Thursday, February 28, 2013

Reverse Mission

Henri Nouwen eloquently articulates one of the most blessed spiritual gifts we can ever receive

WHO HELPS WHOM?  The late Catholic priest, activist, teacher and writer Henri Nouwen speaks of  “reverse mission” in these excerpts from one of his last books, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit (Crossroad, 1995).

I first reflected on Nouwen's words when I fostered the redevelopment of Horizon House, a day center that extends hospitality and critical services to homeless neighbors.  I think of "reverse mission" often now, grateful for the graces and gifts I have received from many whom I first set out to relieve, help or serve.

SOUTH TO NORTH.  “While living for a few months in…Peru, I first heard the term ‘reverse mission.’  I had come from the North to the South to help the poor, but the longer I was among the poor the more I became aware that there was another mission, the mission from the South to the North.  When I returned to the North, I was deeply convinced that my main task would be to help the poor of Latin America convert their wealthy brothers and sisters in the United States and Canada.

CALL TO CONVERSION.  “Ever since that time, I have become aware that wherever God’s Spirit is present there is a reverse mission.  When I marched with thousands of black and white Americans from Selma to Montgomery in the summer of 1965 to support the blacks in their struggle for equal rights, Martin Luther King already said that the deeper spiritual meaning of the civil rights movement was that the blacks were calling the whites to conversion.

HANDICAPPED GIFTS.  “When, years later, I joined L’Arche to live and work with mentally handicapped people, I soon learned that my real task would be to let those whom I wanted to help offer me—and through me many others—their unique spiritual gifts.

VICTIMS AS BEARERS OF GOOD NEWS.  “This ‘reversal’ is the sign of God’s Spirit.  The poor have a mission to the rich, the blacks have a mission to the whites, the handicapped have a mission to the ‘normal,’ the gay people have a mission to the straight, the dying have a mission to the living.  Those whom the world has made into victims, God has chosen to be bearers of good news.

KEEP BEING SURPRISED.  “When Jesus heard that eighteen people had been killed when a tower at Siloam had fallen down, he was asked whether these men and women were worse sinners than others.  ‘They were not.  I tell you,’ he said. ‘No, but unless you repent you will perish as they did.’  Jesus shows that the victims become our evangelists, calling us to conversion.  That’s the reverse mission that keeps surprising us.”

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reweaving the Fabric of Community

"The community is a reservoir of hospitality that is waiting to be offered" - John McKnight

One of the most formative books I’ve read regarding community recovery is The Careless Society: Community and its Counterfeits by John McKnight. McKnight believes it is critical for our society to recover--and celebrate--the capacities and gifts of people who are so easily labeled, reduced, and excluded from community life.

BE A COMMUNITY GUIDE. McKnight challenges us to be “community guides,” who see capacities and assets--not merely deficits--in labeled neighbors. As such, community guides “believe strongly that the community is a reservoir of hospitality that is waiting to be offered.” They use whatever resources and influence they have to introduce and guide disenfranchised neighbors into vital community life.

EVERY LIFE IS INTERDEPENDENT. “It is critical,” says McKnight, “that we emphasize the word interdependence. The goal is not to create independence—except from social service systems. Rather, we are recognizing that every life in community is, by definition, interdependent—filled with trusting relationships and empowered by the collective wisdom of citizens in discourse. Community is about the common life that is lived in such a way that the unique creativity of each person is a contribution to the other.”

COUNTERING A CRISIS. “The crisis we have created in the lives of excluded people,” McKnight concludes, “is that they are disassociated from their fellow citizens. We cannot undo that terrible exclusion by a thoughtless attempt to create illusory independence. We are seeking nothing less than a life surrounded by the richness and diversity of community. A collective life. An everyday life. A powerful life that gains its joy from the creativity and connectedness that come when we join in association to create an inclusive world.”

REWEAVING THE FABRIC OF COMMUNITY. Reading McKnight resonates with my heart-felt sense that so-called “homeless people” are first and foremost “neighbors” who have been separated from community. Underlying my work to reboot and reshape Horizon House as a life-changing homeless day center beginning in 1999 was this conviction. Instead of being mere service providers for homeless "clients," we were striving to grasp and embody what it means to offer hospitality to homeless neighbors. In doing so, we aimed at nothing short of community interdependence--removing labels and reweaving these gifted neighbors into the fabric of community life.

There is still much to be done--starting in our hearts and with our perceptions of one another, of labeled people and places, and of the very idea of how belong together in the world. Let's not dilly-dally. There's life, hope and grace to bear in our generation.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Vision of Vietnam

In January 2011, nine friends and I made a 650-mile trek from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Da Nang by way of the Central Highlands along the Cambodian border. I was thinking back on that experience today and found my head full of images and my heart full of gratitude for all we experienced. The investments we made were so modest, I want to make a larger commitment to our Vietnamese friends' initiatives in the future.

View many photos and my daily blog posts of our trek through Vietnam at

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Sunday, February 24, 2013

When Violence Loses

My Letter to the Editor in the February 24, 2013 Indianapolis Star

Random violence won’t keep neighbors inside 

One tile of 100 or so made by students at Indiana School 
for the Deaf placed on an archway along the Monon Rail
Trail just north of 38th Street in Indy.
On Feb. 13, my quiet northwest Indianapolis neighborhood was all over the news because one of our neighbors was shot at from a car while out walking his dog along Dandy Trail. One can imagine how that incident, magnified by broadcast news, struck fear into the hearts of our neighbors and started minds thinking in paranoid ways.

While the shooting could have been tragic, it wasn’t. Rex was treated at the hospital and released. Moreover, the incident was random and beyond anything our neighborhood could have done to prevent or interrupt it.

I reminded my neighbors that we were as safe that night as we were the night or day before. I challenged them to rely on our basic Crime Watch practices and the excellent safety services of our city government. I encouraged them to keep walking their dogs, keep running along Dandy Trail, keep bicycling – to not live the fear they were feeling at the moment. Violence creates far more victims by lives lived in perpetual fear and anger than those whom it initially wounds. It must be defied and denied this crippling victory.

On Feb. 15, I saw the most amazing thing in our neighborhood: Our neighbor who was shot at was again out walking his dog. The TV crews weren’t there to capture that bit of good news. Likely, they were chasing down the next ugly story. But this part of the story is worth telling and sharing because it is about the sanity, courage and confidence of neighbors in spite of violence. 

John Franklin Hay 


Link to the IndyStar posting:

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, February 22, 2013

"What Saved Grace" - A Novel about Compassion

My novel in ebook formats is published on March 23, 2013

Book cover design by Andrea Anibal
I've had this short novel brewing and under wraps for a few years. Hiding it under a bushel, maybe?

I wrote it as a story to convey the beauty and complexity of compassion as I have observed it being practiced in urban neighborhoods over the years of my service in them.

Though I enjoyed creating this story, I make no claim to being a novelist. This is my first work of fiction. I've likely broken lots of novel-writing rules without realizing it. Still, I think it pretty much conveys what I want to express.

I published "What Saved Grace" as an ebook through Smashwords on March 23, 2013. It is available in multiple ebook formats for $4.99. Initially, the title is available at, but accessible on Amazon and other online booksellers in April.

Here's the description of "What Saved Grace":

When a struggling young family moves into an urban neighborhood and seeks help, they find themselves trying to navigate the conflicting compassionate responses of well-intentioned people. As the do-gooding neighbors of Theo and Grace try to sort out how best to help, a sudden health crisis in the family further reveals mercy’s complexities. Through divergent expressions of care, something unexpected and rather wonderful emerges.

This story meets us in our universal desire to offer compassion to people in crises. At first glance, compassion seems simple. A second look begins to reveal its complexities. The ways we try to help people are all over the map. This story explores the sometimes-conflicting range of responses. What happens with Theo and Grace as they seek help from do-gooders who don’t agree on how best good should be done? The compassion they encounter both endears and bewilders. Reading this short, straightforward story will change the way you view compassion.

In “What Saved Grace,” you will walk with Grace as she seeks food for her family at a church pantry and a Catholic Worker hospitality center. You will meet Pastor Rick and Sister Mary, who have very different ideas about how best to help Grace and her family. You will meet David, who lives across the street from Theo and Grace--a neighbor with a knack for growing a good garden. When Grace is suspected of cheating to get more than the agreed-upon food limit from the local pantry network, different approaches to helping sharply collide.  Distinctions in compassion become even more transparent when a family member becomes critically ill.

Pastor Rick is carefully observing the sometimes heartening, sometimes confounding impacts of do-gooding in the lives of Theo and Grace. Once sure of the terms and purposes of his approach to compassion, he begins to challenge the underpinnings of his views as he works with the couple and interacts with others who are simultaneously helping them from different assumptions and for apparently different reasons.

At one level, “What Saved Grace” is a short, straightforward fiction story about compassion. At another level, it is a serious exploration of the nature of compassion and compassionate responses to people in crises. It fleshes out the impacts that the worldviews of caregivers have in the lives of those whom they help. While this story can be quickly read and simply enjoyed, the manuscript has also been used as a study and discussion guide for people who are preparing for--or are actively engaged in--human services and compassionate ministry.  However you read this story, your understanding of compassion will be expanded and your practice of it challenged.

I am announcing publication of "What Saved Grace?" here, on my twitter account (@indybikehiker), via Facebook ( and at Hope you'll consider reading it!

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Can We Think and Communicate Nonviolently?

Breakthrough insights and practices for nonviolent communication and practical peacemaking

I have been recommended or come across three books that I've either purchased or checked out of the public library. All three deal with nonviolence and peace, but not in ways most might consider typical. These works have nothing to do with a protest, march, or sit-in. Each is dealing with the underpinnings of thinking and communication at personal, interpersonal, family, professional and, after that, community and international arenas in the face of conflicts.

ANATOMY OF PEACE. The first book to come to my attention is The Anatomy of Peace by The Arbinger Institute. Told as a story, the principles challenge perceptions of enemy formation and dealing with conflicts within and without. I'm glad Chris Province, an urban activist and founder of Rebuilding the Wall, Inc., recommended it. I can't imagine anyone this book would not help as it is helping me to pay close attention to how I look at conflicts small and large--and how I can respond to them differently than I have in the past.

BREAKING SELF-DECEPTION. The second book, mentioned on the cover of the first, is Leadership and Self-Deception, also by The Arbinger Institute. Also told in story that connects to the first book, this volume opens up awareness to the power of unexamined emotions, reactions, and judgments in relationships at home, school, work, and community. It is equally as important to read, I think, as The Anatomy of Peace if you are searching for breakthrough to better understanding and higher levels of competency in living nonviolently and in witness to grace.

COMMUNICATING NONVIOLENTLY. I happened on to the third book at the public library's audio books section. I have been listening to Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall Rosenberg as I drive around town in my VW or commute on my bike. Listening to Rosenberg offer alternative ways to receive and bear information in situations charged with conflict is insightful. His work in conflict resolution around the world commends him. I am listening to this volume repeatedly, it is so important to me. His approach is reasonable and practical, it seems to me.

PARTLY NONVIOLENT? I made a commitment to try to live nonviolently in every possible dimension of my life several years ago, partly out of a response of faith to the words and witness of Jesus in the Bible, partly out of my conviction that Christian theology points toward it, and partly because I am convinced that the way of violence, under whatever justification, is an insane and costly denial of all that is intended for us in life and in re
lationships near and far. I no longer buy the line that violence, though regrettable, is necessary as a way of resolving conflicts or moving toward peace.

TO LIVE NONVIOLENTLY. Yet the language of violence and anger, I have found, pervades our conversations and common thinking as much as ever. It still profoundly impacts the most basic relationships and problem-solving challenges. It is not enough simply not to not use physical or verbal violence; something greater is pointed toward. I want to bring nonviolence to fully into practice in my relationship with my spouse, children, friends, neighbors, community--especially when differences of opinion, tension and conflicts arise. Understanding and addressing violence and embracing the best practices and creative possibilities of nonviolence, community-building and peacemaking are critical at this point in my life and, I believe, in the life of the world.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Community as Mission

Recognizing and encouraging community has become central to my sense of being

I crafted a personal mission statement at the end of a 3-day personal retreat at a convent in Independence, Missouri in October 1993.  I stated the following regarding my interest in and commitment to community:

"I value my relationships with persons in community in all kinds of settings. I seek to encourage genuine community, confident that it is a key to the transformation of relationships and institutions."

Initially, this attraction to community and sense of community grew out of my reading and fledgling experiences of it.  I was initially drawn to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's and Henri Nouwen's descriptions of community in faith community contexts.  Then, I was drawn to Parker J. Palmer and M. Scott Peck's descriptions of community in wider, so-called "secular" and public arenas.  I was also privileged to be part of a community-building workshop led by M. Scott Peck.  Later, I was drawn to a community-based way of problem solving in the heart of the city.

All these years after stating my mission regarding community, this continues to be at the core of my sense of being and mission.  In fact, it seems that as I have made room for community in my soul's day-by-day development, community has become mission.  Not so much something that I consciously seek to convert people to or can create, orchestrate, or manage, but something I recognize, move toward, celebrate, and thrive in.

Each week, I enjoy rich conversations with people whom I never would have talked to--because of fear, suspicion, religious-based narrow-mindedness, ideology, and pride--in my early twenties.  Now, I count a diverse and growing cross-section of interesting people as my friends.  I continue to be enriched and challenged by community connections I never imagined.

I am amazed at--and grateful for--the diversity of people and relationships in different settings.  I value these and believe my life is fuller and more challenged by them.

I am convinced that this is result of grace, a means of grace, and an intention of grace.

My initial fears that I would be "polluted by the world" by having anything but cursory contact with people outside the walls of the church were unfounded.  Instead, my sense of relationship with God and with my neighbors has deepened and broadened.

I have never felt inclined to relax any personal moral and ethical principles or compromise my personal convictions.  On the contrary, many of the people I have been privileged to encounter have raised and broadened my understanding of social ethics, responsibilities and possibilities.  Without realizing it, these relationships and the diversity of perspectives has served to sharpen my understanding, focus and power of my Christian faith and caused me to rely on faith more than ever.

I want to contemplate this realization more fully, but for now I simply offer thanks to God and to all for the privilege of experiencing the richness of community in a variety of ways and settings.  Community, to me, is essential to becoming and being fully alive, fully human, more God-like, fully present, and fully future-focused.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Friday, February 15, 2013

Radical Metanoia

The needs of the world are too great for us to begin to change unless WE are changed

What a unique and powerful image of baptism, don't you think? It is by
Christina Ramos Instead of
depicting the glorious emergence to new life, this portrays the scary,
deathly submergence of all that cannot sustain authentic life. Perhaps
the moment--seconds, really--of being submerged are more critical to
renewed life and faith for transformed and transformational living than
any other aspect of baptism. Willimon highlights this in these quotes. 
Writing of John the Baptist's call to baptism, Wil Willimon notes that the invitation is not to be clean but to be drowned. The terms are just that stark because the condition of the heart and the needs of the world are just that critical.

Willimon points out that Jesus gets this and demonstrates it as he is also baptized by John:
"As he submits to John's bath of repentance, Jesus shows the radical way he will confront the sin that enslaves humanity. Jesus' 'baptism,' begun in the Jordan and completed on Golgotha, is repentance, self-denial, metanoia to the fullest. John presents his baptism as a washing from sin, a turning from self to God. Jesus seeks an even more radical metanoia."
We want to do better, to be better, to make the world a better place. Our typical way and the ways implemented most commonly in our world are to do so and become so by our own efforts. John prescribes something different and Jesus embodies it: something deeper than good words, better instruction, fuller discipline, careful planning, financial prudence, smarter work--as helpful as all these are--is needed. Bottom line, says Willimon:
"We must submit to change if we would be formed in this cruciform faith. We may come singing 'Just as I Am,' but we will not stay by being our same old selves. The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed, unless conversion of life and morals becomes our pattern... The only to be to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there."
Radical metanoia is the invitation and pattern for those of us who have decided to follow Jesus. Once submerged and newborn, we keep on turning--letting go of the old, facing the new; prying loose the grip mammon has on us, responding to the embrace of grace and embracing neighbors in love; ending our irresponsible self indulgences, focusing outward to act responsibly in light of all people and creation care; laying aside so many self survival justifications, leaning into the promise of the beloved community in which there is more than enough for all.

We sing the Shaker hymn throughout our lifelong journey:
"To turn, turn
will be our delight
til by turning, turning,
we come 'round right."

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Victims of Violence

Violence creates

many more victims 

by lives lived 

in perpetual fear 

and anger 

than those 

whom it initially 


Defy it. 

Deny it.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Journey into Hospitality

Convinced that radical hospitality could bring better outcomes than rescue and service provider models, I hinged my leadership and the futures of our homeless neighbors on it.

I’m not sure when my journey into hospitality as a primary practice for social work and community development began.  Whenever or however it was born, it was fueled by reading Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen.  Particularly, Nouwen’s section “From Hostility to Hospitality” fascinated me.  Nouwen described hospitality as I’d never before imagined it:

“Hospitality means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.  Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.  It is not to lead our neighbor into a corner where there are no alternatives left, but to open a wide spectrum of options for choice and commitment.”

This radical, risky kind of hospitality pointed to something beyond what I was seeing in the practice of compassion in rescue missions and the professional social work in our city.  Rescue missions offered soup, chapel, and bed, but the line between evangelizing volunteers and “homeless people” was sharply drawn and relatively few graduated from this system.  Likewise, professional social workers in the community center I led often felt trapped--dispensing demanded entitlements and garnered resources for persons defined mostly by their deficiencies, vulnerabilities, and at-risk lifestyles.  Staff burned out quickly.  It was clear to me that in both rescue missions and professional social work, often the givers felt taken and the so-called takers were perceived to have little to give.

My consent to lead a homeless day center in a relocation and rebirth of its services in 1999 coincided with a friend recommending Dr. Christine Pohl’s book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Eerdmans, 1999).  Whatever had ignited 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 settings, but in social services and community development.

Pohl challenged caregivers and organizations to view the stranger coming through the door as a gift-bearer, to make emotional and spatial room for each guest, to anticipate their process of recovery in the context of a patient and gracious hospitality, to be open to receive the gifts they had to offer, and to move away from coercive carrot-and-stick behavioral and social change incentives in favor of empowerment and advocacy.  Pohl convinced me.  Hinging my leadership and the effectiveness of our organization to help neighbors end their homelessness on hospitality, I decided to put Pohl’s approach to the test.

As I rebooted Horizon House, one staff member and volunteer at a time, I seeded the concept of hospitality in every dimension—organizational structure, service model, program process, staff training, and architectural design and décor.  I did not have to sell it; when I explained the approach, it was readily recognized as a legitimate and liberating alternative to prevailing approaches.  Pohl’s book coincided with the major shift in social work practice to a strengths-based approach.  Social workers were beginning to be trained to look for and value a client’s strengths, capabilities, and assets over their vulnerabilities.  Simultaneously, community developers were embracing John McKnight’s Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) principles—another complementary movement. 

As Horizon House opened its doors in a new facility in 2001, our intentional expressions of hospitality were tested early and often.  The old ways were easier, quicker, and seemingly safer.  To prevent staff from reverting to typical rescue and service provider modes, I persistently reinforced the concept and kept coaching and training staff and volunteers in the primary practices of hospitality.  I dared them to be different than other homeless services.  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 routinely use the term “homeless neighbor.”

Within a year our outcomes measures 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.

Still, hospitality as a social services model is a risk.  Hospitality can quickly be watered down to a banal cliché in busy organizational life.  We can say “hospitality” but practice something unworthy of its rich meaning.  Hospitality will always be emotionally costly.  It will usually take considerably more of a volunteer or staff person’s time with fewer guests than is thought financially feasible.  It will blur the lines that professional caregivers and compassionate evangelists like to maintain.  It will be a bit more complicated and entangled than funders enamored with tidy flow charts and sharp trend lines like to support.  So, hospitality may not be for everyone or every social service organization.  Even when it works, it may not be supported.

But I am convinced that once an organization and those who are engaged with it have had the experience of genuine hospitality, nothing else will seem quite as good, quite as effective, or quite as close to what is conveyed in environments of sustained hospitality.  The fruit of hospitality is relationship, hope, and community.

In the years since I left Horizon House, hardly a week goes by that I do not encounter a homeless or now-housed neighbor who was once—or is still—a guest of Horizon House.  We pick up on a lingering conversation or talk about our lives or surmise how something in the community might be improved.  I move on from such encounters feeling both grateful and burdened—grateful to be “on the level” with my neighbor and able to receive his or her gifts, and burdened that we have such a long way to go to realize the beloved community which we know in our hearts is possible.  The journey into hospitality continues.

Note: If this piece resonates with you and if you might consider similar radical hospitality as a transformational possibility within the organization you lead and serve, please contact me. I am currently exploring possibilities for direct organizational coaching for better outcomes through radical hospitality.

John Franklin Hay, D. Min.
Indianapolis, Indiana