Thursday, June 02, 2011

Column: Courageous hospitality

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 2 June 2011.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me. Mt 25:35-36

Market East Station at 10 pm at night is eerily empty. It’s always felt like a bustling and chaotic space to me, as I expertly thread my way through a crowd to catch a rush-hour train home after a day in spent in a quiet archive downtown. Now I feel like I’m awkwardly negotiating a gauntlet of misery, and am glad of the tall young man walking protectively at my side.

A wiry bearded man in his twenties confronts us as we emerge from the stairway onto the platform, “I’ve had a tough day and need some help.” As we sit on a bench to await the train, an older gentleman, his short hair peppered with gray, bends over to whisper, “M’am, can you help me? I need to find something to eat.”

Typically urban encounters, I know. And still, I wonder how to respond to these voices — and how I will respond to Christ when He asks me, “Tell me how you cared for me.” At one level, I want to help, to immoderately empty my purse of what it contains: chocolate, water bottle, money, breviary. Food, drink, security. Prayer.

But frankly, I worry about my own responsibility to my children and husband to be safe. So I usually don’t respond at all, staring ahead as if I do not hear, immersing myself in what I am reading, or, as I do this evening, remaining steadfastly focused on the conversation I am having with Mike. But I have heard, I am aware, I am attending.

Practically, I understand what advocates for the distressed and marginalized recommend, to support trusted organizations, which can dependably and effectively deploy resources to help. And I do, but my conscience still bothers me. How does Christ wish me to respond in these difficult circumstances?

C. S. Lewis struggles eloquently with this question in his sermon, “Weight of Glory,” preached in an Oxford church at the height of World War II, at a moment when relationships between neighbors were inarguably fraught. Lewis closes with the observation “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

The Church, too, understands our conflicted nature. In one of the sets of intercessions prescribed for Morning Prayer we pray: “Forgive us for failing to see Christ in the poor, the distressed and the troublesome, and for our failure to reverence your Son in their persons.” If, as Lewis suggests, our neighbor is the holiest object we encounter aside from Christ in the Eucharist, this might be the most difficult thing asked of us as Christians: not to see Christ in the poor, or help him in the distressed, but to reverence Him in the troublesome. Not tolerate. Reverence.

Seriously, try contemplating the reverence due to Christ the next time someone steals your parking spot at the grocery store on a rainy day. I find it stunningly difficult. It is at least consoling to know the Church recognizes that I do fail of having this attitude as a matter of course, and prays for us all: forgive us this failing.

Sometimes when my sons ask me for something, they also ask me to skip the motherly lecture and give them a simple, “yes” or “no.” It reminds me that “no” is a response that acknowledges the dignity of the supplicant. It may not be prudent to empty out my purse to a pleading stranger in the station, but perhaps I can at least acknowledge the dignity of the person asking and say, “no.” It is but one small step toward reverence, but one the Church herself prays I can make.

May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.

— Fr. John O’Donohue in “To Bless the Space Between Us”

For another take on this issue, see Googling God's post on loneliness.


  1. I live in a country that is a sea of poverty, in which I am one of the wealthy (comparatively speaking ) and likewise wrestle with how to react to those who make a direct approach for help. Safety and my commitment to my own family always tug against emptying my wallet.

    You give me another perspective ... I can give dignity and attention by the way I respond even if I am saying No.

  2. I called Project H.O.M.E.'s Street Outreach ( to check in on my instincts.

    Safety depends on the circumstances (surprise!). It is usually a safer and better option to give food than money--not only is it more personal, but it offers a lift to someone who might not be willing to seek shelter. If it seems like it might be helpful, one can also offer directions to nearby shelters.

    For those in the Philly area, you may want to call the Street Outreach team: . They try to build relationships with those who are homeless around the city to offer assistance and gradually encourage them to enter a shelter.

    I may not be the best gauge, and I'm not sure how one would substantiate, but I don't see/do not experience (one scenario) buying a cup of coffee or a sandwich for someone in a well trafficked area with many people around as particularly unsafe.

  3. Also, just carrying a sandwich or fruit or a water bottle, if you don't want to show your wallet, has worked for me. It requires more time/attention, but that is part, I think, of changing one's mentality.