Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Welcoming Presence

By Alex Darr

Welcome’s mission statement reads:
“Welcome seeks to provide a faithful response to poverty and to improve the quality of life for individuals in our community by providing: hospitality; education; food; and referrals for housing, health care and drug and alcohol treatment.”

Living out this mission in the context of the meals Welcome provides on Tuesday afternoons and Saturday evenings requires presence. In his book “Living Presence,” Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski calls presence “the quality of being there.” This means an attention to the food we prepare and serve: Is it healthy? Is it tasty? Would those serving it be pleased to eat it? Will there be enough for all the guests? It means an attention to ourselves, to continue our process of learning together: What do I notice about the volunteers? The guests? Which of my assumptions turn out to be wrong? How might I have done that better? In an ever-changing landscape of services, the ability to provide referrals requires ongoing attention to what is available, as well as attention to those we are referring: What are the new resources? What resources are gone? How do the referrals turn out? Which providers might be easy for which people to work with?

Hospitality, out of everything we attempt to provide at Welcome, requires the most presence. Real hospitality is presence, and is the core value that underlies all that we do. Our guests can taste the care the cooks put into the food we serve. Guests and volunteers return to our meals again and again – some can be counted on to be there almost every night – because the connections formed are real, and those connections are the reason, beyond the food, that we all are there. When we show up, no matter how we are feeling that day, we open the door to relationship and the mutual transformation it invites.

At a recent meal, a guest asked for a new garbage bag to replace the one he was carrying his things in, which was full of holes. These kinds of things are among what we attempt to provide – we do not have a “garbage bag program” and aren’t prepared to hand out bags to everyone who comes to our meals, but if an individual has a need, we attempt to meet it. A few minutes later, a volunteer came looking for a mop, as someone had lost control and made a huge mess in the bathroom. The guest who had just gotten a garbage bag quickly spoke up: “if you give me the mop and bucket, I’ll clean it.” This was an easy offer to accept. Once the mess was cleaned, our helpful guest said “hey man, you helped me out, so I helped you.” Sometimes it is that simple.

As it turned out, this story was not over yet. Three days later, this same guest came to Welcome again, this time to ask a difficult question: “I know drinking is bad for me, but I don’t want to stop drinking – how can I stop drinking?” My experience is that the transformative power of relationship comes through how we help each other see ourselves differently. By this guest asking me for help handling their addiction, I was invited to see myself as someone who can help another person in their struggle with addiction – and being asked made me feel good. Similarly, I imagine that the act of volunteering to help out with the cleaning might have given our guest a different view of himself – maybe only slightly different, but something changed enough that he chose that week to ask for help with his addiction.

These simple, but sometimes profound, actions and reactions don’t require great skill, knowledge, or training to bring about. You don’t have to be someone special, or at least not someone more special than yourself, to participate in personal transformation. You do have to be present. Fortunately, that is something all of us can do – right?

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