The stack of plates next to the sink had bits of dried cheese and other unidentifiable foodstuff stuck to them. A frying pan and a couple of saucepans were soaking in dirty dishwater in the sink, along with handfuls of cutlery. Unwashed drinking glasses were colonizing next to the dirty plates. I had just recovered a couple more from the living room where they had been abandoned, water rings left behind on the garage-sale end tables.
The house was quiet. The students who weren’t still sleeping in their bedrooms were scattered across campus, attending class or studying in the library.
And I was annoyed.
Nearly a quarter century ago, I spent four years living in community with college students. When I accepted a campus ministry position as a co-director of a co-ed discipleship house in Erie, Pennsylvania, I had idealized notions of what that would look like. These ideals were founded on my own experience a few years earlier, when I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college living in Ocean City, New Jersey, in a co-ed house with fifteen other Christian college students and four campus ministers.
We shared a house and we shared meals. By day, we worked in souvenir shops and pizza parlors, or we cleaned hotel rooms or mowed lawns. In the evenings, we took turns leading Bible studies and learning from teachers who visited each week to help us grow in our faith and our leadership abilities. All of this while living a couple blocks from the beach.
We laughed and learned and flirted and grew in our relationships with one another and with the God we were getting to know better. For two months, we experienced the very best parts of living in community. And then we tearfully said goodbye and returned to our families and our different college campuses.
When we parted ways, we were barely out of the honeymoon stage.
Two years into being a campus minister and a “house mother”—at age 24—the honeymoon was definitely over.
I was now one of the adults, living with students who had varying motives for living in this house. For some, it was an opportunity to live with other Christian students and to grow in faith and learn how to share that faith with their peers. For some, it was an inexpensive alternative to the university’s residence halls or campus-owned apartments. And for others, it was a combination of the two.
Dirty dishes were the tip of the iceberg. There were so many more issues below the surface.
We were a motley crew. Protestants and Catholics and agnostics. Republicans and Democrats and independents. Young women and men transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, and two campus ministry “house parents” who did not have much of an age advantage but were trying to help these students to ask good questions and figure out who they were and who they were becoming.
This was no two-month adventure at the Jersey shore with relatively like-minded people. This was nine months of classes and midterms and finals and debates about whether the TV should be tuned to CNN (the general preference of the international students) or MTV (the rest of the students) or shouldn’t be turned on at all (the house directors).
It was difficult for some of us to resist the temptation to keep an hour-by-hour mental tally of who cleaned up after themselves and who did not.
For much of my time in that house, I disregarded the importance of the mundane, day-to-day, messy business of living life together. My focus was on house dinners and Bible studies and philosophical conversations. These were important. But my passive-aggressive response to dirty dishes and TV channel disagreements contributed to the mess—and dismissed real opportunities for growth and identity formation.
I wish someone had shared with me back then that the secret to a healthy community living environment is being willing to put up with each other’s messes.
Or better yet, to pitch in and help clean them up.