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Crying in the prison parking lot and knowing that your life will never be the same again...
In 2010 I did something that I have always wondered about doing. I picked up the phone, called the ND State Penitentiary and asked the chaplain if he thought there was anything I could do help; he said "YES." I thought "OOPS!" And I began to go to the penitentiary for a weekly bible study, Catholic study, what I really refer to as "my men in the pen."
The first time at the prison was memorable. There were eight doors that clanged open and shut. Individually. Each gate only unlocked when the previous one closed. One by one, clang by clang.
That first evening as I walked the hall, I heard a voice call out, "Hey, Sister K" and there was one of my third graders.
That night I met a son of a colleague of mine from the University of Mary.
At mass I turned and was offered the sign of peace from a man who had dated my niece.
That first night, I went back through the gates, walked to my car, sat in awestruck silence and wept. I wept because I didn't have words to describe what had happened; I wept because I knew I would return, needed to return to that little room eight gates down the hall.
Today I'm going to talk about three aspects of hospitality. I learned the first one that night.
Hospitality is not about one person who is 'gifted' offering to another who is 'needy.' It's not about a 'we' and 'they.' It is about the fact that we are all connected in one God. External situations (such as prison bars) may cause external division but hospitality (as in hospital) is about healing the division. In the words of Thomas Merton:
It's not that we discover a new unity.
We discover an older unity. We are already one,
but we imagine that we are not.
And what we have to recover is our original unity.
What we have to be is what we already are.
I overheard this statement last week at Ministry on the Margins. It says it all:
This is a good place. They treat us like human beings, not homeless beings.
Hospitality begins believing in our solidarity; our oneness. You could have a PHD or a GED. You could be a convict or a Cardinal. Hospitality begins in just really truly believing that we are one.
This moves us to the second aspect – Mutuality
I thought I was coming into the prison to help the prisoners change their lives....after all I have a doctorate! I'm a nun. I'm not sentenced to prison!
I left the prison with my life changed. Hospitality is more about vulnerability than strength. It's creating a space in which every person is free to share his/her giftedness. AND every person is receptive to his/her life being changed by the encounter.
I was blessed with two special grandmothers in my life - and as the oldest local granddaughter I would be invited to their ladies parties. The kind with tiny coffee cups on little saucers. At some point in the party, Nan would clap her hands and say "fruit basket upset." We'd carefully balance those china cups and move to a new seat in order to visit with a new person.
Here's what I learned - 'every person is a special guest with something of interest to say.' It's not like there is one guest of honor or prominence that everyone wants to talk to because they're funny or articulate or inspirational; every person - every person - is a guest of honor with something important to say. Mutuality.
Finally, we come to the third aspect – Mission
Hospitality is not about creating a comfortable place to stay and invite others to 'dip their toes into our magnificence.' but about being empowered to go forth. Hospitality is about moving out from "our table," "our division," "our elite conversations."
It is the challenge of Pope Francis who said, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security." When he was rector of the Jesuit seminary, Francis would look at the shoes of his students. If they were shiny clean, he would ask - Where were you today? You look like you stayed safe in the library and chapel; Remember you're called to let what happens in those places drive you into the slums of the city.
Let's close with this - There is a prophetic dimension to hospitality. It is not so much about creating space for the other within our walls but within our hearts ...
It is meant to uncover our sacred solidarity with all people. It is about the mutuality of welcoming the stranger into our lives/our conversations/our university because we need them and their differing gifts. Finally, hospitality is not creating a cozy place for 'us' to feel good about ourselves. It is always flowing outward, breaking open and transforming our lives and compelling us to transform the world.
Solidarity. Mutuality. Mission.
Crying in the prison parking lot and knowing that your life will never be the same again.