While in seminary over 35 years ago in Washington, D.C., I got to know a fellow named Herbie.
Herbie lived in shelters part of the time; other times, I presumed he lived outside, especially when the weather permitted. He would often ring the doorbell of the monastery I lived in and ask for me. We'd talk, I often would invite him in for food, and occasionally allow him to shower before sending him on his way.
One day, Herbie came in during daily Mass smoking a cigarette. Somehow he had dashed right past the switchboard. As I noticed him coming in from the back of the chapel out of the corner of my eye, I became concerned.
Sure enough, Herbie, puffing away, walked straight up to the sanctuary altar and sat down on the bench immediately before the priest consecrated the bread and wine. Of course, everyone in the chapel, some 40 or so monks, expected me to do something. I approached the altar, slid over and sat next to Herbie and whispered: "Do you want a sandwich?" Fortunately, he replied: "Yes." And off we went.
Unfortunately, the story didn't end there. The next day, my superior asked to see me and went on to remind me that we were a house of philosophy, not a shelter. We focused on study, he suggested. There are shelters downtown for people like Herbie, he reasoned.
I was a bit stunned. I thought we were preparing for ministry, I replied. Thinking of Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25, maybe somewhat naively, I said, wasn't Herbie really Christ walking into our midst? Shortly thereafter the conversation ended, somewhat unresolved.
Unfortunately for my well-intentioned superior and professor of theology, I came into seminary heavily influenced by a 20th century saint named Dorothy Day, who with others founded a movement that was focused on opening up houses of hospitality, offering food, warmth, friendship and a helping hand when needed. More than all of the philosophy and theology classes I've had over the years, the witness and understanding that Dorothy Day and her movement has offered our nation has helped shaped my ministry over these last 40 years.
And that's why I'm so appreciative to be part of a community of clergy and lay people on Cape Ann, which has gotten the message of hospitality and opened its hearts and doors to whomever in the community feels the need to enter.
My church and I are so blessed to be part of Grace Center, housed in the churches of Gloucester, offering love and hope to all those who enter. We are also blessed to be part of Family Promise, a hospitality ministry for homeless families about to be launched throughout the North Shore, including Essex, Rockport and Gloucester.
These wonderful forms of shared ministry can be a challenge to the community; the community of faith that has initiated the hospitality and engages in direct service, but also the wider community that may have concerns or fears about such hospitality. Yet it's a wonderful reminder that we are all called to open ourselves to all members of the community, even those we perceive different from ourselves: immigrants, disabled (emotionally or physically), other ethnic groups, those with a different sexual orientation, the poor or jobless, etc. And it is always my hope that whatever challenges we face in this shared ministry, we will seek ways to address such challenges together, emphasizing our shared humanity.
Kathleen Norris, a contemporary spiritual writer, learned about hospitality while making a retreat in a monastery in South Dakota. Hospitality is central to our lives as humans and as persons of faith, she learned. She suggests that only people who are at home in themselves can offer hospitality. Isn't that something to ponder!?
Dorothy Day taught me that hospitality is "... more than serving a meal or filling a bed, opening our door — it is to open ourselves, our hearts to the needs of others. Hospitality is not just shelter, but the quality of welcome behind it."
I am grateful that the people of Cape Ann are meeting the challenge.
The Rev. Art McDonald is pastor of the First Universalist Church of Essex.