By Mary Ellen Mitchell
The Jesuit Catholic Tradition teaches that the more we embrace our humanity with all its limitations, the more our divinity is revealed. We follow in the footsteps of Jesus, both fully God and fully human. This paradox sets the stage for the tyranny of time to be a gift. Perhaps there is nothing more human than the ticking clock; the knowledge that our time on earth will end. Our finite nature seemingly raises the stakes on the choices of each day. It’s in these choices, both the mundane and the consequential, that we make a life.
Watching kids grow and change has perhaps been the most fully human and fully divine tasks of my life. Time is racing by, and this, my 40th year, brought the joyful/sorrowful realization that I don’t have any babies at home and won’t be having any more. Jacob started Kindergarten and fall of this year brought new commitments. Both Annie and Sam had nightly sports practices, we caught up on long delayed health and dental checkups, I trained for a 10K, Sam progressed in piano, I joined an Ignatian spirituality small group at church, Annie started youth group, Ben jumped fully into managing the Lower Price Hill affordable housing project, and our family took three big camping trips. At Lydia’s House we on boarded new staff, introduced a new paradigm for mentoring two year staff members: “The Fellowship Program,” reintroduced in house celebrations and mandatory meals, revamped our annual Women for Women fundraiser, continued our capital campaign and the search for contractors to renovate 1801 Mills Ave, and started back Montessori religious education for preschoolers. During the month of September, especially, I was busy and at times overwhelmed. When I collapsed into bed, I’d wonder, “What happened to my time today?”
Many days over the last three months Meridith (the other co-director) and I could be found in our shared office wringing hands, assessing changes that need to be made and programs that have had varied degrees of success. At the heart of these ruminations is “What is a good use of our time and energy?” It’s clear to me, nine years into this experiment, that my time can always be filled. What do I do with the freedom that directing an organization allows, the mandates that specific grants put on our operations, and the ever pressing question, “What is best for the families we serve?” At a personal level I often ask what is best for all that I steward, for me, for my family, for the building of God’s beloved kin-dom? Although I’ve asked it again and again, the question of how to use my time always seems new and challenging, even as I realize that my life and this organization and all that seems so pressing is just a tiny blink on a giant radar.
When I arrive at work on any given day the temptation is often to get pulled into the latest crisis or failure or whatever my email or the ringing phone dictates. Our giant poster-size notes pull me in other directions: do we expand the car program or discontinue it; do we buy more buildings or call it a day on property acquisition; do we put more time into the formation of the fellows or more time into getting our current or former guests into counseling? When we decide to dive deeper, Meridith and I winnow down more. Do we enjoy being landlords? Do we want to do young adult formation? What achievements seem to last with the guests?
As the fall has unfolded more, our collective time is going increasingly in the direction of child enrichment, outings and celebrations. Each Thursday night I’m one of at least five adults facilitating our “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” religious education program for Lydia’s House and neighborhood 3-7 year olds. It honestly takes one adult to bring them into the room, one adult to receive them, one adult to help with cutting and gluing, one adult to take out kids who are being disruptive, and one adult to lead the program. Thursday nights, including the meal and aftercare, are an all hands on deck event.
If we consider that the staff of Lydia’s House field calls from women living in cars, respond to food insecurity requests, develop housing, accompany child birth… this program seemingly shouldn’t rise to the top to consume many, many hours of staff time. It has, however, because lengthy discernment revealed to us that we care deeply that the kids in our circle be exposed to the life and teaching of Jesus; because we see these very young children genuinely express interest in the divine; because Jesus angrily admonished the disciples when they thought children were a waste of his time (Mark 10:13-16); because we’re committed to offering respite care to single moms; because one of our guiding values is beauty and the space and materials and experience are beautiful.
When Meridith and I were in college we were attracted to this quote: “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” (Cardinal Suhard)
As Lydia’s House evolves, many of our programs do make sense absent the existence of God. People on both sides of the aisle politically and across the belief spectrum agree that families should have housing, children should not live in cars, and nutritious meals are good.
Other pieces of our program, and thus our uses of time, are less compelling through a secular lens. In the Bible, Jesus tells a story of two sisters: Mary and Martha. While Martha does housework, Mary enjoys the presence of Jesus, who is visiting. When Martha complains about Mary’s absence in the kitchen, Jesus tells her Mary chose the better way. Is it important to celebrate every birthday, place rocks with volunteer names at the center of a prayer labyrinth, and take formerly homeless kids fishing? Should we extend staff meeting times by adding a time of lament? Should we gather each week to pray for our guests and share how the work is impacting us personally? Should we put fresh flowers on the table, weed said labyrinth, repaint the colorful chairs in the dining room annually, and change out the art in the bedrooms? Should we spend hours carefully making handmade dioramas of the life of Jesus so children can play with them and sometimes break them? The Martha in me says no. I’m grateful, however, for this scripture story to help us remember that God’s ways are not always efficient, easy to track or even valuable to much of the world.
I imagine if we ever stop asking how our time can be best used, it might mean that this Lydia’s House dream is done. If the opportunity cost of time is no longer pressing, if considering what Jesus values (and whether or not we’re seeking it) no longer causes us to pause, we might fail to see the Kin-dom breaking in. It’s not easy to frequently return to the drawing board, or giant butcher paper, but we keep at it. Please pray with us and for us that our time be used well, in collaboration with God and in the living out of our vocations.
Organizationally, we’ll be doing more discernment on the bigger questions, but we’re currently committed to the following work in addition to providing housing and support services (although some of these things take up a lot of time!):
- Continuing to offer spiritual programming, including family worship services and children’s religious education
- Honoring the belovedness of our families, staff and volunteers through celebrating them and their milestones and lifting up their strengths
- Providing hospitality that is both lovely and vulnerable, including keeping our interior spaces and yards well-maintained, accepting hard-to-house families, providing delicious and nutritious meals that are eaten as a community
- Creating community for both current guests and aftercare families including offering parties, events and friendship for all active Lydia’s House aftercare families, regardless of the date or duration of their stay
- Communicating honestly with our volunteers, donors and those in power about the needs of our families, the challenges they face, social change opportunities and the brokenness of the world