The following is a talk that Mary Ellen and Ben are giving at Bellarmine Chapel this week. It is inspired by Pope Francis’ “The Joy of the Gospel,” which you can read online here
There’s a way that many of us may know people in need—we’ve met them in a longer conversation when walking on Main Street down town, or we’ve seen them in an overnight at IHN or cooked a meal for them at Talbert House. These times help us see a new reality, but only a small glimpse. We may walk away upset that they took too much from the food pantry or confused about the nice car they drove or heartbroken that the shelter or case manager isn’t doing enough, at least from our momentary assessment.
Over the course of my life, especially my teenage years, I did many of those types things, and also became interested in policy and argued adamantly on behalf of food stamps or public housing or ending “the war on the poor,” as many have deemed it, but honestly I never really knew a very poor person, lived in the daily complications of navigating the system, or extended my home or my personal space in such as a way as have it upset by a poor person’s life.
In college I started volunteering at a soup kitchen that I later found out was a Catholic Worker House. Each time I’d volunteer we’d start with a circle of prayer and scripture where we’d be lambasted by the leaders of this rag tag group, with theological arguments about the call of God to travel with the poor toward liberation—both theirs and ours. Then I’d scoop grits or whatever in a soup line and then I’d wash dishes, usually with a formally homeless person by my side. And over time, though I still didn’t know any poor person very well, I started to feel that God did indeed demonstrate herself more in this soup kitchen than in any church I’d been to. And I stopped feeling so much like those I served food to needed me and started to realize that I needed them and this place. As Pope Francis mentions in The Joy of the Gospel, I was evangelized. Without a papal document in hand, I found Christ in this community, became friends with people that had formerly lived on the street, and began to understand some of the mysterious wisdom of the upside down kingdom—one where cleanliness and order are less important, where you might share your bag lunch with someone even though you don’t know if you’ll have dinner, and where today matters a lot because it’s all you’re guaranteed.
My heart changed and my view of God broadened a lot over the final two years of college and thereafter. I found there were few places I wanted to be more than at that Catholic Worker house, and that increasingly the problems of the middle class and the needs I thought I once had were irritating. And I wanted to go deeper away from all of that and into a simpler life, one that walked alongside people in need. So I moved back to Cincinnati and lived at Grace-place as a live in volunteer, sharing a bathroom and meals and transportation and mass and daily chores with women and their children who were so poor that in a given week they might not have access to even $1. And I was more confused than ever because simple answers to questions like cash assistance for the poor or even what it meant to extend mercy just didn’t work in this context, but I also felt more alive. I prayed more because prayer wasn’t just a spiritual exercise any more, but a daily necessity.
Over the next decade Mary Ellen and I got married and we had two children, Annie and Sam. We lived in Covington and then Norwood and at each juncture we’d ask ourselves “what matters to us?” Our Catholic faith matured as something we shared as a family, and we also rooted ourselves in the vineyard neighborhood community in west Norwood. We realized by living into each day that we wanted to be in a mixed income neighborhood, we wanted to deal with the messiness of neighbors who had need, and we were willing to do that while tackling questions about property value, schooling for our children, and even dealing with neighbors who used and sold drugs, because we believed these places needed us and we needed them. The trappings of daily life still consumed us at times, with occasional conversations about retirement or college funds that made us pause. But at the same time, we wanted our children to understand the problems of the urban core, we wanted a friendship group who valued a simpler life, and we wanted to live out our Christian commitment to those in need by doing more than signing up for a service project. Again, we wanted that because we thought it was a good idea, but also because we believed that the pursuit of the abundant life needed to be about more than the perfect house, the right neighborhood or the accumulation of things.
So over time we began to save money and wonder what else God had for us. We were saving for something and opening ourselves up to some new way of life, but we didn’t know exactly what. We thought of Maryknoll or relocating to Latin America to work at an orphanage and these things captivated our imagination but didn’t seem to fit. And through a series of events we decided to start a house like Grace Place in our own neighborhood, believing that we had an overflow of good in our lives, from good friends, to construction skills to the ability to live on one income, and that we wanted to share that overflow with needy families and share our lives with those, like our friend Meridith, who also wanted that.
The joys of the journey toward Lydia’s House have been many. The challenges have been many too, but it is the loaves and fishes miracle of this past year that stands out in our memory as the dust settles. This past weekend we celebrated our 6th anniversary and the evening was shared with the new homeless family at Lydia’s House. The 12 year old son played with our son Sam on the porch and shared that he’d like to see Disney’s Frozen this Friday night for movie night. Annie, our daughter, chimed in that we have that movie. It was so normal, and our children are growing to care for this family, and yet it’s also so complex.
Our weeknights this week will be spent trying to help our new guest get her things into a storage unit, we’ll alternate child care, and inevitably at least one night will be spent wondering what the best outcome will be for this woman, and what we can really do. Our shortcomings and what we can’t do glare at us each day. It is not a sweet and romantic venture to walk alongside families with extreme need, but it is in these shortcomings that we’ll experience true grace, understand mercy in a new light, and begin to understand the good news of God’s love for all of us who are hard to love. It is here too that we will admit most deeply that we need God.
Pope Francis has asked us to embrace a real and sincere closeness with people in need so that we can accompany them on their journey toward liberation. This life together that we’ve now started with Lydia’s House is indeed, as the Pope has asked of us, a Christian community where the poor feel at home. And oddly we feel at home there too.