On practicing Christian hospitality

My husband and I recently made the difficult decision to open our guestroom to a family experiencing homelessness in our community.

bedroom-by-Nicole-Steele-Wooldridge
Guests are welcome to Nicole’s “Jesus Room” (Photo courtesy of Nicole Steele Wooldridge)

We heard about a mother, father and their infant who were living on the streets and in dire need of help. A member of my husband’s congregation posted on Facebook that the family, whom she had known for quite a while, were looking for a place to stay. Though she herself would have loved to take them in, she had family visiting and no extra space in her house, so could someone please help?

I couldn’t ignore her desperate plea for somebody with a spare room to step up and get the family off the streets.

You see, we have a wonderful guestroom in our house and it just so happened to be unoccupied at the moment. Our guestroom is the “master bedroom” of the home, a converted garage with plenty of space and an en suite bathroom.

When we bought our house nearly five years ago, my husband and I envisioned this space to be our “Jesus Room.” In the spirit of one of our heroes, Dorothy Day, we wanted a dedicated hospitality room into which we could welcome Jesus in the form of “the least of these.” But the refugee resettlement organization I contacted regarding transitional shelter needs never followed through on their home inspection process … and our family and friends kept visiting … and our lives were busy.

Dorothy-Day
Dorothy Day

Eventually, the sense of urgency we’d felt to utilize the space for God’s poor subsided.

When I heard about the family living on the street, I knew this was our chance to finally make our guestroom a true Jesus Room. Here was an opportunity to practice the radical hospitality that we believe is fundamental to Christianity.

But, here’s the thing: I really didn’t want to.

As I scrolled through the Facebook post, hoping to no avail that somebody else would volunteer, I became increasingly apprehensive. I came up with an unholy litany of reasons to say no: Our house isn’t big enough for seven people; our schedule isn’t very flexible so we won’t be able to help them get to their appointments; I don’t want strangers sleeping in the same house as my two young daughters.

It’s reasonable, I think, to be hesitant to bring strangers into a home with young children. But, as I previously reflected, I don’t want to use my daughters as an excuse to abide complacently in my comfort zone. In my heart, I did not believe that allowing this family to stay in our guestroom would put my daughters in danger.

What, then, was my excuse? That it made me uncomfortable? Unfortunately, I concluded long ago that following Jesus is supposed to be uncomfortable.

So, my husband and I put the word out that this family could move into our guestroom. Since they did not have a working cell phone, we had to trust that their network of friends in the community would get the message to them.

Meanwhile, we frantically cleaned the house; we bought baby food, diapers and extra sandwich fixings; we came up with a plan for establishing appropriate boundaries with the family. On an impulse, I hid our iPad, and hated myself a little bit for doing so.

And then we waited.

For most of a week we wondered when and, eventually, if the family would arrive. Finally, they showed up at a community supper and we learned they’d found some other friends to stay with.

They would not be needing our Jesus Room after all.

I was both immensely relieved and acutely disappointed. On the one hand, our daily routine would not be disrupted. On the other, we hadn’t gotten to practice the Christian hospitality we so revere (at least in theory).

Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what it truly means to “practice hospitality.”

It’s not something I’m naturally good at (as demonstrated by my knee-jerk reaction of finding reasons to say no), but this experience has helped me to practice hospitality—to practice preparing my home for a stranger, to practice making the decision to step out of my comfort zone, to practice being welcoming in a Christ-like way.

And, as with anything, the more we practice the better we become.

Not only do I feel a renewed sense of urgency to make a Jesus Room out of our guestroom, I feel confident that when I’m faced with another opportunity to “welcome the stranger,” I will be less hesitant to say yes. Perhaps, one day, I’ll even be able to say yes with a fully cheerful heart as Paul instructs us, in 2 Corinthians 9:7, to do.

Until then, I take comfort in the knowledge that—while I am a far cry from a perfect Christian—I am at least a practicing one.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s who writes from the Seattle, Washington, area. Her Jesus Room is still just a guestroom … for now.

counter-culturally powerful

Yesterday I asked a section of my students to raise their hands if they thought power is something God gives us.  Only half of the students raised their hands.  When I asked the other half what they thought they spoke about how power is something people earn because of their success.  “If we are all children of God, aren’t we equal?” I asked.  Not really, I was told, status sets us apart.

I believe that the electric energy of equality has the power to unite all.

"Light's great uniting power" By Sister Julia Walsh, FSPA

Within the core Christianity is a belief that all people are children of God. We are all made in God’s image and likeness, we are all people of dignity.  Everyone is holy and is worthy of honor.  God is alive within all of us.  Although our diversity helps us all to be more whole, no one is better than anyone else.  God sees as us equals and loves us all equally.

But then there’s the way society sees it.  Common culture tells us a totally different story.  Before we can read, we learn about winning and losing.  Competition is fun.  From a very young age we are taught that success and achievement are about accomplishing more, having more and earning more.  In the dynamics of capitalism, we base power upon wealth.  The rich and powerful seem to perpetually oppress the poor and powerless.  Perhaps it is because of this that we blame the poor for their problems and we are convinced that the rich are powerful because they deserve it.  Competition and consumerism connect with our experiences of power.   The fanfare of the Super Bowl is a manifestation of these attitudes.

The principles of non-violence imply that all people have the same power. No one is actually more powerful than anyone else,  just as in the eyes of God no one is better than anyone else.  The problem is that power is abused, misused, misunderstood and unknown.  Those who are more wealthy begin to believe they have the power to control, lead and guide. Those who are poor haven’t experienced the wealth and goodness of their own power.  We don’t really need to empower others, we need to encourage them as they desire to unleash the power they already have.

As we try to be faithful Christians, the tension between God’s ways and the world’s ways seems to keep us moving in circles.  When we want to experience what power really means we look to Jesus for grounding and growth.  The early Christians had some pretty good ideas about all this:

“Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. You know the word [that] he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..”   -Acts 10: 34-36

We know Jesus loves all.  Jesus has been with us through our highs and lows.  Jesus’ humility is power’s true way.  Into the broken, hurting, bleeding cracks of creation Christ is crying.  He’s with us and showing us what is real.

Powerlessness and being powerful blend together in a place of true humility.  We know we are nothing without God and this knowledge sets us free.  As we bend to God’s power, we are enlivened for God’s good mission.  We’ll build unity so that status no longer sets us apart.  Energized to be together, we love like Christ loves: with great humility.  May it be so, amen, indeed.

Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.

surrendering

Lately my spirit has been contemplating what it really means to be poor and surrender all. If I admit that nothing at all is mine, and truly everything is God’s, then what will become of me?  If I give up my possessions and follow Jesus, certainly my life shall be transformed. But, what if I also give up my dreams, desires, hopes, pride, ideas, time, preferences, feelings and thoughts?  Nothing at all is mine, all is gift that is temporary and belongs to God. I am asked to pass the gift.

Maybe the the surrendering will  transform me.  Can I stop clinging from the outcomes that I desire too?  Can I truly be open and trust? Will I let Love lead the way?

This land is whose land?

It’s the 4th of July. Throughout the land folks will parade around with flags and explode fireworks, all because the USA gained some independence back in 1776.  I suspect that they’ll be some good old-fashioned patriotic pride and we wouldn’t have to listen to carefully to hear someone proclaim that the USA is the best country in the world.

But, is the USA really that great?

It is  ancient and modern wisdom that a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.  Jesus taught us to put the littlest first, to make the vulnerable our priority. Yet, the USA has the greatest gap between the rich and poor of any industrialized Western nation.  The rich keep getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and more people are becoming poor.  For a nation wanting to boogie down to patriotic party music, it’s not exactly good news.  We’re not really that great, after all.

As I’ve told you before, I am not a fan of patriotism. Even so, I’ll be singing a song about our country today.  

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie is one of my favorite songs.  I used to sing it as a traveling song. But the meaning and power of the song changed for me a few years ago, after I spent a year working with some of the most vulnerable in our nation: homeless and parenting youth.   At the end of my year as a Jesuit Volunteer in California I was introduced to the last verses of the song and the words sent chills down my spine.  I never learned these words when I studied the song in elementary school, probably because I would have asked the music teacher too many tough questions:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Which land? Whose land?  What’s going on? What are we doing?

Questions, questions. I have so many!

As we work for real greatness- as we work to build the Kingdom of God-  what are the questions we need to be asking?

How many people are lined up in invisible bread lines?  What is wrong with how we operate as a society that poverty is getting worse?  Why does this wealth gap grow?

What does our faith have to do with it?  What are our churches doing? Are we praying for the poor and working for justice?   Are the poor getting relief in our churches and from our faith communities?  What will it take for us all to work together so that our country is so great that we can teach other lands how to justly treat the poor?  How are we we to build the Kingdom of God?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Maybe the answers all have to do with Love.