Dignity: An Uncomfortable Lesson in Hospitality
Several years ago, I learned an uncomfortable lesson about hospitality. I was working in a congregation-based shelter for families experiencing homelessness in St. Paul. Because the 55 beds that Ramsey County had in its shelter were always full, congregations acted as “overflow shelters,” housing up to 20 people each night. Each month a different congregation would host and staff the shelter in their building. In the evening, families (mostly women and children) would arrive via taxi. Volunteers from the congregation would serve food, help kids with homework or organize activities. The families slept on cots, usually in one large room with very little privacy. In the morning, everyone packed up their belongings and took taxis back downtown.
My role was to be at the congregation for a few hours each evening to welcome the overnight guests and to get the volunteers settled into their responsibilities. I thought of my role as a ministry of hospitality. I tried to make the environment as comfortable as possible for people who had no other option than to sleep in a church basement. I made sure the sheets and blankets were clean, arranged the rooms, coordinated food prep, and prepared volunteers to welcome people effectively. Families often returned for a several days in a row, but the volunteers were usually new each night. Because I was at the shelter almost every evening, I considered myself the host—for the volunteers and for the guests. I was the one who understood the routine and welcomed others into it.
Not Always Comfortable
Over time, I came to feel like I had really learned some things about hospitality. For example, I had learned that hospitality was not always comfortable. The guests often had strong body odor because they did not have regular access to showers. Adults and children alike were tired and hungry and carrying stress that I could not even comprehend. This stress often surfaced as frustration with the shelter rules or as a child’s need to move and be loud in cramped quarters. In my mind, good hospitality meant enduring strong smells without comment and navigating intense feelings with people. But these lessons were just the beginning; I had much more to learn.
One night, the guests were hosted in the basement youth room of a large church with beautiful architecture. I arrived at the shelter after a full day of grant writing and staff meetings to find that the volunteers responsible for food and welcoming had not yet arrived. I opened the refrigerator to find only a quart of milk and a few cheese slices. Had I run to the grocery store, no one would be there to greet the families when they arrived. Irritated, I began welcoming people alone, trying to craft a backup plan to feed the hungry families.
From Host to Guest
Vikki walked in first. She was a woman about 40, wearing a large backpack, carrying her toddler and several grocery bags. Her other five children followed her, each carrying their own backpacks and bags of belongings. Soon Vikki engaged the same routine she and her children shared every night. She walked over to the row of cots and asked each of her children to change into their pajamas and set out their outfits for the next day on the end of their cot. Then Vikki sat the children down at a table to begin their homework. I watched Vikki settle her family into a church basement with more skill and dignity than most parents can muster, even with stable housing and far more financial resources.
On this particular night, as her children were solving math problems and reading out loud to one another, Vikki set up a meal on an adjacent table. Vikki had spent most of the day at her sister’s house with her younger children, while her older children were at school. There she had baked lasagna and garlic bread and brownies and had prepared a salad—not only for her own family, but enough to feed the other shelter guests, the volunteers . . . and me.
Jolted out of my embarrassing irritation about dinner preparations, I helped Vikki get plates and silverware for everyone. As we set the table, she turned to me and said, “Since we lost our place, I haven’t been able to cook very much. I just wanted to cook today.” I nodded as if I understood, but in that moment I realized how much I really did not understand. Suddenly, my “long day” and my frustrations about the volunteer and food glitch felt irrelevant and ridiculous. I was now living the parable of loaves and fishes. Vikki, like Jesus, had turned so little into a feast for everyone. She used her family’s food stamps, intentionally and thoughtfully, to make a gift for people she did not yet know and who likely had more resources than she did.
Dignity Changes Our Perspective
That night, Vikki taught me another uncomfortable lesson about hospitality. True welcome is not just about setting tables and arranging things for people to arrive. It is about honoring people’s dignity so fully that you are willing to be changed by their presence. Vikki taught me that a person’s beautiful presence can affect the way we see the world and our place in it. Real hospitality means receiving people as they are and receiving whatever gifts they bring. Sometimes, hospitality means giving up your role as host and becoming a guest.
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