"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers..."
--Tennessee Williams in A Streetcar Named DesireOne of the main values of Casserly House is to simply be a place where we welcome the stranger (this literally means anyone who steps through the front door); this emphasis on being welcoming is particularly meaningful considering the community that we serve.
The vast majority of adults that we work with are recent immigrants who speak very little English. Because of this, many of their daily interactions are often less than pleasant, as people are impatient, make unfair and incorrect judgments, and treat them with less respect than they deserve. As S. Nancy would say, "People just aren't nice to them." Likewise, for many of the kids that we work with, home is not always a welcoming place.
While I have always valued hospitality, this year has taken it to a whole new level, as I have had the privilege of learning to be with people and to be open to whoever walks through that front door. However, while I'm here to minister to them, it's ironic how frequently the people end up ministering to me. I cannot even begin to explain the kindness and generosity I have been shown. Frequently, I have ended up feeling like I am the one is being welcomed.
I am fully aware that my journey does not even begin to compare, but the fact remains that this year I have also been far away from home and family and all that I call dear. While my cultural adjustment has been significantly smaller, the students of Casserly House have never failed to welcome me and made me feel at home, especially at the beginning of the year when everything was new at Casserly House and in Boston.
One recent example of this: I was feeling slightly under the weather yesterday morning, so I went into work about two hours later than normal, meaning I arrived right in the middle of morning ESOL classes. Before I even stepped in the front door, I was greeted by a 7 year old on the front porch screaming my name and throwing herself at me to give me a hug. "We can go inside now!" she exclaimed. Apparently, she had been worried about me all morning and had been waiting for me to arrive on the front porch. The rest of the day continued in this vein, as numerous ESOL students and volunteers expressed their concern for me and how I was feeling (and seriously people, I was absolutely fine).
It's one of the beautiful ironies of this year that at my worst moments, when I feel the most disgruntled and disappointed with people, that someone will step in and express extraordinary kindness to me--even when I am in many ways still a stranger. On my most difficult days, the people of Casserly House have always been there to lift me up. It's been a rough week for me on a personal level, where I have frankly felt pretty disappointed by some individuals. But just when I begin to doubt, these folks step up and remind me how cared for I really am. I can almost feel God's comfort wrapping itself around me just by being in their presence.
My experience of community at Casserly House has been nothing less than beautiful, as I have witnessed people coming together regardless of national origin, cultures, religions, and backgrounds. On the best days, I take a moment to pause and think: this is the kingdom of God at work. This is what community looks like. This is how we are supposed to live.
The old saying is true: "It is in giving that we receive," and as I have learned to be welcoming, I have been welcomed. It is in these relationships (and so many others) that I have so frequently learned to find myself over the course of this year.
"In all the successes and failures, ups and downs, crazy and sane moments of my life, I have learned that I become who I am through my relationships with other human beings. And in those relationships, I uncover the tracks of the God's relationship with me."
--Gary Smith, SJ