Reflections on our ‘Christ Room’

Note: To protect privacy, we did not use actual names of any person in this story.

By Charles Carney

“And since it all depends on each one of us (not the government), that means we must try to have a Christ Room in our homes where we can shelter others.” — Dorothy Day

“Open your homes to the homeless poor.” — Acts of the Apostles

Don was sleeping (if you want to call it that) on the front porch of the Holy Family Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Missouri in the middle of winter. Mike, a man who worshipped with us at Sunday liturgy, was living in an abandoned apartment building with no heat or water. John was on the verge of having to live in his car. Vernon, a veteran addicted to crack, was living on the street. Alan lived in a hotel for the first week of each month, then moved to the street until he got his next monthly disability check. Arthur lived in a church shelter.

What do all these men have in common? They all left their makeshift dwellings and lived in an open room in our home — some for just a few months, others for more than a year or two.

Roll the tape back to November of 2004. When my spouse, Donna, and I were looking to buy a home in Kansas City, KS we decided to take the following words of Dorothy Day seriously: “… every home should have a Christ room in it, so that hospitality may be practiced. The coat that hangs in the closet belongs to the poor. If your brother or sister is hungry, it is your responsibility.” In her writings Dorothy routinely referred to the fact that her different hosts in the cities that she visited harbored Christ rooms.

Dorothy believed that putting all the responsibility of caring for the poor into the hands of government allowed Christians to shirk their responsibility to the poor and to Gospel values. The bureaucratization of poverty depersonalized it and pushed it away. Dorothy envisioned a society where a majority of Christians harbored a Christ room in their home and where homelessness was simply non-existent.

We have no set rules in our home, except no drinking or drugs. Every one in our community brings what they can. Some have provided food. Others have brought their considerable fix-it skills to save us from huge plumbing and carpentry bills, while others have used the sweat of their brow to keep our yard looking presentable. Some have cooked tasty meals, while others have taken their skills into the community to serve at drop-in centers and overnight shelters. We only ask each person to do what God has put before them. If that means they must spend a good part of their time going to outpatient rehab classes and attending 12 step meetings, then so be it.

But in the spirit of the Catholic Worker, it is important to note that no one “owes us” anything. The gift that they bring to our home is themselves.

When making this decision to open Christ rooms, I had great trepidation. What happens if it doesn’t work out? Will we be safe? Will we be drained of our energy and emotion? Will we burn out? Will it detract from our quality time as a couple and from our overall relationship?

We have seen the vision of Dorothy Day (whose picture hangs in our dining room) at work in our home. I know, as a social worker, that when persons with severe mental illness find housing, they have a 50 percent greater chance of recovery from their illness. Duh! It isn‘t rocket science that when people have a safe, loving place, they feel better. Dorothy Day knew all too well the healing power of loving community.

While there are no fairy tale endings, Dorothy‘s vision has transpired in our home. We remain friends with most of our former community members. Mike and John found income-based housing in the community and both still come back to our place for Holiday meals. Vernon chose to leave our home when we tried to talk to him about his drug addiction. But just the other day I ran into him at the Veteran‘s Administration. He has been clean and sober now for months and has found meaningful work at the V.A. He will be moving into his own apartment in a week. He was very warm and friendly to me. Mike stayed out of trouble from the law but was eventually arrested on an old warrant and went back to prison. But we stay in touch with him and we intend to help him re-integrate into the community upon his release in July of 2010. He says that we were “the only real family” he ever had. Arthur has gone from volunteer to a paid employee at the drop-in center and plans to rent his own place soon.

After four years, I find myself getting away from the fear based questions and instead marveling at the richness of having lived in community with these men who I can now call “brother.” Have there been blow-ups and stresses and conflicts? The answer of course is yes, but not any more than in any other community I’ve lived in.

I have dropped many of the stereotypes I have held about homeless people. Instead, in the messiness of community, I have been forced to confront my own dysfunction. Most importantly, I’ve been challenged to a more radical acceptance of others and myself. Slowly, I learn about the “gentle personalism” that Dorothy talked about.

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