Friday, January 23, 2015

Re-Examining Hospitality

The building committee that designed the grand structure to hold the congregation known as Mount Vernon Place Methodist Episcopal Church South spared no expense in constructing a monumental building in downtown Washington. They wanted thousands of church members to ascend the grand steps, walk between the commanding columns, enter an impressive narthex made of marble, and then have their breath taken away upon entering the sanctuary (if it wasn't already removed from climbing the steps). They must have felt immensely proud of their efforts when they stood on the corner of 9th and Massachusetts on the day the building was dedicated in 1919.

The building has housed the largest Methodist Congregation in the Northeastern Jurisdiction when the membership grew to over 4,000 people in 1960. It has housed dozens of Sunday school classes with rosters holding more than 100 names. It has provided space for a church theatre group and choirs that recorded their own albums, all with the name "Mount Vernon Place" associated with it. It's provided an impressive list of services to people with real needs to be met through its social work department in the 1960s and 70s. And its porches have housed dozens of people through the years.

The space that was designed for people to gather while they waited for one worship service to end and another one to begin has for decades been a place for people to put down their belongings and rest for a night. So many people started to gather that the church once believed the only proper solution to the dilemma was to place ugly gates across the entrance. These gates were still attached to the stone when I arrived nearly ten years ago. I knew the moment I saw them how much I wanted them to come down. They came down as part of our building restoration and redevelopment, and it did not take long for people to return to the perceived safety of the porches.

Two summers ago, a task force from the church met and created policies to accompany the porches. Guests were invited to stay from 10:00pm to 7:00am. There was to be no drugs, nudity, urinating or violence. No belongings were to be left on the porch. But I'm not sure there has been a single night in which all guests have obeyed every single rule. Where does one go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when there is no open bathroom nearby? But, what we were doing seemed like hospitality.

Is it not better to welcome people to stay - even though it's outside - than to turn people away?

Are we not offering hospitality and being like Jesus?

It seemed more faithful to respond "yes" to these questions than to turn people away. 

But the weather turned bitter cold two weeks ago. The doors to hypothermia shelters were flung open across the city, and the vans started to creep across streets, looking for people who were ordered to come in for the night. It did not warm up much the next day. The temperatures were cold enough that my colleague and I went outside to make sure no one was sleeping through the bitter cold. There were no people on the porch when we went out. But what we found was enough to take my breath away even more than the first time I saw the sanctuary as I saw a carefully constructed shelter that conveyed a strong sense of desperation to stay warm. I was left with heartache, sadness and dozens of questions. How could we allow people to sleep there at night - with temperatures in the 20s and frozen urine just a few feet away? Would Jesus ever allow anyone to remain there? What are we called to do as people who seek to follow him?

We wrestle with the concept of hospitality all the time. The church has a tendency to open the door to everyone and then say, "Oh wait. You're not straight enough, clothed appropriately enough, sinless enough, or like us enough to come in." My denomination can convey a message along the lines of, "Sure, you're welcome to be a member here even though you're gay. But don't ask me to offer you the same blessing I can afford my straight brothers and sisters when it comes to marriage or ordination." Sometimes we open our doors for people to come in while allowing some people to leave without ever being noticed, welcomed or embraced. We say we want new people but sometimes have no idea how to fully welcome new people if it means letting go of some of our preferences or priorities. 

I've been struggling for years to discern what faithfulness looks like when it comes to people sleeping on our porches. It's only in the last two weeks that the image I snapped that day has forced me to fully wrestle with hospitality - hospitality with our unhoused neighbors, hospitality with people who are not always like "us," and hospitality in general.

When I googled the word hospitality this morning, this definition filled my screen, "the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers." Hospitality is not simply receiving guests. In order for it to be hospitality, it has to be friendly and generous - not in the lines of Martha Stewart, perhaps, but in the lines of Jesus whose arms were always extended wide open and whose voice regularly offered an invitation to "follow me" into a changed life.

Our Stewardship of Resources Committee gathered the week after the coldest temperatures of the year to once again discern a faithful response to keeping people safe, caring for our vulnerable members, and providing hospitable and clean space to all who come to the church no matter why they come. The group listened faithfully to one of our building partners who has more experience and expertise in housing people and working with those who are currently unhoused than any of us. We listened to her words about what it means to truly offer hospitality and her warnings about the harm we could be doing by continuously allowing people to sleep on our porches vs. limiting that space and turning our efforts into walking alongside of people to a different life. At the end of the meeting, these faithful leaders voted unanimously to prohibit sleeping on church property starting March 1. But the efforts don't end there, we're also seeking to walk aside our "residents," to do everything we can to get them to a place where they have a key that can unlock and lock the door to the place they call home. We're stepping out in faith and asking God to help us be part of new miracles in our midst. 

In the meantime, we'll keep focussing our efforts on things we do well when it comes to providing a friendly and generous reception - receiving people fully into our space. The doors to the shower ministry will remain open three mornings a week. People will be welcomed inside for a meal once or twice a month. Prayerfully, we can even grow these ministries as our congregation continues to grow. And all people - ALL PEOPLE - who walk inside our doors will be prayerfully given the same welcome, the same sense of community, the same blessing that we as a church can provide. 

I find myself praying the words of Thomas Merton often these days, "My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end...and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always... Amen."

Our first meeting with the community on our porches is scheduled for this Tuesday morning. Will you pray for us? Will you pray for the people who currently sleep outside? Will you pray for the day when all of God's children will have a proper place to call home? And if you feel the heavy burden of responsibility and live nearby, then come join us.

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