The Hard Knock School of Hospitality

The loud knock on the front door at Manna House came shortly after I arrived. I had plugged in the coffee pots, put laundry in the dryer, and then sat down to start my morning prayer. I relish the thirty minutes or so of quiet before volunteers arrive in which I prepare space in my heart for hospitality. But the loud knocking was persistent. I reluctantly got up and went to the front door.

I could see a lone guest through the glass window to the side of the front door. I did not recognize him.

“We’re not open until 8,” I shouted through the glass without opening the door. 

The guest was not impressed by the information I had given him.

“I want some socks!” he shouted back to me through the glass.

Although I know opening the door opens me to more requests, I opened the door and said, “When we open at 8, I’ll be happy to serve you.” 

“Just a pair of socks!” he insisted. 

I closed the door and walked away. Past experience echoed in my head, “It is never just a pair of socks. I’ll bring the socks and then there will be another request, like ‘Just a shirt.” I listened to the voice of experience and I went into the laundry room and settled back in my chair. The knocking began again.

A long time ago, Ed Loring of the Open Door Community wrote a short book about offering hospitality and living in community. He titled it, “I Hear Hope Banging at My Back Door.” But on this morning, I did not hear hope. Maybe because the banging was at the front door. Or maybe because I was just bone tired.

I did not get up and go back to the front door. After a few more minutes, the knocking stopped.

I thought about the importance of accepting my limits. I need to recognize that I cannot serve everybody all the time. Yet, this was somebody at this one time. 

I thought about the importance of boundaries which give some structure to offering hospitality. Set hours of operation make hospitality possible as it allows time to prepare the space for hospitality. There must be times for material and spiritual preparation for offering hospitality.  The doors cannot be open all the time. Yet, I could have opened the door for a few minutes to give out “just one pair of socks.”

I wrestled with acceptance of my own finiteness and the importance of my resisting the sinful pride of being the savior, the one who always responds to need. 

I thought perhaps all of my thinking was really just a way for me to legitimate my sinful refusal to offer aid to the stranger who had knocked at the front door. If that was Christ in the stranger’s guise (Matthew 25:31-46) standing at the front door, I did not let him in and I did not give him a pair of socks.

I went back to the front door. There was no one on the porch. The stranger had left. I went back to the laundry room and sat down.

I opened my prayer book. If there is anything this work of hospitality teaches me over and over again it is that I am in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I do not know with certainty what the right thing to do was this morning. I do not know with certainty that what I did was the wrong thing. I do know with certainty that offering hospitality has its own moral perplexities and complexities. There is no moral purity in the work of hospitality. I am saved by grace, not by offering hospitality.

I also know with certainty that at 8 a.m. I opened the front door, along with a small but adequate group of volunteers. I know, too, that for the next three hours we together offered hospitality, including fresh socks for every guest. I also know that the person who was knocking did not come back.

The Fragrant Work of the Gospel

“I’m sorry I smell so bad.”

I had been approached by a guest in the backyard. He was wearing clothes that were wrinkled and dirty. This apology were the first words out of his mouth.

“You have no need to apologize,” I said to him, “How may I help you?”

“I need fresh clothes, underwear, pants and a shirt. I can wash up in a gas station bathroom.”

Then he apologized again, “I’m sorry I stink.”

“It isn’t you who should be apologizing,” I responded.

“If not me, who? I’m the one who stinks.”

“How about the rich, the powerful, the people who run this country. The capitalists and bankers and politicians. They’re the ones who need to apologize to you.”

Another guest standing nearby said, “Ain’t that the truth!”

I told the apologetic guest, “Meet me at the front door and we’ll get you set up with some fresh clothes and a shower.”

Earlier in the morning, when I had first arrived at Manna House, I went into the laundry room. I was greeted by the stench of shit. I traced the stench to one of our big black trash cans that serve as laundry baskets for the dirty clothes of those who shower. I sorted through the clothes and found the offending underwear. It is not unusual for the underwear of our guests to be soiled in this manner. No public restrooms combined with soup kitchen food leads to bathroom emergencies unmet. In other words, shit happens.

I thought of St. Paul and his famous metaphor of the Body of Christ. Paul once wrote how God the Creator, “has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as God wanted them to be.” Paul noted that “there are many parts, but one body.” And he continued, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.” 

Then he drew the theological and ethical conclusion, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Corinthians 12:18-26).

Paul reflected the insight and ethos of Jesus and the prophets. If one part of the body (a member of the community) stinks, it is up to the other parts to do something about it. Those other parts must not shame the part that stinks but do something to take away the stench. Like, give that part a shower and some fresh clothes. 

But Paul goes further. He names the cause of the stench. The stench is from the injustice and division that caused some to stink while others luxuriate in perfumed palaces. So, beyond a shower and a change of clothes, the very way all the parts of the body are related needs to be recognized and affirmed. Society needs to be structured so that the most vulnerable are treated with special honor. 

I would guess that Paul’s insight into a Gospel response to stench was connected to his knowledge of how Jesus responded to stench. You might recall the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus arrived days after Lazarus had died. When he commanded that the stone to the tomb be taken away, Martha the sister of Lazarus objected, “Lord, by now he stinks… It has already been four days” (John 11:39). Undeterred, Jesus had the stone removed and raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Jesus’ raising of Lazarus prefigured an even greater work by God. God moved beyond the resuscitation of Lazarus to the resurrection of Jesus. Those who came early to Jesus’ tomb after he had been crucified may have well expected a stench. Instead, of the stench of death there was the surprise of resurrection. God’s loving power raised Jesus from the dead. Easter calls us to this resurrection reality, and to the fragrant Gospel work of hospitality and justice so no one stinks.