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Hospitality as Martyrdom

Now we really know why no one likes doing hospitality!

Here we are knee-deep in doo doo (pronounced poo poo or ca ca in

Nothing works, nothing flows. “Back up” takes on a new meaning–no
 longer reinforcement, but that which went down came back up.

It is not a pleasant sight. “Doc” from Crown Plumbing kept saying we
 could use the toilets and not worry–but it would take a troop of
 psychiatrists for us to feel good about his therapeutic approach, which
 was, “Brown goes down and yellow is mellow.” Little does he realize 
that it’s like the proverbial balloon that you squeeze and the air goes
 to another part. The same with plumbing. What goes down in one area 
comes up in another.

We knew we couldn’t house people anymore in our men’s house. It was a fright.

Meanwhile, we had to do something with our fifty guests. Doc’s theory
 wouldn’t hold water–much less doo doo.

We started immediately to find places to take the men that would house
 them for several days while Crown fixed the plumbing.

The first shelter we headed for was the Open Door Mission. We know
 Steve Bolton and figured he would help us out. They accepted twelve of
 our guests with not a lot of hesitation. We had called ahead and they
 said that they would accept twelve men because they knew us and also
 they knew it was only for several days because Crown would have things fixed.

Next we headed to the Salvation Army with twelve more guests. We know that it’s a nice place–we called ahead and they said, “Y’all come!

We walked in with the twelve and as soon as the door closed behind us
 three men bigger than Houston Rocket Alaju-won screamed, “Up against the wall, up against the wall!” and “Take off your hats!” Even we wanted to dive for the floor–though we have been doing this work for years and don’t scare easily. You have never seen such frightened men. We thought no one would stay, but fortunately they trusted us and stayed.
 There was really nowhere else to go.

We explained that the Salvation Army deals with some of the toughest
 street people in Houston, so they have to be strict. We reminded them
 that some men who don’t get what they want from Casa Juan Diego say that they are going to come back to kill us. So there are some tough guys
 out there.

New Spanish-speaking immigrants are very frightened of African Americans who speak English. Actually, many guests at Casa Juan Diego are African Americans, but they are Spanish-speaking, from Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic or Colombia. They, too, share this fear. Hopefully, one day all will come to understand the other. They are all poor.

We gave the Salvation Army a check for $252.00 to keep the men for three days, which is what Crown needed to fix the plumbing.

We had more men to place, so we offered to help with transportation for
 those who had family or friends in other cities. As we gathered at the
 bus station, all the stranded people joined us and there was an awful
 crowd–so much so that the sheriff’s deputies came after us and were
 about to arrest us for creating a riot.

We were able to get a dozen or so on the bus. We headed back to the
 place Crown’s Doc described as “Brown goes down, and yellow is mellow” to care for those who remained.

What to do with the rest? We thought about a cheap motel, but as we
 were heading to the motel a group of men was returning from the Open
 Door. “Those guys are going to kill us,” they said. It was too late to
 explain that they (the Open Door) have to deal with some of the toughest 
street people in Houston and thus have to be strict. We reminded them
 of some of the tough guys who get drunk at Casa Juan Diego and want to
 beat up everyone.

The motel accepted us and our money. It was a delightful negotiation,
 in English and Spanish and Vietnamese. We put four guys to a room and
 gave extra blankets and several days’ food supply, because we knew Crown would have everything fixed in several days. It was cheaper than the Salvation Army.

We returned to Casa Juan Diego men’s house to see how things were going.

We became like St. Peter of Alcantara who never looked up for years so
 that he could stay recollected. We didn’t look up because we didn’t want
 to see any homeless men we couldn’t help. We could not face them.

Meanwhile Crown brought one of those big mechanical snakes which (one would think) could open anything. It didn’t. They called a supervisor who said they would send a crew to fix it on Monday.

On Monday they sent another team with the same snake to open the sewer.

It didn’t work.

After several days of phone calls and pestering on our part, Crown sent 
a team to dig. The personnel change and the language changes when it
 comes to digging in “deep doo doo.” All are now Spanish speaking. This has happened before and we expected to use our Spanish. Crown was probably being sensitive to the fact that our place is Spanish speaking.

The first thing that had to happen was writing a check for $900 plus
 dollars for Crown before a shovel hit the ground. (We have paid Crown a mint over the years for work on our various houses, but that didn’t seem
 to matter.)

Bad News

After digging awhile, Crown announced the bad news. They said the city line that we were connected to was broken and the city would have to fix it first.

After more time passed, the city came out. But they said it was Crown’s

The next day Crown sent another crew to investigate, only to say it was
 the city’s fault.

The city returned with a crew to investigate to say it was Crown’s
 fault. The next day Crown sent a crew to say it was the city’s fault.

They sent a crew to investigate to say it was Crown’s fault.

After days of blaming each other and us calling daily, one of the city
 sewer men told us that the “supervisor of all supervisors” was coming
 tomorrow. He came and said that Crown must fix it.

They did. The three or four days had turned into fourteen days.
 Finally, we could stop looking down and again greet guests.

Vow of Hospitality

We write this to share our frustrations about hospitality–why homeless
 funds tend not to go directly to hospitality.
 One can understand why someone has recommended that we need a vow of hospitality to continue this work–like Eileen Egan’s vow of

Recently, someone mentioned that they had passed through the hospitality
 phase–meaning they are no longer doing hospitality, but have passed on
 to a more profound phase like “changing structures.”

Hospitality is the hardest thing we do. Someone is always sick or angry
 or drunk. Babies are born around the clock. People have to find a
 place to move to. Or the immigrants call St. Joseph’s parish to say we
 are not nice enough, when refused something we cannot offer.

Or, after receiving a bed, food, clothing, medicine, dental and medical
 care and transportation to wherever they want to go, they come with a few
 rusty cans of food from a church pantry to ask why we can’t be nice like
 these Christians.

It goes on and on and on and on and on.

True, if we can’t stand the heat, we should move out of the kitchen.

But fortunately, the heat of God’s love and that of the immigrants can
 counteract any pain, even the heat of Hell’s kitchen.

The words of our faith encourage us and give our work of hospitality
 meaning: “Let brotherly and sisterly love abide in you, and do not 
forget to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels
 unawares.” We know that the classic sign of our acceptance of God’s
 mystery is welcoming and making room for the stranger.

Pray for us that we may continue to welcome the stranger and the angels,
 at least when the plumbing works.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 2, March-April 1997.