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.
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.