The Gift of Smallness

Lately, Jesus, Dorothy Day, and St. Therese of Lisieux have gone to work on my soul. I had succumbed to the deadly “bigger is better” and “busier is better” viruses. There were mornings at Manna House when I wondered if it was worth our even staying open. Given the risk to ourselves and to our guests, and the small amount of hospitality we were offering, should we even keep our reduced schedule of two mornings a week, from 8:00-10:000am?

Part of this questioning no doubt came from my sense of the paucity of what we were offering compared to the “glory days.” Pre-pandemic we were open three mornings a week from 8:00-11:30am. Typically, we would manage twenty-five or more people for showers, fifty-one or more for socks and hygiene, and three to four hundred cups of coffee served to several hundred guests. Now we had two mornings a week from 8:00-10:00am, six people for showers, maybe thirty for socks and hygiene, and a hundred or so cups of coffee for maybe sixty guests all total.

Part of my questioning also came from the slower pace for myself at Manna House. With fewer guests, on many mornings I found myself with a significant amount of “down time”—when there was little or nothing to do but wait for another person to finish his shower, so the next guest could be called in.

I know I was also mourning not only the reductions in service, but also the loss of relationships with people on the streets and others who came to Manna House each day we were open. Those relationships relied upon offering a place where it was comfortable to come and hang out. With our limitations on going into the house (one person at a time for use of the bathroom, and one person at a time for showers), we did everything else outside, including the coffee serving and “socks and hygiene.” It was not that comfortable for hanging out. For the people with a place to stay, the choice to stay away was easy. And many of the people on the streets likely found warmer places to go. In either case, the community at Manna House was smaller.

In my mourning and questioning, I heard the voice of Jesus say, 
“‘Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.’
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn and sad.”

And I listened as I rested, and Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18–19).

Then I heard Dorothy Day say, “by little and by little,” we are made whole by the small things, chosen deliberately and repeated each day in the service of the poor.

Then I heard St. Therese of Lisieux say that I should seek the “Little Way” in which “What matters in life is not great deeds but great love.” The key is not performance but relationship.

In the spirit of the little way of the mustard seed, Jesus, Dorothy, and Therese called me to embrace the gift of the smaller, the slower, the fewer. In this gift, I have space for practicing the presence of God. At Manna House this means I can slow down and recognize God’s presence in each guest as “Christ comes in the stranger’s guise” (see Matthew 25:31-46). When I am not so rushed, I can see each person’s dignity, and listen more carefully to each person. I can also take the time to sit for conversation.  

On Thursday, this gift of the smaller meant I sat down with a couple of guests, one black and one white. I listened to their stories about when they were younger. I was gifted as I saw their eyes brighten and smiles come across their faces as they reminisced about growing up in the country. They had simple stories about hunting, swimming, and taking care of “chores.” For a few minutes we were all in another place, a smaller place, a simpler place. Bigger and better took a back seat to the beauty of being with each other. And it was good.

2 thoughts on “The Gift of Smallness

  1. Loved this reflection! I too am feeling this smallness in our ministry in New York with refugees.
    Just wish the skin color of the guests did not have to be mentioned…chatting with two guests is all I needed to know.

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    1. Thank you Sister and thank you for your work with refugees. I mentioned the skin color only because here in Memphis at least it is rare for black and white people to sit down together and talk about what they have in common, in this case, a shared upbringing in a rural area.

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