On pilgrimage

On my last day at the Haven, after all of our cooking was completed and I finished my last day at the grill, both kitchen managers and a few of the guests at the Haven came to surprise me with a thank you card and a bag of their famous granola. It was totally unexpected and completely caught off guard, and all I could do was thank them for everything that they had taught me over the past two months. Caught up in my own self-reflections and forever grateful for the wisdom that my coworkers imparted on me, I never stopped to consider the impact that I could have on the Haven and those who worked there. To me, I was performing a small role that would benefit the organization that had so generously given me a space to see God in my work. What I failed to see was how my volunteering at the Haven impacted the kitchen managers and guests at the Haven. In the thank you card, one of the managers mentioned something that has stuck with me. He said that we are all “On Pilgrimage” –a spiritual journey–throughout life. This made me consider my time at the Haven as a whole.

Feet on pilgimage

The Haven is full of people On Pilgrimage. For the guests, it is the physical hardship and uncertainty that comes with the journey. They have experienced the hell of homelessness in which all choice has been taken from them. Their prospects are slim and most of the people that they encounter are cold and unresponsive. But during their time at the Haven, I believe that they see a glimpse into the Kingdom of God. A place where community is fostered, needs are met, and the opportunity of choice is restored. At the Haven, God “proclaims good news to the poor…binds up the brokenhearted, proclaim[s] freedom to the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1). While it’s impossible to create an organization that reflects God’s love perfectly, the intake shelter becomes an “aisle space” where people can interact with a God who restores their value, imbues them with hope, and fosters community.

Similarly, the volunteers and staff of the Haven are also On Pilgrimage. While their need may not be as physical and tangible, it is no less imperative to every individual. For those who volunteer, there is an inherent desire to help others without knowing the best way to accomplish those goals. They give their time to the Haven in the hopes that they can affirm humanity in a group that they see as less fortunate or forgotten by society. In many ways, this objective is accomplished, but something else happens. As the volunteers come to the intake shelter, they see not only the brokenness and the impermanence of the world around them, but they are overwhelmed by hope. They see people with nothing in this world build community and love unconditionally without regard for possessions. On their pilgrimage, they learn how God’s love permeates and shines in the darkness. There is a desire to learn and grow within that transcendent hope alongside people that, on the surface, have little. They see the light emanating out of the back door of hope in the darkness, only making the light more spectacular and brilliant.

Finally, I see that I too am On Pilgrimage. I see God’s love manifest through the community in the intake shelter. I am humbled by the faithfulness and perseverance of the volunteers and staff who give their time to create a space for hospitality to be possible. My view of God has become deeper, richer and fuller because of the commonplace experiences and everyday conversations with guests and volunteers alike. I feel I know God better after my time at the Haven. These months have reminded me of the incredible truth that “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Many people have sharpened me during my internship at the Haven. I have been surrounded by a cloud of people On Pilgrimage with me. We bounce ideas off of one another, see God’s love in different ways, and bring out new elements of our personalities. This cloud of witnesses has challenged my preconceived notions of hospitality, compassion, and aid to those experiencing homelessness. It is in this web of theological interaction that I was exposed and hidden, bold and reserved, pushed by other ideas and given the space to develop my own.

We are all On Pilgrimage. It will look differently from person to person and in a variety of situations. That being said, there is a unity in realizing that we are all walking together, learning as we go. In this pilgrimage, we know that “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:17). Our pilgrimages are intertwined so that love may be made complete in us. They are intertwined so that we can experience true love, hope, friendship and community while also experiencing a “hospitality of our conjoined pilgrimages”. On our unique journeys, we join together in aisle spaces like the Haven to help others and see God at work. In doing so, we truly can establish true and genuine hospitality in a seemingly inhospitable world.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

The search for rest

Tiredness. That’s what most characterized this week as my internship came to a close. The routine of the 6:00 AM mornings have begun to take their toll even with my body adjusted to its new schedule. Coming into breakfast the past few mornings, I have felt disconnected and detached. It seems as if my work has become a product of muscle memory and familiarity rather than an active attempt to think theologically. To my tired brain, drawing connections would exert too much energy that I instead needed to function properly. Similarly, my interpersonal interactions with other volunteers and Haven staff have been concise and work-oriented. By this point, I know my goal and, at least for the first hour of my mornings, I am solely focused on that goal. As time passes and my body resumes its normal functioning, I can notice a change in my demeanor. I become more social and am able to engage more with my work beyond its physical performance. Strange as it may seem, I have noticed two distinct sides of my personality based upon this lack of sleep. I have become acutely aware of the biological necessity of sleep and how it can influence a personality.

I elaborate upon my own exhaustion not as a means of flaunting perceived dedication or drawing sympathy from the reader. Rather, I hope that it is seen as a vehicle for my theological reflection as well as a bridge by which I related to those experiencing homelessness at the Haven. Like most experiences at the Haven, one small change can lead down a new train of theological thought. For me, this tiredness connected to a newspaper clipping one of the kitchen supervisors carried with her whenever she cooked breakfast. It was a small advice column from years ago, and in it, the reader was asking about where she should volunteer. The ultimate purpose of volunteering for this person was to find recipients who would be appreciative of the volunteer’s sacrifice and donation of time and energy. The reporter’s reply was insightful, humble, and spoke right into my situation. She told the reader that volunteering so people will appreciate your efforts is a faulty justification for giving up your time. There are people in need who are incapable of showing the gratitude you crave. Introspectively, I began to ask if it was possible that I too could use my want for affirmation to deprive others of the aid they so desperately needed.

My tiredness deepened my reflection on this “thankfulness of the recipient” that was apparently a faulty prerequisite for helping the guests at the Haven. If I could feel the negative effects of a lack of sleep on my ability to connect with other humans, maybe the same goes for those experiencing homelessness. If it was possible for me to be tired with a roof over my head, a bed and the privacy that it entails, how much more difficult would it be for those residing in the hell of homelessness; a place full of sleepless nights, no privacy, and the constant threat of expulsion by police or robbery from others in the night? Could it be that those with no rest have little energy to connect with volunteers and other guests at the Haven? If my small lack of sleep could influence my personality and reorganize my priorities, it does not seem impossible that someone’s personality could be altered completely by experiencing homelessness. Perhaps the presence of an individual at the shelter showed an inherent desire for help that could be hidden under an exterior shell of sleeplessness and exposure to homeless hell.

Man Sleeping

Which brings us back to a theology of hospitality–in particular, hospitality towards those who have no home. If the constant mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual strain on a guest at the Haven leaves a person completely resigned and unable to connect, the volunteer or worker must have an appropriate response. This response should stem from a place of grace and empathy, understanding the difficulties of those who come to the Haven for breakfast. Our role then is not to burden those with this strain even further by having our own expectations and requirements before we offer our help. Similarly, one of the goals of any shelter should be one of rest and renewal. With humility as the cornerstone, the desire of the volunteer could be to give each guest the opportunity to feel like a human being again. If that means a conversation, or a “good morning,” then that is the appropriate action. If that means giving the guest a space to act coldly and “ungratefully” so that they may rest and regain their ability to feel like themselves, then we should have the humility to oblige. Henri Nouwen says it best: “hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own” (Reaching Out, 72). When we choose to look for appreciation to dictate our actions, we allow this place to “degenerate into mental battlefields” (Reaching Out, 69) instead of a bastion of rest and healing. A house of hospitality should work to expel these expectations and instead be content with the aid and opportunity for rest it gives to those who notice and those who do not. When a modest longing to provide individual respite is the centerpiece of a shelter’s volunteers and staff, the guests present can truly lay down their burdens and reclaim their humanity.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

God in the small

“The Lord said [to Elijah], ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountain apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Last week, I took a week off at the Haven to take students to a Younglife camp called Lake Champion in southern New York. While physically away from the Haven, one particular idea travelled with me and swirled around my head during this brief change of scenery. As I wrote about earlier in the summer, I experienced one moment with a dollar bill that brought out the idea that God resides in the innocuous. Rather than revealing something profound, God “takes the mundane and makes it miraculous.” While the surroundings changed, this thought did not, but rather grew more prominent in my theological process. Outside of my normal circumstances, these seemingly unimportant moments were even more noticeable as acts of kindness, concern and care led to monumental changes in the lives of those who experienced camp. Camp became somewhat of a theological laboratory in which I could not only participate but also observe as students interacted with one another and participated in theological thought for potentially the first time together.

Utilizing Ekblad’s practice of using the stories of the Bible pragmatically in the context of our own lives, this section of 1 Kings came to mind in relation to interactions at camp. God does not reveal himself to the prophet Elijah in the monumental moments of the wind, earthquake and fire. Rather, God comes in the quietest of whispers. Why? What is the purpose of this meek, personal depiction of God that is clearly contrasted with the tremendous and powerful forces of nature? God came to Elijah in a whisper not because he had to and not because it was the only way, but possibly to teach Elijah about how he interacts with us. The brute force and pageantry of the natural forces at work were not where God resided but rather in the everyday, ultra-personal intimacy of a whisper. Perhaps that is how God looks at the small. To the average person, the grandeur of one large, sweeping gesture is valued infinitely more than the humility of a thousand small gestures. But what if God sees the inherent faith of the small? While we invest our time attempting to repeat and conjure meaningful moments, maybe God honors the small leaps of faith and kindness found in the day to day.

Often times, I find that God seems to delight in taking my preconceived notions of what is possible and flipping them on their head in the most unlikely of ways. The Bible is full of stories in which people from all walks of life are exposed to this seemingly paradoxical nature of God including Elijah as shown above. Entering my internship, I believed that change in the world came from a desire to accumulate “big moments.” Every week, I depended upon these moments to consistently fill me with inspiration to write posts and learn countless theological concepts in grand explosions of inspiration. While that may happen on occasion, depending on these moments will only let us down. Instead, God resides in the whispers in our lives. They infiltrate in the small acts of kindness shown from high schooler to high schooler at Younglife camp. They thrive in the warm welcome that guests receive with breakfast at the Haven. These whispers penetrate every commonplace interaction we have with another human being. Rather than focusing on the presentation of a “big moment” God chooses to connect a million small whispers together to transform the lives of everyday people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. The only challenge is that we must be brave enough to sit quietly and listen and notice when they occur.

Cup of coffee

With all of this in mind, how does hospitality reflect these seemingly unimportant instances emphasized at camp and in 1 Kings? Why is this important for the Haven and a theology of hospitality? To me, the intake shelter at the Haven is full of these small opportunities. In the same way that Younglife camp gave high school students an opportunity to enter a time of theological reflection, the volunteer has that same opportunity in the kitchen and front desk of the shelter. In both situations, the volunteer and the student sit in spaces where small, seemingly insignificant acts are used in God’s in-breaking work. Just like Elijah, we could be expecting the wind to roar, the earthquake to shake the Earth, and the fire to consume our problems, strife or doubt. Instead, God comes in whispers of hope in the most innocuous of encounters that lead to relationships, friendships and transformation. Our expectations are shattered by the God of the small things, and we are left with a better understanding of God’s presence in our daily lives.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

The pressure cooker

Oftentimes, I find that theological reflection is like trying to navigate terrain that I have never visited before. It can seem that whenever I make progress in one direction, something from miles behind me draws me back to the start. A multitude of forces can inspire this reconsideration, which continually renews my perceptions of the world around me. It is both infuriating while at the same time the reason that I have always been drawn to this form of inquiry. What is unique about this “theological reset button” is that it can be pressed by even the slightest suggestion found in an email from one of your advisors. It was curious how this one piece of advice slowly crept into every thought since I read it, making it impossible to write about anything else. On its own merits, this small idea has shown me the nature of theological reflection as it slowly takes my mind to depths I had never considered. Theology is like a slow cooker. If you rush too fast for inspiration, the theological dish will come out incomplete; however if you give it plenty of time to cook, it will become richer, deeper, and easily connected to our own personal histories. I feel that I didn’t give this cooker enough time when I submitted my post two weeks ago. Eager to write and naïve to the slow nature of theological development, I let my mind run wild. Inspired by the words of one email from Shea, the PLT staff member who directs the internship program, I would like to return to the idea of my Haven routine originally presented in the post on washing dishes with Lee.

Before I begin, I still stand by everything I learned before, which I described in my original post. My new reflections on this topic in no way negate what I learned the first time around. That moment on its own pushed me outside my comfort zone into new theological ground to map out. It was because of the bursting of my comfort bubble that it is even possible to expand upon the ideas of the routine. That being said, I fear I have swung too far to the other side of the argument. In lifting up the spontaneity of moments with Lee, I wonder if I have downplayed the importance of routine. The email I received from Shea had one simple question: “how might [the routine] be forming you?” For two weeks, that question has swirled around in the slow cooker, and I hope now that my theological feast is more “well done.” My post did a good job examining the harmful effects of what Shea referred to as “dry ritual.” Rather than being perceptive enough to see the theological implications of my work, I let my ritual lull me into a theological slumber where I was preoccupied by the exoteric job of dishwashing and not with the more esoteric lessons of working at the Haven.

But what would completely discounting a routine look like? An anarchic volunteer schedule with zero consistency? Rationally, that is not a practical way to run an intake program that requires consistent volunteering to function. Along the same line, if I came at regular times but jumped around from looking for encounters and chasing the next theological breakthrough, I would be a nightmare to the kitchen supervisor and the other volunteers who would pick up my slack. Obviously, a synthesis is in order. How can Dorothy Day and Peter Maupin open “houses of hospitality” that operate on a strict schedule but still give Day the feeling that “there was to be no end to my learning” (Loaves and Fishes, 14). How can the Open Door Community stave off the temptation to be complacent in what they are doing? Has Ekblad ever experienced a Bible Study where he felt like he was going through the motions and there seemed to be no theological value to the discussions? Even while meditating on these questions now, I see their weighty significance.

Church Aisle

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I met with Professor Warren. Sitting at a table on the outdoor patio of the Bodo’s on Main Street, we discussed the physical division of a church into the sacred characterized by the altar, the pews of humanity facing the sacred and finally the middle aisle that creates a bridge between the sacred and the everyday. A physical representation of a mental and spiritual space, this middle ground is where humanity is receptive to the spiritual while God reveals himself to the people. It is in this conception that a routine becomes so vital to theology. A weekly or daily routine sets up this “aisle space” where theological work can occur. Whether this comes in the form of receiving communion on a weekly basis or having a schedule of work at the Haven, this routine gives the human a chance to enter into the aisle, navigate the terrain, and fire up the slow cooker. I just have to be patient and observant enough to notice when the sacred breaks into my routines and reshapes my theology. Lee and the washing of dishes didn’t just come out of left field to change my outlook and refocus my eyes on what is important. The routine of being in the Haven kitchen every morning opened up the possibility of the divine in-breaking that reformed my theological thought. As a result, theological reflection becomes a response to the lessons presented to me in this routine rather than an inconsistent yearning for the next profound moment. Furthermore, the burden of theological creativity is shifted away from my finite mind and onto the God of the universe who educates me through Lee and washing dishes, a dollar bill, the words of Henri Nouwen and tomatoes.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

God in the dollar bill

Dollar Bill

Last week, for the first time in my life, I gave a homeless man a dollar and felt no suspicion or uncertainty. After breakfast, one of the regular attendees asked me for money so that he could catch a bus to Pantops in order to arrive at his doctor’s appointment on time. Without a second thought, the dollar was out of my wallet and into his hand. However, this response was much more profound as I reflected upon it.

Before I continue, I believe that I should explain one of the reasons that I chose the Haven as my site for this internship. For three years at UVA, my daily routine would take me past the Corner, through the labyrinth of off-grounds houses and to my own house. Similarly, for three years, I was confronted by numerous people asking for money underneath the train bridge on 14th and on the pathway outside of the CVS. And for three years, my conscience was continually bombarded by the convictions of my religious tradition grappling with my own rational self-interest. How could I in good conscience give money to someone I didn’t know, with no way of knowing how they would spend it? How could I negotiate a religious doctrine that advocates for a reckless defense and aid of the poor with its command to be as “wise as serpents?” Where does “blessed are the poor” meet the wisdom given by God who “gives generously to all without finding fault?” (James 1:5). Within the boundaries of developing a theology of hospitality, one of my goals for the summer was to shed light upon this quandary and apparent paradox.

In the past weeks, I have seen hope manifest itself in the midst of deeply rooted social problems, experienced the depths of loneliness and isolation, had my comfort bubble burst and noticed that God moves in the innocuous and mundane to lead to radical transformation. If only I had noticed all of that during my conversation at the Haven with the man in need of a bus pass.

Reflecting on the encounter after the fact, I found help from Nouwen and Loring in understanding my interactions with this man. Nouwen would have characterized the second movement of the spiritual life in me: the move from hostility to hospitality. In this interpretation, we as humans fail to empathize with those around us and are inherently suspicious. Driven by our loneliness and inability to respond to our inner questions in a satisfactory way, we no longer see the problems and struggles of others as similar to our own. Our deficiencies in our own lives bleed into our interactions with the strangers we meet. “In general we do not expect much from strangers” (Nouwen, 68) and when we do, it’s often expecting the worst from them. Loring can be seen as an alternative to this suspicion. His openness to those who are homeless centers around the idea that we cannot try to impose our own desires and expectations on strangers. We often fall into this trap of “heroism,” a term used by Ekblad, assuming that we know what is best for those on the margins. Loring’s solution is to simply ask that person, “How can I be helpful?” Similarly to Nouwen, Loring’s approach calls us to open ourselves to receiving the homeless person as a guest and fellow human rather than a suspicious criminal attempting to steal what is ours. Our transition from hostility to hospitality is thus fulfilled by denying heroism and merely being available to those around us.

However, none of this theological reflection does any good if it cannot be applied back to the original encounter with the man looking for a bus ticket. Can Nouwen, Loring and Ekblad truly be incorporated into the context of the Haven? As previously stated, this introspective look at the influences playing upon me in that moment helps to explain my actions. In that instant, the man was coming to me as someone in need of money for the bus, answering Loring’s question “How can I be helpful?” Similarly, meeting that need reflected hospitality devoid of suspicion and hostility.   However, the practical application of these two theologies only set the stage for the God who takes the mundane and makes it miraculous. After I responded with hospitality (Nouwen) and met a particular need (Loring), the man began to tell me about where he was going, why he needed the money, and how the doctors he was going to see had helped him in the past. The one dollar became the price for seeing into this man’s soul. As I listened to his passions, fears, hopes, and outlook on the world around him, we began to bond. I believe that God used that dollar to humanize this man beyond my own suspicions. God took the theological work of Loring and Nouwen, blended it with my personal experience and doctrinal truth, and the result was a genuine, intimate moment in a seemingly innocuous conversation.

Our response to folks who are homeless should go much deeper than if we feel bad putting a dollar in a pan-handler’s cup. Rather, it should look at the relationships that can be built with those asking for the dollar. For some, being “helpful” is putting a dollar in their cup even if we are absolutely certain that the dollar is spent on what we deem unacceptable. Wisdom should come in prudently analyzing situations in which new, affirming relationships can be created and maintained. In those moments, instead of letting our suspicions and self-interest run wild, what if we looked for God in the innocuous? In the place of scrutiny, we could cultivate a desire for empathy and support, affirming the humanity of those on the margins and working alongside them to break the chains of addiction, mental illness, hopelessness, and isolation. Instead of analyzing others to determine if they are destitute enough for our help, we could direct our wisdom toward affirming the humanity of someone else who may feel completely cast aside. How different would our interactions with homeless people look if we attempted to see God in the dollar bill and pursued the opportunities that he gives to build relationships and show others that they have worth?

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Washing dishes and bursting bubbles

Washing Dishes

As my time at the Haven progresses, I find myself becoming accustomed to the daily tasks required to make the day shelter run. Especially in the kitchen, I often feel like there is a certain rhythm that characterizes the hours leading up to and during the preparation and serving of the meal. Akin to the motion of the waves, a circular pattern of preparation and clean-up has emerged that is only strengthened by the ebb and flow of the guests filtering through the breakfast line from 8:00-9:00 AM. This timing is a credit to those who run the kitchen and the countless volunteers who frequently give their time to learn the rhythm of the kitchen, making sure that breakfast runs smoothly. I too have felt swept up by this perpetual, almost musical tide of the Haven’s routine. I know that the coffee mugs must be placed, the fruit salad must be cut, eggs must be fried and served, and all the dishes must be washed and sanitized and that it will all start again tomorrow. This organization is what makes the Haven work. It makes sense in my head. It is, dare I say, comfortable?

The last thing that I would ever want is to detract from the routine. It is both logical and rational and allows the Haven to run efficiently both in terms of providing for immediate needs and balancing its budget. This organization is essential and any shelter could not succeed without this forethought and planning. This order is wonderful and fits seamlessly into my comfort zone and personality. At the same time, that’s the problem. I entered into this internship to step outside of my realm of comfortability because I believe that that is where God is found. If reading Loring, Nouwen, Day, and Ekblad have taught me anything, it is that working with the poor and oppressed is an adventure. It has intense moments of jubilation and theological breakthrough coupled with heartbreak and mourning, but it is only possible if we step out of what we deem is acceptable. We are entering into the lives of those on the margins with humility and respect, weakness and trembling, hoping to glimpse God’s Kingdom in the here and now. We open ourselves to be vulnerable and empathize with those that God created. But how can this be done when the novelty of our circumstances wears off? How can I interact with homeless folks when the routine I have created for myself creates two distinct social spaces; the work of the kitchen where I am secure and the true lives and stories of those being served? I, at times, perform my work, “serve” those who are in need, and then leave with nothing to think or write about. Within my security bubble behind the serving counter, no true theological reflection occurs. My bubble needed to be burst, and Lee helped that to happen.

Lee is one of the homeless men that frequently comes to the shelter for breakfast. He has done so for years and has also become accustomed to the receiving end of the Haven’s routine. The novelty for Lee wore off long ago. Last week, he showed me that the bubble of security that I unconsciously put up would and could not stand. After breakfast, Lee asked to come help me with the dishes. While this was a task that I usually performed alone as another fixed part of my routine, I was eager to have extra help, and we began to clean. Clunky and awkward to start, we soon developed our own rhythm. We were no longer two people on opposite sides of a counter living in different worlds, but rather two people working together. As previously explored by the likes of Peter Maupin, Clarence Jordan, Dorothy Day and countless others, the communal aspects of working for a common goal became evident quickly. Lee and me: talking, washing, and building community through work. It was a small moment, but profound. Maybe that is what hospitality fosters at the Haven. An opportunity for me to enter into a new situation, become lulled into a comfort zone and then humbled. A chance for God to crash into my bubble and dare me to step out to where Lee was–and where God was. Similarly, hospitality at the Haven gave Lee a place where he was treated with dignity and respect so much that he had the confidence to burst my comfort bubble with no fear of judgment. Meeting his immediate needs led to an outpouring of generosity and an opening for God to teach me incredible things through his actions. Perhaps God uses a theology of hospitality to dignify the margins, use the unprivileged to humble and teach the privileged, and to build community and friendship in the place of and across perceived social, racial and economic barriers. Bob Ekblad in his time having Bible studies in prisons said, “In my years visiting people here in the jail I have learned more from inmates than I ever learned in seminary” (Ekblad, 23) and I’m beginning to see where he’s coming from.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Creating space

Throughout this week’s reading of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out, I was exposed to a markedly different style of writing than the memoir-like recounting of Ed Loring and the Open Door Community. Appearing much more pragmatic than Loring, Nouwen systematically spells out his “three movements of the spiritual life” illustrating the balance between “the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer” (Nouwen, 19). At the same time, Nouwen remains general enough to allow the reader to introduce their own circumstances, ideas and situations into the framework that he illustrates. Nouwen personifies his belief that “hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of the chance for the guest to find his own” (Nouwen, 72). Similarly, true hospitality is one in which confrontation occurs as others see “our own life choices, attitudes, and viewpoints…that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically” (Nouwen, 99). In essence, Reaching Out as a work is attempting to apply the same hospitality in its pages that Nouwen describes. He proposes the framework for how he understands and categorizes the stages of spiritual movement without restricting the reader. This work confronts the reader with a certain viewpoint on Christian spirituality and presses no further only creating space for the reader to think. It only hopes to instigate self-reflection and critical thought giving the reader a chance to formulate their own responses.

Using Nouwen’s definition and presentation of hospitality, it is only appropriate that I examine my current situation with a blending of his thoughts and my own. If that is the purpose of his writing, then this synthesis is the correct response after reading and reflecting upon his interpretation of the world around him. By applying these three movements with my experiences at the Haven and within my own heart and mind, a new and unique amalgamation could emerge.

First, the movement from isolation to solitude. In Reaching Out, “loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today” (Nouwen, 25). Stemming from this acute sense of loneliness is a desire to avoid it and distract ourselves from it. We attempt to rectify this deep loneliness by relationships with other people but soon find that “there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used” (Nouwen, 26). Searching for an end to this isolation, we attempt to quell our restless hearts in a number of ways. For me, I believe that my time at the Haven could threaten to devolve into something like this: trying to find purpose in helping homeless folks or busying myself to a point where I no longer think of “not belonging” (33) because I preoccupy myself. My need for community and unity becoming intertwined with my actions at this organization. Attempting to block out the nagging, “irking loneliness” (36) and quieting the thoughts in my head with “good deeds.”  Nouwen warns against such motivations claiming that “no friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness” (30). If wholeness cannot be found in my work at the Haven, then where is it located?

Second, the movement from hostility to hospitality. The world around us “seems to be increasingly full of fearful, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion” (66). When loneliness and strife prevail, “our own need to still our inner cravings of loneliness makes us cling to others instead of creating space for them” (101). Spurred on by our excessive loneliness and inability to find solitude in open-ended questions, we suffocate others in an attempt to reduce our thoughts. Our relationships become nothing more than one-sided interactions in which we use one another, wringing out every last drop of comfort for our own gain. I also see potential for this in my time with the Haven: a time when my motivations for volunteering could be solely based on feeling better about myself. In the same way, working with the homeless pats my own ego and stops me from interacting in compassion, love and empathy. If hospitality cannot be achieved because of loneliness, then where is there hope?

Third, the movement from illusion to prayer. For Nouwen, this is the movement by which all the others fall into place. The truth is that “we need the willingness and courage to reach out beyond the limitations of our fragile and finite existence toward our loving God in whom all life is anchored” (113). It requires a faith and strength that can only be found in prayer which “is God’s breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life, and by which we are born anew” (125). It is in this reality that we can know that God is “beyond our heart and mind” (126) while at the same time being as close to us as possible. In our striving for fulfillment, we use our preoccupations to stymie our lonely thoughts when the only true source of solitude is found in the mystery of an incomprehensibly big God. Divine intimacy and purpose is only grounded in shedding the “illusion that we know what life is all about, that we rule it and determine its values” (131). Control is placed in the hands of God, and it is only in this moment that my heart can be satisfied, isolation can be invaded by solitude, and hostility is trumped by compassion and hospitality. If my time at the Haven stems from this transition from illusion to prayer, then it will not be about boosting my ego or suppressing my longing, but rather an honest desire to create space for others.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

Always cut the tomatoes

TomatoesIn my first week at the Haven on Market Street in downtown Charlottesville while we prepared breakfast, one of the volunteers asked the kitchen supervisor if she should cut up the small tomatoes for the daily pan of cooked vegetables served at breakfast. The response was a resounding “Yes! Always cut the tomatoes.” It was a seemingly innocuous exchange between volunteer and manager, but the explanation was more profound. “I don’t know! A cut tomato shows a little bit more preparation and care than tossing them into the pan uncut.” The significance of such a statement was lost on me until I began to read through Ed Loring’s encounters with the homeless recounted in I Hear Hope Banging at My Back Door.

Throughout the Open Door Community, a Christian residential community in downtown Atlanta, hope radiates in all the dark and unseen corners of homelessness. Ed Loring, the community’s director, can be disgusted by “The Hell of Homelessness” (Loring, 20) which is devoid of comfort, a necessity that “can make us liars and cheats” (15) leading to inequality and oppression. In the same breath, Loring hangs on to hope that “the journey towards justice is the journey to life, to salvation and healing” (8). For Loring and the Open Door, this dichotomy is engrained in their eschatology. In their battle to end homelessness, there is a balance between the temporary pain, heartbreak, and struggle that sometimes characterize their present battle for the end of homelessness and the unflinching and perpetual hope found within the striving for future justice. They are “betting their [lives] on the victory of the cross, on the ultimate justice on Earth” (Loring 72). This hope cannot be shaken by present misfortune and loss brought about by ever-expanding injustice in Atlanta and beyond. It is also unhindered by the blunt realization Loring has that he will not experience the eradication of homelessness in his lifetime. “I can see it; I’ll never touch it” (72). In Atlanta, the Open Door Community has come to the conclusion that they will work their entire lives in order to see change in the deeply entrenched injustice found within their city’s institutions, but will never actually get to see it come to fruition in its totality. The Open Door Community sits in the hell of homelessness refusing to exhibit “a stunted moral growth as becomes those who flee social problems rather than resolve them” (46). They choose to promote “a suffering sacrificial love in accepting the consequences of life with, among, and on behalf of the oppressed and prisoner” (69-70). Encouraged by their encounters with people in Atlanta who are homeless, and spurred on by acts of kindness and love, the Open Door Community faces injustice head-on knowing that they will ultimately be victorious. This may not come during their lifetimes because they are trying to uproot injustice that has been entrenched in Atlanta for generations. Rather, they choose to listen to the hope banging at their back door even when the rest of the block suggests that despair and discouragement should be the appropriate response.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned encounter in the kitchen of the Haven. While there are notable differences between the two organizations–Atlanta and Charlottesville are two different places with different histories–this hope for the future is a distinct commonality. At its core, the Haven is supposed to be what the name suggests; a haven. Like the Open Door, the Haven is “a place of hope where people are given a respite from the daily challenges they face and access to assistance to help overcome them” (Haven Volunteer Manual, 7). In both situations, the desire to eradicate homelessness is the ultimate goal. However, what if these goals are never fully realized in Charlottesville during our lifetimes? Will we become discouraged if we do not see the Promised Land? That is why the tomatoes should be cut. It is a tangible manifestation of the hidden hope to which every volunteer and staffer at the Haven clings. A deep, transcendent hope that care and hospitality, kindness and sacrificial love will not return void. A hope found in the “simple moments and endeavors that redeem life and fill our cups to the brim of love and hope” (Loring, 20). Because we desire to see Charlottesville’s homeless population cared for and to have their immediate needs met, we cut the tomatoes. Because we hold on to an unflinching and undeterred hope that one day homelessness will be eradicated and every person in Charlottesville will have a home, we cut the tomatoes. Ed Loring hears hope when the homeless bang on the back door of the Open Door Community seeking respite; I see hope in the cutting of the tomatoes in the kitchen of the Haven.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.