23 November 2013

A place to stay for the night

Sometimes a place to sleep for the night is the most basic and obvious need that people come to the community with. Sometimes it's also the hardest one to meet. We, as a community, do not provide temporary or crisis housing. It is not that there isn't a need, it is more that filling this need would be too hard for all of us. The stress and all the change - the uncertainty and unsafe feelings brought on by it - is too much for our small group, with its desire to have more of a family atmosphere, to handle.

But saying no to someone needy is hard, especially when it's the last of a whole string of 'no's that they have been hearing. Christine Pohl's book Making Room records a statement from, I believe, a Catholic worker about the necessity and difficulty of saying no. 'How can one, after all, deny hospitality to a guest and not show hospitality thus to this incarnation of Christ (cf. Matt 25)? Yet, would our hospitality to this new person cause us to be inshospitable to all the other incarnations of Christ who are already among us?' 

It is strange to think of hospitality as sometimes closing doors instead of opening them. It feels like hospitality is about accepting everyone we can and doing all we can. Yet, sometimes hospitality is more complicated than that - it is also about giving space and safety to others and then guarding and protecting it (also for ourselves). I think the book When helping hurts, a book I hope to read some day soon, also talks about how hospitality and help is often quite complicated.

Even if I believe that it is best sometimes to say no, to deny one person hospitality in order to be hospitable to another, it is still hard to do. I still remember the woman I had on the phone last summer. It was Friday night, she had children, she'd been set out of the house she'd been temporarily (illegally) subleasing, and she had nowhere to go. "How could I be so unkind as to deny her hospitality? How could I simply let her and her children sleep on the street?" And the answer is that I couldn't justify it, really. If she'd had a plan for where she'd go and who she'd talk to after the weekend, I would gladly have said we could have made it work for the weekend. But on Monday we closed down, and we were all pretty exhausted. Over the phone she was doing her best to manipulate me to help her and becoming angrier as I refused to offer the hospitality she was looking for and thought she deserved. It felt that it could not be good to be so ungracious; after all, we had empty rooms and people available, at least in the weekend, to welcome and help her. How could I be so unreasonable? Yet, I believed that a different kind of hospitality was better, that of being hospitable to those in the community who did not have the energy to minister to her as they had said yes to so many others this past year and were now trying to rest and recuperate. But for this woman, it was still a no. Even if it was better, it was not good.

People will say that extending hospitality is hard, but I had not entirely expected this kind of hard: the hard of saying no, of choosing one kind of hospitality over another.

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