Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Homelessness and Hospitality

I write this from the overnight shift with the homeless families who are staying at Blessed Sacrament Catholic church this week as a part of the good work done by the Worcester Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN). I’m missing the sixth game of the NHL playoffs, since there’s no TV here; fortunately, I’m not a hockey fan, so it’s not much of a loss for me.

The IHN has taken an innovative approach to helping battle homelessness; it houses a small number of homeless families each week or two at a new church, rotating them through its network of committed parishes and their volunteer members. Although I am sure it must be hard on the homeless families who have to pack and move to a new parish home at the end of each week or two, they are at least always assured of warm beds, food, and transportation to and from their jobs or schools every day. The Interfaith Hospitality Network, which has branches in many US cities, has been coordinating this good work in Worcester since 1997.

I always volunteer for an overnight shift when the families are staying at Blessed Sacrament. Although it’s not much fun sleeping on a cot in a cold function room, I like being here in the silence of the night, where I can think and write or watch a movie on my laptop and still know that I am doing my little share of good in the world. And when I walk out of here at 7:00 am in the morning, after these poor families have been picked up and taken to their daytime destinations, I spend the next week or two filled with boundless gratitude for every small blessing in my life.

My visit here tonight dovetails quite nicely with the book I finished reading last week: Dorothy Day’s Loaves and Fishes: The Inspiring Story of the Catholic Worker Movement. Along with her co-worker Peter Maurin, Day set out in the early half of the 20th century to form a community that would strive to achieve three goals: “founding a newspaper for clarification of thought, starting houses of hospitality, and organizing farming communes.” Loaves and Fishes chronicles their successes and failures over the next several dozen years, as they worked to put into practice the radical ideas of Christ about helping the poor. The book is beautifully written and offers one inspirational story after another, though Day does not hesitate to describe the many setbacks and problems they encounter along the way.

I had known a little about Day and her work before I read the book, and always assumed that she would have argued for a liberal political agenda to match her life of voluntary poverty and servitude. I was surprised, then, to see that in some ways Day offers arguments that diverge quite sharply from liberal convictions about the role of the government in helping the poor.

“It seems to me that in the future the family—the ideal family—will always try to care for one more,” she writes. “If every family that professed to follow Scriptural teaching whether Jew, Protestant, or Catholic, were to do this, there would be no need for huge institutions, houses of dead storage where human beings waste away in loneliness and despair. Responsibility must return to the parish with a hospice and a center for mutual aid, to the group, to the family, to the individual.”

Day and Maurin both constantly emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, and reject wholeheartedly the notion that the government should help the poor and the homeless. That, Day argues, is the responsibility of each one of us.

One of the other points that really struck me was made by Day’s co-worker Peter Maurin.

“We need houses of hospitality,” he said, “to give to the rich the opportunity to serve the poor.”

My first thought, when I read that sentence, was of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and the way in which they provide opportunities for so many parishes in Worcester, and so many of the members of those parishes, to serve the poor. The good work they do for these homeless families constitutes only a small part of the whole; the real service they may provide to the community is the opportunity for so many of us who are rich in blessings various kinds—money, jobs, health, families—to help those who are less fortunate.

If you are interested in learning more about the Interfaith Hospitality Network, or you wish to donate or to see if your parish helps host families, click here for more information. If you are interested in learning more about the presence of Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker movement here in Worcester, you can read about one of their local houses here.

Finally, in the spirit of offering people one more opportunity to help the poor, Matt Robert and I will be performing a series of musical shows this summer at Nu Café and donating all tips that we receive from the audience to the Interfaith Hospitality Network. You can learn more details about that initiative here.

The Director of the IHN will be joining us and saying a few words on June 23rd, so come out and throw a few bucks in the jar—and enjoy the music while you’re at it!

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