Dinner at the transitional houses is one of my favorite parts of Andre House. A mix of the staff, volunteers, and the guests at the transitional house all eat together. While allowing me to get to know the other staff better, I find the greatest enjoyment in getting to know the guests, since we are equals more so at the transitional houses than at the hospitality center. Most of the men and women are amicable conversationalists, and I have found we have much in common. However, one guest, who I will call Homer, is bit different.
Homer’s first day at the hospitality center was my first day. His trailer had burned down and he needed to get medication from his family when he walked into the Pascente Office. He was eventually interviewed and admitted to the men’s transitional house. He is an extremely skilled welder and quickly found a job that pays over thirty dollars an hour. One would think that with stable housing and a job, Homer would be happy, but he is not. He is in the middle of a messy separation with a former girlfriend as he tries to get visitation rights for the son he had with her. The situation weighs on him heavily, making him moody and morose. Additionally, his job requires a ridiculous commute that requires him getting up at three in the morning, making him extremely tired at the end of the day. These factors combine to make him unappealing as company at dinner.
On a recent dinner, I decided that despite Homer’s mood and my desire to talk with other guests, I would join him at the table. Being in the middle of Compassion, I thought that at the very least I could make an attempt to show Homer the compassion about which Nouwen wrote. As he told stories of his childhood, his mood gradually improved, and we laughed about the detentions he never showed his father and the brussel sprouts his mom made. While not the most engaging conversation I could have had that night, I certainly found it enjoyable and knew that my presence and interest in him had raised Homer’s mood.
The effect I had on Homer was not permanent; a call from a family member that night about his situation put him back in a bad mood, but for a little while I was able to bring him some happiness. I think this is the difference that Rachel Naomi Remen makes between helping a and serving. She writes “Fixing and helping are strategies to repair life. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy” (Remen 62). I did nothing to help Homer in that he remains in the same situation, but I believe I was able to serve him. I met him where he was, and enabled him to see the good in his life. This is acting as a true believer in God, because “if God is pure self-gift [loving service] then self-gift is the image in which we are made” (Himes 56).
Despite the fact that I am made in the image of self-gift, it was not and rarely is easy for me to reach out in love. It requires stepping out of my comfort zone and spending time with someone when initially desiring to be elsewhere. I think the is the “inner displacement” about which Nouwen writes and to which I am called in my time here (Nouwen 70). I did undergo a physical displacement to a totally different part of the country and different community. As difficult as this was, I adjusted quickly and soon grew comfortable. The real displacement to which I am called happens on a daily basis in instances like my conversation with Homer. I accomplish real service and self-gift when I voluntarily spend time with guests outside of my assigned shifts. This requires displacing myself from enjoyable rest, entertainment, or contact with family and friends, but I am called to do this because “the Gospels confront us with this persistent voice, inviting us to move from where it is comfortable (Nouwen 61).