This past year my family of six packed up and moved 10,132 miles from our beloved hometown of Seattle to the captivating East African island of Madagascar. Despite the novelty and wonder of living in such an amazing tropical locale (which is also one of the ten poorest countries in the world), I find that occasionally I still end up on Pinterest, winding down at the end of the day by browsing interior design photographs and carefully curating my dream home, my ideal shelter.
Two nights ago I sat down on the couch and opened the Pinterest app, my nine-year-old son sitting next to me, and together we browsed the most stunning kitchens—bright and glittering, spotlessly clean, warm and inviting. I could feel my heart swell—oh, the natural light, the colors, the textures! I delighted, too, in my own fantasy of one day, perhaps, finding myself at home in such a kitchen, surrounded by loved ones, or simply by myself, baking while enjoying a hot cup of coffee and the delicious quiet of solitude. But my fantasizing heart hit a snag as I sat shoulder to shoulder with my oldest son after a day spent in the company of our neighbors—a family just like ours, except with five boys instead of four. These local friends of ours live with so few belongings and yet exude an abundance of uninhibited joy. My nine-year-old and I looked at the stunning photos on my phone, the ones that create that yearning for more, and spent time discussing, and marveling at, the goal-worthy dispositions of our Malagasy friends.
Earlier that same day I had spent a blissful half-hour at the house of these friends, just down the muddy road from where we live in Ambondrona, Mahajanga. Their home is a tiny one-room shack: mud and concrete walls with a tin metal roof. This small house traps the overwhelming, unrelenting daily heat of this region and has a dirt floor crawling with bugs of all sizes and a few chickens, too! There is no running water, no indoor toilet, and certainly no kitchen to speak of.
The Malagasy people have a saying: “In Madagascar people do not live life in their homes; they live outside, and sleep in their homes.” This is a true statement, at least as far as we’ve observed. But this in no way means that the people here are in any way lacking in hospitality. When I arrive at my neighbor friends’ house I am greeted warmly and with great joy, arms extended in greeting, eyes lit up and dancing. I’m immediately offered a chair on which to sit, brought outside and placed near the front door of my friends’ humble home, and my friends sit, too, eager to enjoy the spontaneous visit. If, by chance, I’ve arrived during a meal, which I did a few weeks ago, I am handed a bowl of rice and instructed to tuck in around the already crowded table. The meal is simple and small, but their hearts are generous and roomy, and the savory, homemade fish broth is spooned out for me over my rice, satisfying not only my lunchtime midday hunger, but also my great ongoing need for community and intimate care. I leave their home and their presence full in more ways than one.
And indeed, this is what shelter is: a place where one is nurtured, protected, given space to be. I may, in some moments, swoon over and crave a Pinterest kitchen, a whole Pinterest-worthy home, even! But I know deep in my soul, in my fully-awake and alive moments, that I can create a gracious, welcoming shelter of beauty and love wherever I am, with whatever I have. I may have nothing more to offer than a cup of cold water. But here, in Madagascar, that too is a tremendous gift, one never taken for granted.
These days I believe everyone—from Madagascar and all the way across the whole world back to America—is looking for a shelter of some sort. Yes, we may dream of homes filled with gorgeous, fashionable furniture and art, luxurious rugs, gleaming copper pots hanging in the kitchen. But. In the quiet moments where our souls can stretch and whisper their longings, we know unquestionably our hope for a place that is as humble and real as my neighbors’ house in Ambondrona—a place where strivings cease, where deep laughter bubbles up quick and light, where fear is held back by steadfast love—because the ones within know completely that they are welcome and wanted.
The images I scroll through on Pinterest pages may always be alluring, but my soul has experienced the profound satisfaction and joy of both being welcomed at and creating an inspired and malleable shelter, one that is custom-made for its inhabitants and doesn’t require four walls and a roof to be a secure and steadfast refuge from the storms and hardships of life. Here in Madagascar this means I will wash the calloused and still lovely feet of hard-working and barely noticed mothers who I’ve come to know and be known by, painting toenails with the sparkly gold polish picked out shyly from my collection. I will make tea for those who work faithfully, day after day, at our home caring for us, and I will always include copious amounts of the precious fresh milk and sugar they would never ask for, but which is never refused when offered. I will sit outside in the dirt, just to hang out, beside a friend who has a different color of skin, a different cultural reality, a different language, and I will push against the awkwardness of our differences and remain with the promise I hear beating in my heart: that by coming to this place I am both giving and receiving a gift of immeasurable worth and creating a space that becomes a shelter for both our souls.
Kristen Gough is a Seattle native living for a year in Mahajanga, Madagascar with her author-illustrator husband, Kyle, and their four young boys. She wrote this piece while nursing their youngest in a quiet house on a Friday evening after a lively afternoon teaching elementary-age missionary kids. The intentional creation of shelters for souls is Kristen’s calling and joy, as follower and friend of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who inspires this vision of shelter, he who models it for all in his Word, he who equips those he calls daily, and he who invites us, with unconditional love and an abundance of grace, to enter in.