Learning humility at the Haven

This week, I have been repeatedly surprised by small, random interactions with strangers. Each has been beautiful, making me stop to appreciate sweet moments of this already-too-short summer. I’ve met a taxi driver named Houston who used to travel the world playing music, and a sweet older man named Bob who taught me about rose gardening. I’ve learned so much from each conversation. I’m especially learning how to listen carefully, to seek understanding before judgement, and to welcome free advice that strangers often bestow on me.

For example, yesterday I met a man, and, during the course of our conversation, we discovered that at different times we lived only a few blocks from each other in Richmond, Virginia. We shared a wonderful conversation, and he ended by offering me some advice. He urged me to find my passion and pursue it, not become discouraged in doing good, and love rather than judging others. He ended with this: “Don’t try to change the world. It is too big, and you are too small. You will become tired and weary. Just do small things. Find work that means something and do it with all you’ve got. You don’t need to change the world; you can just do small things”.

I walked away from that conversation humbled and joyful. His words reminded me of Mother Teresa’s: “Do small things with great love.” They also reminded me of quite a number of comments I’ve received after explaining to individuals what I’m up to this summer. The conversation normally goes like this:

Me describing my summer internship: [says a lot of words about my feelings, homelessness, humanity, writing, theology, justice, more feelings]

Nice, kind person who asked about my internship: “Megan, you’re so incredible!!! See, it’s people like you who are going to change the world.”

I’ve received this exact comment probably a dozen times since I accepted the internship with the Project on Lived Theology, and it fills me with conflicted feelings. Here’s a sample of my stream-of-consciousness thoughts when I hear those words:

  • Ugh, I hate when people compliment me. Laugh it off and act like you’re humble.
  • If you think serving the homeless is so great, why don’t you ever volunteer yourself?
  • I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to serve The Haven this summer. I wish others could experience this too.
  • I’m so excited… I can’t believe these are my summer plans! I’m going to learn so much.
  • Yeah, it’s cool, but I’m not going to tell you how super nervous and apprehensive I actually am.
  • Lol, I’m definitely not gonna change the world…
  • Why do “people like me” have to save the world? Isn’t that your job, too?

Sharing these thoughts feels almost too vulnerable, but I want to be honest. I’m selfish. I’m prideful. I seem to believe that I am worthy of praise, yet I am judgmental of those who praise me. I’m bitter and cynical and self-righteous and critical of good, kind, lovely people’s intentions and altruism.

These traits that I perceive in myself help make Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, intensely relatable as she described her own experiences with those in poverty during her early, radical-communist days, when she was not too much older than I am now. She says: “Our desire for justice for ourselves and for others often complicates the issue, builds up factions and quarrels. Worldly justice and unworldly justice are quite different things. The supernatural approach when understood is to turn the other cheek, to give up what one has, willingly, gladly, with no spirit of martyrdom, to rejoice in being the least, to be unrecognized….I was professing to be a radical. But I was not a good one. I was following the ‘devices and desires of my own heart’” (Day, 59).

One of my favorite guests is a younger woman who I’ll call Allyson. I’ve been working hard to win her respect and friendship. She mostly stays out of the other guests’ way, and often helps out with everyday tasks—sometimes she’ll ask to sweep, or fold our aprons and towels. She has expressed to me that she wishes she could volunteer like I can. But it takes some things to be a volunteer. It takes a full belly, so you have energy to work. Proper clothes. A good night’s sleep, with a roof over your head.

Folded LaundryYesterday, we talked for a while, and it was one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. She expressed her envy that I was a student—she had to drop out of college because of some family financial crises. She hates writing but loves math. She’s smart. She’s fearful that she might be going crazy—that this homeless lifestyle, this constant struggle, this constant instability and struggle might become permanent. Yesterday, she untangled the pesky knots that the dryer puts in the aprons when we wash them. No one had asked her to. No one knew she was doing it. As I watched her, I realized that she would make a much, much better intern than I will ever be.

Day self-critiques, “So, I say, I do not really know myself as I was then. I do not know how sincere I was in my love of the poor and my desire to serve them. I know that I was in favor of the works of mercy as we know them regarding the drives for food and clothing for strikers in the light of justice, and an aid in furthering the revolution. But I wanted to … make my mark on the world. How much ambition and how much self-seeking there was in all this!” (Day, 60).

I am almost certain that I, and every person reading this blog, is in favor of the very small works of mercy we perform at The Haven: frying an egg, handing out socks, listening to guest’s stories. But I am also certain that my own pride, my own arrogance, my own selfishness prevents me, and perhaps others, from seeking truly transformative and selfless justice. It prevents us from being good radicals: because selflessness, generosity, and mercy are radical acts of love. However, Dorothy Day doesn’t recommend that we should radically attempt to change the world: rather, she suggests that we create a world “where it is easier for [wo]men to be good” (Day 181). For myself, perhaps seeking uncomfortably vulnerable humility will make it easier for me to do good.

May this repentance of my pride further the revolution, in my heart and in ours.

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.