Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Part 2 of 3

PUTTING POHL TO THE TEST. My consent to lead a homeless day center in a relocation and rebirth of its services in 2000 coincided with a friend recommending Christine Pohl’s book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Whatever had ignited and fueled my fascination with hospitality as an alternative in compassionate care found roots, form, and flower in Pohl’s careful research and caring call for a recovery of hospitality not just in congregational life, but in the broader social service system. I decided to put Pohl’s approach to the test, hinging my leadership and the effectiveness of our organization helping neighbors end their homelessness on hospitality.

STRENGTHS-BASED AND HOSPITALITY-FOCUSED. As I rebooted the organization, one staff member and volunteer at a time, I seeded the concept of hospitality at every level. I did not have to sell it; when I explained the approach, it was usually readily recognized as a legitimate and liberating alternative to standard professional practice. The fact that Pohl’s book was also coinciding with a major shift in social work practice to a “strengths-based” approach was helpful. Social workers were beginning to be trained to look for and value a “client’s” strengths, capabilities, assets, etc. over their vulnerabilities. So, it was easier for me to help them see the stranger coming through the door as a gift-bearer, to make room for them, to anticipate their process of recovery in the context of hospitality, and be open to receive the gifts they had to offer.

TESTED EARLY AND OFTEN. As Horizon House opened its doors in a new facility adjacent to downtown Indy in 2001, our intentional expressions of hospitality instead of merely providing services were tested early and often. The old approaches were easier, quicker, and apparently safer. I found that I needed to persistently reinforce the concept and keep teaching and training staff and volunteers in the primary approach and practices of hospitality. I dared them to be different than other homeless-serving organizations. I challenged the entire city to say “homeless neighbor” instead of the usual labels, believing that our very language bears images into which we live. I felt we might have turned a corner in the broader community when I heard our mayor begin to use the term “homeless neighbor” routinely.

CRITICAL OUTCOMES. Within a year our outcomes in percentages of guests who were no longer homeless, who were working, and who were reporting an increase in their quality of life were slightly better than other homeless-serving organizations in the city. After two years, our hospitality-based outcomes were distinctive. This trend has continued in subsequent years.

WHAT ARE ITS POSSIBILITIES? But hospitality is neither easy nor automatic. It flies in the face of the vast majority of service-focused organizations. Can it be sustained? Will it be supported? Can it move to scale without losing its distinctives?

To be continued...

1 comment:

  1. Great questions, John:

    WHAT ARE ITS POSSIBILITIES? But hospitality is neither easy nor automatic. It flies in the face of the vast majority of service-focused organizations. Can it be sustained? Will it be supported? Can it move to scale without losing its distinctives?

    It does indeed fly in the face of service-focused organizations. That's one of the things I love about that article by John McKnight that appeared back in the 1980's in "The Other Side" Magazine. It was called "Why Servanthood is Bad." McKnight was unhappy with the title that they gave it -- but later he said -- it really made people think.

    I'm glad you are asking whether this view can be sustained or supported. But I've set my sights much lower. Can it be tried? I'm constantly struck by people wanting to "teach" people things (which is not a bad thing) -- but they never see their students as "potential teachers." One of my least favorite things is "life skills" curriculum and classes. I can tell you that many of the people taking those classes know often a whole lot more about "life skills" than those who teach them. And what type of message is it if you hear constantly "you don't have life skills. You need me to teach you how to live."? The message that is conveyed is "you don't even know how to live (it's amazing you are even alive)." Having spent my entire ministry in low-income communities I am struck by the fact that the biggest obstacle truly is that people don't believe they have any gifts -- because everyone around -- the social service system, the churches and other religious institutions, television, the newspaper, the internet all combine to say "you only have needs." People get that message loud and clear. Hospitality -- real hospitality is indeed the answer. You know you have been treated hospitality if after entering someone's home they say to you in one way or another -- "Hey, could you look at this with me -- I'm not sure what to do? What do you think of this?" -- etc... Jesus came eating and drinking. That's probably a good place to start.


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