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


  1. Eric Paul5:19 PM

    John, I had a few questions I wanted to ask. How did a change to the framework of hospitality change the programs offered by your ministry? Was there a tension between outcomes vs. presence? Also, Pohl consistently writes about the need of a supportive community organized around hospitality. Did you have such a community with a shared vision, commitments, and experience?

  2. Thanks for asking these questions, Eric.

    I actually developed a model for what we did at Horizon House and called it "A Continuum of Compassion." It demonstrated the movement from rescue and providing services to community/neighboring/hospitality. This is the backbone of my D.Min. dissertation, BTW, and the controlling document behind a novel I am about to publish as an ebook.

    Horizon House was/is not a "faith-based organization" (though it took/takes a lot of faith to serve there!), so my effort was to embed hospitality into the fabric of our social work and social service practices from top to bottom. Every guest was to be received as Christ or as a gift-bearer. We changed the roles and terms of service completely. The risk was this: could our studied and careful, non-coercive, non-programmed presence build relationships and trust to the point that our guests would begin to heal, to recover something lost, etc. to the point that they would seek out the many excellent co-located services in the facility, and thus, begin the journey out of homelessness? Would our practice of hospitality and community produce any meaningful outcomes? Answer: beyond our expectations. Horizon House is a United Way-supported organization so our funding was contingent upon agreed-upon outcomes. After the first year, our outcomes in employment, housing and quality of life were better than anything the organization had ever achieved. After years 2, 3, and 4, we were off the charts. Hospitality works.

    The community that shared the vision was our Board of Directors, staff and co-located services. I coached the principles and practices and values of hospitality into them. We adopted it heart and soul. It was a process, but it was distinctive and thorough.

    I am now ready to explore hospitality as we developed it at Horizon House with other human service organizations and community organizations. I want to find a handful of NPOs that are willing to try to embrace hospitality -- radical hospitality -- as their practice. I want to see if what we experienced at Horizon House is relatively transferrable. I think it is. I need to find out. If it is, and if outcomes make significant impacts in lives and communities, we're on to something that bears moving to scale in social services practice and in community development.

    I don't know what is possible for churches, for congregations. They seem to already think they're doing hospitality and are good at it. I think most have adopted such a low level of hospitality that they've inoculated themselves against the viral strain that can transform lives.

    Again, thanks for asking, Eric.


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