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From the Inside Of the Inn Door

Shannon McPherson came to join in the work of Casa Juan Diego from the Bruderhof Community

There’s one character in the Christmas story who really dropped the ball. The inn keeper of Bethlehem had this incredible opportunity to show hospitality to the baby son of God, and he shut the door on him. I, however, find him a little harder to dismiss this Christmas season.

As a full-time volunteer here at Casa Juan Diego, I am well-acquainted with the world of hospitality. Here, it’s as proximate as the front door, as real as – yep, there goes the door bell. Inn keeper? I know. That’s my job this year.

Here in Houston, Mary and Joseph mostly turn out to be Cuban, though we receive them as well from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico too. They seek asylum from more distant chaos as well: Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. As it was in Palestine, it’s always a string of distant events, disputes and decisions that drives them here. The Cubans that show up at this door didn’t arrange for a sixty year embargo any more than Galilean peasants called the census. The drug wars that people from Central America are fleeing started long before most of them were even born.

Winter of 0 A.D. found Bethlehem packed. Because of the census, the entire nation was on the road. The inn was full. No, I imagine it was overflowing. There wasn’t space. Full stop. You can’t will an empty bed into existence, no matter how hard someone pleads for help or how congested their cough. But that doesn’t mean they stop pouring into the city, or knocking on doors for help. For many who make it to Houston, the door they find is ours. And my answer? Sometimes it has to be no.

I think I’ve seen by now every possible reaction to a “no” – as colorful, as affectting, and as varied as the people themselves. Some just won’t believe me. They grasp at straws – maybe it’s the language barrier – and explain themselves all over again in over-enunciated Spanish. No, I got you the first time. They ask to speak with the director – maybe this girl can be by-passed. Others just deflate. This was their final destination after days, weeks, months of travel, trauma, hunger, unknowns. This was the door where they were told they’d receive their first welcome. They have no fight left in them. Still others will beg and plead: “Senorita, where should we go? We have no one. Don’t leave us out on the street…” Some people snap. I’ve gotten some passionate earfuls. When one guy simply refused to accept a no, I told him I’d call the police. “Do that,” he said, “it will be warmer in a police car than out here.”

I wonder: how did Joseph handle it? I’ve always imagined a sort of exhausted resignation or acceptance that turned his feet toward the stable, but I’ve seen, too, how a man can panic when his pregnant wife is in question. Never mind when the child is due any day.

The inn keeper is so easy to write off as near-sighted, cold. It was a crime against human rights, what happened to Baby Jesus. We want someone to blame. But was he really just the stingy guy who slammed the door and missed the miracle? Giving hospitality is a work-out, whether it’s for a fee, as his probably was, or it’s free, as Casa Juan Diego offers it, a gift of mercy. Each new guest requires time and energy, to admit and to care for. Yes, that’s the whole reason we’re here, but we’re limited, merely human. It’s essential to take stock of the demands on one’s time and energy before making the call whether they can be stretched further.

I get it. He was tired. You realize quickly, when you live in a constant extreme – if you don’t maintain yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.

Regardless, the need continues to press for alleviation. One trying morning a month or two ago, I was starting to cave under the weight of my own inability to fix the brokenness and fill the deficit all around me when a coworker looked at me and said simply, “we are not God.” Remarkable how such an obvious statement could snap things into perspective. I can’t fix the world. I can’t fix Houston. In truth, I can’t even fix me.

Still, that doesn’t negate my responsibility. Though it’s usually not my first thought when the door bell rings, God is definitely there in the eyes of every person I face when I open our door. God stands there and asks me to help, to do something, however token that “something” must be, however unremarkably I deliver. This I believe — this we believe — and this gives us the drive and the joy to continue, even when the scope so far exceeds our resources.

Tomorrow I will likely open the door to find more Cubans. Hopefully we will be able to accept them – to give them clean beds, hot showers, warm food, clothes, toiletries, safety. Possibly, we won’t.

But, tomorrow, whether I turn those Cubans away or admit them into the house, I can make them feel like more than a burden, grudgingly shouldered or hurriedly shrugged off. If there’s no room for them, I can hear out their stories, let them know their journey matters to me, before closing the door. Maybe I’ll let them use our bathroom, give them a few of the sandwiches saved for the day laborers. I can give them bus tickets to get to a shelter. I can look them in the eyes and tell them God will be with them. And that last bit is a fact, for sure and for certain: as I recall, there wasn’t room at the inn for Him either – He too, will be on his way to the stable if He isn’t already there.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, January-February 2016.