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.

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