Friday, September 21, 2012

true hospitality

I've been thinking an awful lot about hospitality lately.

It's something I have thought that I'm pretty good at. I enjoy having people over to the house and to cook food for them. I like to make donuts or muffins or other baked goods to welcome new people to our community. If we have a guest or a friend of the community who is visiting, I'm always quick to offer to host them at my house. I enjoy having people over for conversation. I've even started inviting my coworkers out for coffee (which I pay for), to foster relationships and to get to know them better.

So, I like to pat myself on the back. Hospitality? Yeah, I got that.

But, recently, through some things I've been reading and through situations that are present in my life, I've come to realize that hospitality is more than that. And often, I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be.

Oh, sure, I'm good at welcoming people into my house. I can make a good spinach and mushroom lasagna or whip up a batch of chocolate donuts for people to eat at my table. I can let someone use the spare bedroom in my house for a couple nights, or offer them a cup of coffee and a spot to sit on the couch.

But real hospitality is broader than that. It's more than making a space in your house for someone. It's clearing away the clutter and other things that can get in the way, and making a space of peace and welcome for the other not just on your couch or at your table, but in your heart, as well.

Sometimes that can be easy. The person you want to welcome can make you feel at ease or comfortable. They can make the act of welcoming them seem easy and natural. It can be no problem to offer hospitality to someone who looks like us, thinks like us, acts like us or smells like us.

But hospitality isn't just about offering a space to people we like, or with whom we are comfortable. It's also about offering a space for the other, for the stranger, for people we might prefer to ignore. It is making a space of welcome for all people.

Hospitality is also about welcoming people as they are, not only if they will become as I want them to be. I can't say to someone, "You are welcome here, but only if you change this part about you." Those are not words of welcome and that is not hospitality.

L'Arche is about hospitality. It's about making a space of welcome and inclusion for people who are often on the margins of society. It's about creating a space for adults with developmental disabilities to be able to call their home. When people hear that this is what I'm doing with my life, they often respond with comments about how I must be some sort of saint, or how they could never do anything like that.

In response to being called a saint because of her work, Dorothy Day responded: "Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily."

For me, I don't want to be called a saint because most days I don't feel like one. Ok, pretty much every day is a day I don't feel like one. In my interactions with the people I live with I see all sorts of ways I could have been more hospitable, more inclusive, more welcoming and accepting of who they are and where they are on their journey.

But the thing about L'Arche is that they don't let me off the hook that easily. These people with whom I could be more hospitable are with me everyday. So, when I lose my temper and snap at someone for asking me a question for the 507th time, I can't really just get up and go away and never see them again. Instead, I have to sit next to them at supper that same day.

In L'Arche we strive to welcome all people as they are, realizing that it is these things about us that seem broken or imperfect that make us who we are. Living in this community I have been gifted to see that these people who are often seen by the greater society as somehow lacking or incomplete are really quite remarkable people. They have such amazing gifts to share, if we are willing to take the time to slow down and receive them.

Life in L'Arche is not easy. There are things I have had to give up to choose to live here. Sometimes I have to miss out on things that I would really love to do because I have made a commitment to life in this community. And it can be easy to focus on what I do not have, but if I do that too much than I can easily overlook all that I am gaining.

Jean Vanier, the founder of L'Arche, sums it up quite remarkably in one of his letters: "L'Arche is a school of love where we learn to love others who are different. This requires each person to grow in humility and to work on themselves. It means learning to see each person as somebody in whom God dwells, a person from whom we can receive gifts and who can help us to grow in love."

I have a mug that I use to drink my coffee every morning. It was made by a core member from the L'Arche Daybreak community in Canada. On it there are drawings of four people, two of whom are in wheelchairs, and above them are the words "All Are Welcome." That is true hospitality. That is the vision of L'Arche. And I pray that I might make a space where all can be welcome in my house and also in my heart.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

the muffin incident

or "The Great Muffin Caper"

In my previous post, I make reference to a time when I "practically threw a plate of muffins" at my community coordinator. Having read through that post multiple times, and thinking about that phrase, I can envision all sorts of different scenarios that someone might think of after reading it and not having witnessed it firsthand. So I decided I would write a post to share that story with you, so that you'd know exactly what happened and not have some image of me as a horrible and violent angry person.

It was a Wednesday morning. It happened to be the day of the week we have our assistants' meeting, where we all get together and go over the schedule for the next seven days, and we also would have a time of prayer or formation. This particular Wednesday also happened to be a special day for Thomas, our community coordinator. I'm pretty sure it was his birthday, but it could have been his anniversary in our community. I don't remember which, right offhand.

I enjoy baking goodies to bring to our meetings. I've made muffins and donuts on a couple of occasions, often times for special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries or if it was a new assistant's first meeting with us or someone's last meeting. But often I would just bring treats for fun. But, since today was a special day for Thomas I decided I wanted to bake some muffins to bring to the meeting.

I woke up earlier than normal that day, and had arranged it with the other assistant in my house that she would drive the guys to work on our normal route that day instead of me, so that I'd have time to make the muffins. Now, when I bake stuff in the house, even if I'm planning on using them for some other occasion or place, I usually make enough so that the guys in my house can have one of whatever I'm making because I'd feel guilty if I baked something, and filled the house with a wonderful smell and then they didn't even get to have one. So in the first batch of muffins I ended up with nine muffins, and I gave four away, one to each core member. That left me with five muffins. I figured if I made a second batch, with another eight or nine muffins in that batch, I'd end up with 13 or 14 muffins and that would be plenty to take to our meeting.

Well, as that second batch was baking, I noticed that, for some reason, the oven didn't seem to be getting as hot as it should. The muffins were taking longer to bake than the last batch. After this batch was done, I still needed to take a shower, and then go pick up another assistant from the auto mechanic because he had dropped of his house van and needed a ride to our meeting. So I needed this batch of muffins to bake on schedule. I waited and finally they were done so I took them out. I left them in the pan to cool, next to the five muffins that had already cooled and were sitting on the counter, and I went up to my room to take a shower.

When I had gone upstairs to shower, all but one of the core members in my house were either already at or on their way to their day services. When I came downstairs I was in the house alone. I walked over to the muffins to take them out of the pan and put them in a container with the others to take to the meeting when I noticed that they, in fact, were not done and every single one of them had sunk. They were inedible. I couldn't serve them like that and I couldn't put them back in the oven. Even if that would have worked, for some reason the oven was not working well enough, and I certainly didn't have enough time to wait for them to finish baking or to make a new batch. So I grabbed a plate to put the five edible muffins on, when I noticed that there were only four. Someone (and by someone I mean the only core member who had been home when I had gone upstairs) had decided he needed a second muffin and so he had snatched one when I was out of the room.

I was upset. I had wanted to make muffins for Thomas, to celebrate this occasion. I had wanted to make enough muffins for everyone to have one. I pride myself in my baking skills, because I often get a lot of compliments for the things I bake. But now, because of that stupid oven and that certain core member I had four muffins for more than four people. This was not how I envisioned things happening. For some reason, that was enough to practically ruin my whole morning.

The entire drive to the auto mechanic I was fuming. I just sat there and went over everything that went wrong that morning over and over again in my head. That oven didn't get hot enough. Those muffins didn't bake all the way and then were ruined. That core member stole one of my muffins.

When I picked up my fellow assistant he saw the muffins and made a couple jokes about them. He saw that there were only four and that we had more than four people at our meeting. He thought he should eat one now, just to make sure he got one. He was trying to make a joke. That's how he is. But I was definitely not feeling it that morning. I tried to tell myself not to get too upset about it, but I just couldn't talk myself out of that bad mood. It was planning on hanging around whether I wanted it to or not.

I tried to tell myself that I was just going to walk in and put the muffins on the table and explain to everyone what had happened. And then we'd go on with our meeting. I envisioned it happening that way in my head as I pulled the van into the parking lot and turned it off. But that is not how it happened.

I grabbed the plate of muffins and walked into the office. Thomas and a few of the other assistants were already sitting at the table waiting for the rest of us to arrive for the meeting. He was in conversation with another assistant when I walked over to the table. All of those good intentions went out the window. I was suddenly overwhelmed by my disappointment and anger and I tossed the plate on to the table in front of Thomas and said something along the lines of, "Here's your stupid muffins." Then I said something like, "I am in the worst mood ever." Then I walked into Thomas' office and shut the door and proceeded to have a little bit of a meltdown.

After I had composed myself I walked back out into the main area of the office and started to try and calmly tell them what had happened, but as I relayed the story and got to the point about the core member taking an extra muffin, I got angry again and kicked a chair out of frustration. But then we went on with our meeting, and as we talked and discussed the week ahead I began to calm down and my anger subsided.

When the meeting was over (and after people had split the muffins so everyone who wanted one got to enjoy at least part of one) and most of the other assistants had left, I apologized to Thomas and Kathy, our community leader, saying that I realized that it was just a bunch of muffins and it was really no reason to get upset. Kathy said that she figured I'd come to that realization sooner or later. Then we all laughed at the situation and Kathy called the electrician to go to the house and check out why the oven wasn't working right.

It turned out that something was wrong with our main breaker, and it was getting overheated and so the entire thing was not working right. He said we were lucky it didn't start on fire. I figured then that the entire morning went far better than it could have. At least I didn't have to come to the office that morning and say, "Here are your stupid muffins. And the house burnt down."