Reflections of a Nightwatch Guest

It's a rare opportunity when you get a chance to hear directly from one of our Nightwatch guests.

Harold Nelson regularly comes to our SE Hospitality Center. He also attended his first spiritual retreat with us in June. At the end of the retreat we invited all our participants to write an evaluation of Nightwatch to give us a sense of how we were doing and if they felt there was anything we needed to improve. Harold's evaluation stood out for its sincerity and articulateness. (We shared it with you a few weeks ago.)

Someone suggested we ask Harold go on camera and read his peace. Believing that to be an inspired idea, we took the idea to him and he was more-than-happy to volunteer.

Before we turned the camera on, we told Harold he was free to ad-lib if he wanted to, and he did go off on a couple of riffs you may enjoy. 


 

The Great Depressed

Last week I had a flashback to the time I once spent on a sabbatical in Palestine. Remarkably, what stirred the memory was not the awfulness on the news of what is currently going on in Gaza.

Rather, what prompted it was a pile of trash I saw scattered in a doorway on way into the office one morning , the detritus left by someone who had obviously used the spotrough sleepers to sleep the previous night. The sleeper himself was gone, but he had left the litter of his stay behind. “At least he could have picked up after himself,” was the thought that immediately flashed to my mind.

And then I thought of Palestine.

The Palestinian people as a whole are desperately poor. David Hare in his play Via Dolorosa describes the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories as being the only place in the world where you can literally cross the street and step from a modern technological society into a Third-World country. He is not engaging in hyperbole. It’s exactly like that. I vividly remember my first day in East Jerusalem when my Israeli cab driver refused to drive me to my hotel on the Mount of Olives because it was a Palestinian neighborhood and I had to take out all my gear and haul it myself there. Once I crossed the former “Green Line” everything changed: whereas the well-paved Israeli streets were canyoned by condos, everything beyond was potholed and worn. The yards of the homes I saw held piles of discarded things—rusted 50-gallon drums, car chassis, and random litter. It was like a Middle-Eastern Appalachia.

The link between the mental connections I was making—homeless site, Palestine, Appalachia—was trash. But not trash in-and-of-itself. The connection was the common tendency of impoverished people across cultures to be careless about picking up their trash, carelessly leaving their discards wherever they were finished with them. We see this even on a micro-scale at our Hospitality Centers where guests might depart with a half-eaten sandwich and a barely-sipped cup of coffee left at their places without walking them to disposal spots ten feet away. (Not that all guests do this, any more than all poor people live surrounded by their own garbage—while on my sabbatical I stayed with a number of Palestinians whose homes, while lacking many things, were kept immaculately clean.)

Animals instinctively do not foul their own nests. So as I continued on my way to the office, I asked myself, “What would make this contrary behavior so common among those who are poor? To not take care of oneself and the environment that’s an immediate extension of oneself is the symptom of a depressed person . . .”

Bingo! An “aha!” moment!

Arriving at my office, I went online and googled “poor” and “depression.” What popped up as the top search result? “Depression Disproportionately Affects Those In Poverty, Report Finds.” The study by Gallup and Healthways indicated that twice as many of those below the poverty line reported themselves as having depression as those who were not. Whether it was poverty that caused the depression or depression the poverty could not be determined. The fact is that it affected one-in-three poor people. Furthermore, the study demonstrated that, of all illnesses suffered by the poor, depression hit them far more than any other.

The “aha!” moments kept coming. For all my years at Nightwatch, I hadn’t considered that for all else that our guests were suffering, a good number of them were needed to cope with it while slogging through the sloughs of depression. This created a new understanding. It would certainly color the way I would now approach them. They certainly needed listeners, and more patience than even I had previously granted.

And it further stressed to me just how vital a place like Operation Nightwatch is. Feed someone who is poor and get him into a shelter, and you’re doing a good thing. But it is not enough. Not when we see they’re still fouling their own nests.

What they need to know is that they are not alone.

What they need to know is that someone cares.

Once Was Lost, Now Is Found

Ha!

Last week I wrote about a piece I was curious about that I had written some time ago on the topic of generosity and hospitality. The piece was apparently being circulated in a number of venues and people were commenting favorably about it, but I couldn’t remember it and no copy remained in my files. What had I written that could possibly have proved so appealing?

So I speculated about what an essay of mine on “generosity and hospitality” might possibly look like. In effect, I wrote a completely new piece, concluding, “Perhaps someday I’ll get a copy of thing I wrote that everyone else is reading,” and see exactly how closely the two had matched.

Well, guess what? This week, “The Nature of Hospitality”—the actual name of the surprise lettercelebrated piece—appeared in my mailbox, cloaked in an unlikely garment. It appeared as a page in the monthly newsletter of the monthly newsletter of the Zion United Church of Christ in Gresham, a church where I’ve done an occasional sermon. (Yet another venue in which the essay is being passed around!)

And double guess what? It looks nothing whatsoever like the speculations I posted last week. It doesn’t contradict any of my most recent musings about generosity and hospitality, but it takes the topic on a completely different tack.

And while I said last week that I’m sure I must have also quoted Henri Nouwen in there somewhere, here too I was wrong. It turns out I quoted Jean Vanier instead.

Without further ado, here’s what everyone else has been reading:

 

There is a significant distinction between generosity and hospitality. Generous people are certainly to be commended, for after all, they are distinguished by the good they do for others. However, generous people do not ordinarily distinguish themselves by equalizing the power between themselves and the ones they help. They do their good deeds from an elevated place, blessed as they are with power, wealth, talent, and influence; but they do little to sacrifice that place itself. Elizabeth Newman writes, "While they do good deeds for others, they do not receive from them. They are not vulnerable to love."

Hospitality, in contrast, is not devoted to "doing for" others; rather, its focus is on "being with" others. As the phrase "being with" implies, it requires a leveling of distinctions; the interaction is no longer simply one-way. The emphasis is not so much on giving, as it is on sharing.

Needless to say, because of a difference in circumstances, what a host and a guest have to share with each other may not be of the same nature. The host may excel in material wealth, while the guest may be seriously deficient in that area. Nonetheless, hospitality affirms that the guest may be blessed with abundance in other areas in which the host is deficient: talent, or insight, or life experience.

From this perspective, offering mere generosity is easy-you give, and that's it. The challenge posed by hospitality, however, lies in learning that it is just as important to learn how to receive as to give. The focus of hospitality is not so much on giving, though it does involve that, as our receiving from the other whom we learn to see as gift.

To become an emissary of hospitality is finally to arrive at this understanding; that, as unlike us in behavior, habit, and appearance, as those we meet on the streets might be, we still...

... have a common spirituality of humility and presence, close to the poor and the weak; a common call to be with others, not to change them, but to welcome them and share their gifts and their beauty; to discover in them the presence of Jesus-Jesus, humble and gentle, Jesus, poor and rejected. (Jean Vanier)

And in this lies the grace of it all, making the offering of hospitality itself a spiritual process. In opening ourselves to others, not only as givers but as receivers, too, our lives become transformed.

Recreating Generosity and Hospitality

Hi Gary,

You do not know me - I am a volunteer at St Andre's in Portland. I want to thank you for a wonderful handout I was given at St Andre's last week [i.e., St. Andre Bessette Church, also known as “Downtown Chapel”] - written by you. Your descriptions of Generosity and Hospitality really grabbed me, they were so explanatory. I now have a much deeper understanding of Hospitality - and needed that deeper understanding - so thank you very much for writing about it. Connecting with others is so important - for us as well as them, that truly this is what life is about - sharing and caring.

Sincerely,

Margaret J—

 

I received this email last week. And while I replied to Margaret to thank her for her kind words, I didn’t tell her that I honestly didn’t remember the piece she was referring to. This happened a lot while I was still preaching. A parishioner would approach me to say, “I really appreciated what you said a couple of weeks ago,” and I would have to respond, “Remind me again what it was I said?” My mind was always focused on the next piece I was working on; I never considered anything I wrote as good as my next sermon.

 

But Margaret’s email struck a chord within me. I remembered Jeremy Marks, our former Jesuit Volunteer who subsequently went on to work at St. Andre’s, having told me that there was something I had written that was regularly being passed out to the St. Andre volunteers. “Hmm. That’s nice,” I said, but I didn’t think much of it at that time, either. Then about a month ago, I was conducting Nonviolent Crisis Intervention Training at the MacDonald Center, and one of the participants approached me to say, “You’re Gary Davis! I read something you wrote about hospitality. It was great!”

 

I said “Hmm” again. With this piece of mine on “Generosity and Hospitality” gaining so much circulation, I thought I’d better go back and look at it to see what all the hubbub was all about.

 

But here’s the irony: I looked and looked, and it seems I myself don’t possess a copy. There’s no hard copy in my files. And it may have been a casualty of my stolen laptop, because I could find it anywhere on the reconstructed hard drive on my computer, either.

 

As a result, I was forced to think about the subject anew: generosity and hospitality. That’s an interesting juxtaposition. What made me connect the two, and what might I have said in my original piece to make the connection?

 

Maybe I began by saying there can be no hospitality without generosity. Think about it: in a relationship of hospitality, two roles are required. While one role is played by the guests, someone has to play the role of the host. Playing host is an active role, not a passive one. The host must be generous with his time, resources, and patience, offering welcome and making sure the needs of his guest to feel secure and cared for in what-might-be an unfamiliar environment are all met. If a host doesn’t expend himself in the proactive effort to do these things, then he’s a very poor host. april serving low-resLikewise, while there are many agencies that insist their mission is “hospitality,” if all they do is open their doors then leave their guests to their own devices once they come inside, then that’s not offering hospitality at all. The agency setting becomes just an extension of the visitors’ ordinary, everyday, un-special environment. Hospitality requires the generosity of focus on one’s guests at all times.

 

And maybe I went on from there to say as well that there can be no proper generosity without hospitality. Throughout my life I have been active in a number of idealistic causes where it was not uncommon for me to meet fellow idealists who treated those close to them pretty rottenly. I could never reconcile that picture. How could someone be sold on the abstract principle of a good society for all, while in their everyday relationships act like a pig? No good society is ever going to be built if we don’t put personal ego aside and exhibit forbearance and love toward one another. Some people think they have done enough if they just donate some money, or sign a petition, or write their legislators. But while those may be commendable acts, they don’t really constitute true generosity. To be generous implies being generous toward somebody. With the involvement of a “somebody,” we’ve entered the realm of relationship. Hospitality—that full welcoming of another into the sphere of one’s caring—is the concrete realization of what true generosity is.

 

And whatever I might I have said, I'm sure I must have included a quote from Henri Nouwen. Perhaps something like this:

 

Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. . . . It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations. Hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the life style of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own. (Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1986, p. 71-72.)

 

To create a “friendly emptiness” where our concern is not any agenda of our own, but merely the full welfare of our guest? Why, that’s a generosity beyond belief!

 

Perhaps someday I’ll get a copy of thing I wrote that everyone else is reading. But for today, I'll have to settle for this being as good as I’m going to get.

A Lesson from Mayberry

Let me tell you about the town of Nelson, British Columbia, from which my wife Sharon have just returned after spending our vacation. We had been through Nelson a couple of times before on our way to/from somewhere and had been so struck by the physical beauty of the place (on the shores of long, broad Kootenay Lake, surrounded by mountains) that we had thought, “It might be nice to make this a destination.”

We were not disappointed. The setting was as beautiful as we had remembered. But on this trip it was the town itself that was a revelation. We discovered that the “Queen City of the Kootenays” has a charm beyond belief.

I would liken Nelson to a “New Age Mayberry.” It was New Age-y in that if you wanted to take a yoga class or learn about the healing power of crystals, you’d find a lot of offerings to choose from. The most popular gathering-place on Main Street was the Food Co-op (just a couple of blocks from the head shop), and we didn’t find a restaurant in town that didn’t serve an all-organic menu with gluten-free options. Sharon and I felt in something of a minority because we didn’t sport any tattoos.

But Nelson was Mayberry in that it also seemed frozen in an age before there were queen city low-resany Starbucks or McDonalds or “big-box” stores. The businesses on Main Street were housed in lovingly preserved buildings dating back to Nelson’s heyday as a mining mecca in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Many of the neighborhood homes were wonderful Victorians dating back to the same era. The community had obviously made some forward-thinking planning and zoning decisions. No fast-food places were allowed in the center of town. In fact, there were only a few “chains” allowed anywhere in the city limits—there was a Safeway, an A&W, the smallest WalMart I had ever seen, and a Dairy Queen. (Interesting thing about the Dairy Queen: it was preserved as it must have been in the 1950s, a cinderblock building which was only open summers, and where you had to walk up to a window to make your order.)

Yet if you remember what made Mayberry Mayberry, it wasn’t just the architecture; it was the neighborliness of the place. We saw how folks interacted with one another on the sidewalks, in the stores, and in the parks, and there was an overall willingness to engage with one another that even drew us into feeling we were part of the community while we were there.

Sounds so idyllic that Nelson must not have any homeless people, right? Well, not quite. And the fact that a block off Main Street the social service agencies all prominently had their offices indicated that there were other struggling people in town as well.

But here was an incident I observed that says something about the homeless in Nelson:

I was waiting outside a bank on Main Street as Sharon went inside to exchange some U.S. dollars. A few paces away from me sat a grizzled guy on the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign. At that moment, a security car pulled to the curb and two uniformed officers emerged. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “Trouble.” But the fellow on the sidewalk smiled when he saw the officers, and said, “Hey, Chet. How’s the family?” The officer smiled back. “Getting along pretty well. Molly’s out of the hospital, and the kids are doing fine.” “Good to hear!” the grizzled guy said. And the officers walked on down the block.

Remember in Mayberry how Otis, the town drunk, always would appear at the jail at the end of the day and let himself into the cell? From this and other observations we made of people interacting with the town’s homeless, Nelson seemed the kind of place where that very kind of thing would happen.

In short, while Nelson had homeless people, it didn’t seem to have a homeless problem. Why? For one thing, Canada hasn’t short-changed its social service programs the way the U.S. has done. It has treatment programs for its mentally-ill, rather than having abandoned them to the streets, and for those who suffer from other dysfunctions, the social service agencies still do occupy prominent real estate. Groups like churches and the Salvation Army stand ready to fill the remaining gaps, but at least what they’re needing to fill are only gaps rather than yawning chasms.

However, something more fundamental is present that mitigates against homelessness exploding into an intractable issue. It is an attitude. What I am used to experiencing in my own homeland is an attitude toward the homeless that consists of little less than disdain. With such an attitude, a great number of people can hardly treat the homeless with anything even resembling civility.

But in Nelson, though a person might be homeless, it was clear his fellow residents still considered him a neighbor.

That was Nelson’s charm. Sharon and I felt it as visitors, as if it were part of every Nelsonian’s credo to honor the dictum, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

And that made all the difference in the world.