted us as we arrived by sailing dinghy. Once we had disembarked and stowed our buoyancy aids and lunch, the adults struck up conversation during which we discovered that our new-found friends had roots in Poland. Meanwhile one of the young girls in our family, and one of theirs, began to play in the sand together. Without the need of any language, they engaged in constructing some sort of miniature dwelling possibly part castle, part enclosure, part home. My hunch is that we were experiencing something close to the roots of hospitality. It was a spontaneous human reaction or interaction, assuming common values and without any need of introductions or planning.
Months later, on Easter Day 2022 (as will become apparent, this was the Western, rather than the Orthodox Easter, the latter coming a week later) there was another conversation also involving someone from Poland. It was several weeks into the War resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine beginning on 24th February 2022, and I was wearing a small Ukrainian flag. Over a cup of tea before Sunday lunch at Mill Grove, I was chatting with one of the residents: the Polish mother of two. By that time, while the first refugees were arriving in the UK with all the challenges of visas and administration, well over two million refugees from Ukraine had been welcomed in neighbouring Poland. Given this meant that a very high proportion of households and communities were likely to be involved in offering some degree of hospitality, my question was what the Poles might be feeling in their hearts. What motivated or prompted them to respond so generously and spontaneously?
After a pause for thought, she replied: “We all know how they felt. Every one of our families in one generation or another had experienced a similar invasion, so all understood what it is to leave your home at a moment’s notice, having to leave nearly everything behind, while fearing that you might never be reunited with belongings or home. When someone in that predicament is asking for help, it’s not something you think about or weigh up: it is a response from the heart.”
This reminded me of the time some decades earlier when one of the children living at Mill Grove had asked me with a good deal of feeling whether I really wanted to be there caring for her and others. It was the beginning of a lengthy period of introspection when I was forced to confront a range of emotions and identify and address all sorts of defence mechanisms. It was certainly not a simple matter, and I was rattled by the natural testing of a young person who was seriously probing my motives and commitment.
In a while we were sitting down with others in the Mill Grove family to a traditional English lunch, and while we were enjoying the meal, a couple of other residents were playing football just outside in the playground. (For the record, and not because it matters, one supports Liverpool, the other Crystal Palace.) With a relaxed meal inside, and contented play within earshot, it was a pleasing and uneventful time, and I was acutely aware that many in Ukraine would have envied the predictability and safety of our life together, not to mention the freedom to play outside, and the ample meal on the table.
This is when our Polish friend continued by making a link with what she had said earlier. “Mill Grove is a welcoming place”, she commented. “And life is different here. It is not part of the rat race.” I asked if this was something she felt, or whether it was a more objective reflection. She responded immediately that she had experienced and warmed to this acceptance, and alternative way of life. Pondering the possible connections between the summer play of the little girls on the beach, this current observation, and the generous hospitality of people in Poland, I reflected on how welcoming this woman had been when a mother and young child had come to live at Mill Grove. She was gracious and patient, accepting and encouraging of them both. And when they had needed to leave due to the mother’s ill-health, she had kept in touch. More recently she had assumed something very close to a proxy mother’s role to another resident at Mill Grove.
At the end of the meal, we opened Kinder Eggs and played with the little toys and gadgets inside. After another cup of tea, we painted eggs, and watched this mother and one of her two sons engage in a traditional painted egg contest, which she won easily. She then invited us to join her at the church where she worshipped the following week (the Orthodox Easter). They were hosting a meal and celebration for Ukrainian refugees in London. Ruth and I were already committed that day, but the resident of Mill Grove who had been “mothered” by our Polish friend did go. This was no small matter, as she had not attended church of any kind for a decade or more.
Something was going on that touched or affected us all. Mill Grove is an extended family or residential community that has welcomed well over 1,200 children (including some Hungarian refugees in 1956). since it began. It is manifestly a place of hospitality and is committed to operating in a way that is more inclusive than most nuclear families, institutions, and organisations.
There are lots of factors involved, and a history of nearly 125 years, but as I came to realise during the time of introspection I mentioned earlier, at its heart is a genuine empathy: rather than an “us” and “them”, or “we” and “others”, there is a tacit understanding and acceptance that beneath the surface and distinctions such as ethnicity, gender, status, age and culture, we have the same DNA.
It has often been remarked that young children accept others without question, but that as they grow up social and cultural distinctions begin to take shape and harden, stereotyping and labelling leads to the “othering” of those perceived to be different. Without suggesting a sentimental understanding of the worldview of children of early years, we have observed that this does seem to be the case more often than not. There is the obvious and necessary specific bonding and attachment between a very young child and her significant other, but this does not affect the general principle of welcoming and accepting others.
And it may not be incidental that with very early children it is by play and without words that this acceptance, this hospitality, takes place. For words and language by their very nature embody social, cultural and ideological traditions, and carry much baggage including stereotypes.
Before completing this piece, I discovered that one of our nearest neighbours who has just arrived, is a refugee from Ukraine. On meeting her for the first time it was not long before tears welled up in her eyes as she saw my little Ukrainian flag, and two larger flags in the front window of Mill Grove. She couldn’t say any more. It was just too painful. And that is a similar dynamic: hospitality, acceptance and welcome does not depend on analysis and definitions: there is “something understood” and shared between human beings. What unites us is deeper and more significant than differences.
This is not a matter of feeling or preference: it is, at a certain level, a fact however you want to define it. And young children need no introduction to this truth: it is part of the very nature of things, who they are, and who others are.
Which leads me to a final thought: I wonder whether such “hospitality” between those who welcome and accept each other across social, cultural and ethnic divides, is somewhere near the heart of therapeutic care and therapeutic communities. There will be assigned roles within such settings, but when all is said and done isn’t it about recognising our common humanity and shared roots? Somewhere in the life-story or family history of the carers there is the recognition of that which connects us to those we are seeking to understand and help. It is about person-centred dynamics, growth and healing, rather than a programme, manual or technique.