Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, liked to quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, from his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Loving humanity in the abstract is easy. Loving a particular person is hard. Serving “the homeless” is easy. Serving the guest who is consistently cranky and demanding is hard. I get reminded of these truths almost every single day we are open at Manna House.
In the Manna House neighborhood there is a man in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot wound he suffered several years ago. He is known as a low level drug dealer. He has a perpetual scowl on his face. The last time he was at Manna House (several months ago) he threatened to kill a volunteer. He was asked to leave, and only the pressure of many other guests sent him on his way. He is not a very pleasant person, to put it mildly.
He showed up last week and wanted to get on the shower list. Do we let him shower? After a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. He showered and got a fresh set of clothes to put on. As he was leaving he gave a hearty thank you to those who had served him. Even if he had not done so, it was still the right decision to offer him hospitality.
On Tuesday, a woman showed up who wanted to get on the shower list. She struggles mightily with mental illness. Her illness often renders her mean-spirited, foul mouthed, and generally difficult to work with in selecting clothing to change into after her shower. She’s probably been banned from the shower list six or seven times over the past two to three years. Do we let her shower? Again, after a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. She came in and did fine, not great, but better than other times. It was the right decision to offer her hospitality.
Saying “no” is another part of loving in the particular and concrete that is hard. It is never easy to say “no” to a request from a guest. Sometimes, however, love and hospitality require saying “no.” A guest approached me in the backyard. He asks for “special favors” almost every day he comes to Manna House. This time was no exception. On this Tuesday, his request was for a backpack. I explained that we give out backpacks on Thursdays to those on the shower list. He continued to plead his case. I continued to say, “no.”
How is this love and hospitality? Love for each person who comes to Manna House means ensuring that each is treated with equal respect. If getting something depends upon the quality of a story and ingratiating one’s self to the person who is purportedly “in charge” then some will be left out, some will be disrespected. Guests who are less mentally adept, less skilled at playing to my sympathy, less pleasant in look and or smell, are not treated with equal love and respect by such a system.
Further, such a system is not hospitality. Rather, it is a patronage system that simply reinforces power over and exploitation of those “in need.” It casts me in the role of “savior,” making me the one who decides on my own who gets what. This is ego-inflation, not hospitality. Hospitality gives to each person who comes what is made available for all through the community offering hospitality. There is a discipline to love that includes listening to and being obedient to this particular community of hospitality. That is a reality that is “harsh and dreadful” because it stings my ego.
A particular scripture helps me to see how love has to be made concrete and not left to an abstraction. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Or as Jesus put, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). God calls me to make my love particular, just as God did in becoming a particular human being in a particular time and place. My love has to take on flesh, or it is not love.