I walked towards the main hub of Bern central station and saw my friend Caleb standing with a group of three strangers. One of the three flagged me down and introduced himself as Sam.
“So you’re the one we’re staying with?” I asked.
“Yep. Welcome to Bern,” he said with a warm smile. Sam introduced me to his friends Benji and Gardner and then tossed me an umbrella.
This was my first couchsurfing experience. The concept is a little strange, but basically you go online to couchsurfing.org, create a profile, and then find someone with a spare couch in a city you’re traveling to. Caleb and I had found Sam ‘s place on the website and sent him a surfing request. A week later, we were staying with Sam in Bern for the weekend.
As our newly composed posse of five trudged through the stormy night, I asked Sam where we were heading.
“A local place.” He responded casually. After a couple of minutes, we stopped in front of a massive old barn covered in colorful street art.
“Welcome to the Reitschule.” Sam explained. “This used to be an old abandoned horse-riding school until it was taken over by some anarchists in the 80’s.”
“What happened after the anarchists moved out?” I asked.
“Oh, you don’t understand.” Sam grinned. “They’re still here.”
We walked through wooden double doors into the massive old barn packed with people. Benji and Mark grabbed us some stools near the corner while Sam greeted everybody in sight. They were regulars here.
We sat down and started to talk. I asked about the Reitschule and learned more about the fascinating building. It was a community center of sorts claiming its own bar, restaurant, cinema, wood-working shop, conference room, and even a few apartments. Sam looked at me and asked how I liked the place. I told him I liked it a lot. He kept looking at me and his expression became more serious, like he was about to say something important.
“Everybody is welcome here.” He turned on his stool and gestured towards the crowds. “Everybody.”
“Yeah, even the people they don’t let into other bars. Crazy people, alcoholics, everybody.” His friend Benji quipped in.
“Yeah, everybody. Except for Nazis and cops.” Gardner added. Sam nodded in agreement.
“That’s cool. Very cool.” I said quietly while surveying the room.
And it was cool. Every type of person filled the massive space. There must’ve been 500 people in the recycled old barn. Young professionals in tight grey khakis with skinny black ties, rowdy teenagers with gaged earrings and black denim jeans, tired old men with grey beards and tattered clothes. Some people smoked in the corners. Others played ping pong on a makeshift table. Anti-FIFA shirts were for sale above the bar, protesting Brazil spending billions on soccer stadiums when millions of Brazilians live in extreme poverty.
We chatted with our Bernese hosts at the bar for an hour or so, getting the low-down on everything from Swiss chocolate, to the country’s unique direct democracy political system, to the Bernese bear pit (Yes, Bern has a bear pit. So both the best university and the best city in the world have bear pits. Sic ‘em.) Benji, Gardner, and Sam were awesome. They thought deeply about the world and cared deeply about the people in the world. They were that rare combination of intellectual and kind, pausing to think before they said things and yet not taking themselves too seriously.
Despite the fascinating conversation with our new friends, the ten hours of train travel that day started to wear on Caleb and myself. Sam noticed and asked if we wanted to head back to his place. We nodded.
“Here’s the key to the flat. Make yourselves at home.” Sam sketched us a crude map to his apartment on a napkin. “In the morning, there’s cereal in the cupboard and milk in the fridge. Oh, and feel free to use my computer.”
Here was Sam, somebody we met two hours ago, giving us the key to his house and telling us to make it our own, use his things, eat his cereal. So this is what it means to be welcomed in.
The next day was a dream. Sam’s place in Bern was a launching pad towards the beautiful Swiss Alps. Saturday morning, Caleb and I hiked from the Lauterbrunnen Valley to Mürren, a charming little mountain town perched in the shadow of the Jungfrau mountain. On the way down, we spotted a waterfall close to the trail and took turns standing underneath the icy mist. We came back to the flat that night and Sam took us to another local place. This one was even more remote, funky, and, of course, welcoming.
On Sunday, the dream continued. Sam, Benji, Caleb, and I put real Swiss cheese(yes, there’s a difference) on our scrambled eggs, drank Italian dark-roast, and blared Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks from the stereo. Benji and Sam were convinced that Texas was a state filled completely with gun-bearing, boot-wearing cowboys, so we decided to feed that stereotype.
After brunch, they took us to the Aare river. Benji parked up on the street, and we walked down to the river’s banks. The water was deep turquoise and see-the-bottom clear, like the water in those Caribbean vacation advertisements. It was easily the most beautiful river I’ve ever seen.
“So what do we do now?” I asked.
“We swim it.” Benji replied with a playful smile. We placed our stuff on the bank and walked a mile up the path along the bank of the swift-moving river to a pedestrian bridge. After asking a million questions about how to not die while floating the Aare, I climbed up on the bridge’s railing, said a quick “YOLO” under my breath, and cannon-balled fifteen feet down into the river below.
I floated briskly down the cool, blue river, pinching myself a few times in between swim strokes just to make sure that floating this idyllic lazy river in Switzerland wasn’t a dream. All types of people, gym junkies with chiseled muscles and grandmas with arm wrinkles, drifted down the current alongside me. Just like the rest of Bern, everyone was welcome to float the Aare.
After we exited the Aare, the dream ended. It was time to go home. We exchanged hugs and headed towards the train station. During goodbyes, our host Sam got the last word of goodbyes.
“You’re welcome back anytime.” He said with a big smile.
I’m convinced that there’s no better way to show love to the people around us than a party invitation or an open couch to sleep on. Sam and his friends did that for us in a big way this past weekend. Our new friends welcomed us in and shared their lives with us, and the result was an incredible weekend.
Our time in Bern made a big impression on Caleb and I. It made us want to share our things more. It made us wonder if we were doing it wrong, holding our possessions and our money too tightly with clenched fists.
Sam’s radical hospitality was awesome. He opened his apartment to us, shared his local stomping grounds, and gave us free access to the cereal and milk. It was pretty awesome. But if a weekend’s free lodging is the only reason I’ve got to welcome others, well, that gift doesn’t keep on giving too far down the line.
But here’s the bigger reason to welcome others and hold our possessions loosely. The reality of Jesus is that, through faith, WE HAVE BEEN WELCOMED. He invites us into His Kingdom. He calls us Beloved. Every good and perfect gift comes from Him. The list of good news goes on and on and on. His hospitality puts the nicest bed and breakfast to shame, and his gift-giving makes Santa look like Ebenezer Scrooge.
That gift, the gift of the Gospel, keeps on giving. Because of Jesus and what He has done, we look at our things differently. We see that the value of our possessions, our money, and our homes lies in our ability to bless others with these gifts. We have houses to host and welcome others. we have money to provide for the needs of others, and most importantly, we have the Good News of Jesus to share with others.
Join me in remembering the Good News, that He came and died and rose again so that we could be welcomed. This truth fuels us to radical hospitality, to sharing and giving and welcoming in a way that’s anything but ordinary.
Also, if you’re looking for a couch to surf, there’s a new listing up in Waco. Click here if you need a place to stay. In the words of Sam, “you’re welcome anytime.”