As Sr. Linda, my supervisor at Visitation Parish, told me early on- "We're the only game in town!" No, we're not the only social service agency in the Kensington, not by a long shot, but in terms of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, we are the only society in the city and our sister societies are at parishes in Greater Philadelphia (i.e. the suburbs). So in terms of serving the need for accessible and free assistance, Visitation Parish is it. The parishes we partner with give us financial assistance, but if you are looking for a Vincent de Paul Visitor to come to your doorstep, talk with you, and give you a voucher be prepared to see my smiling face!
It was a late afternoon during the second week of September that I showed up on the doorstep of a home in Northern Philadelphia. What had been a heat wave a week before had cooled with the earliest chill of fall in the air. After a few wrong turns and then redirection, I found myself pulling up before a nondescript row house, typical of any neighborhood in Northern Philly- storm door, wooden steps, and bare porch- a slight variation of the row house that I currently live in, which trades the porch and the wood steps for a concrete stoop but otherwise is just another row house in the landscape of row homes that dot the landscape. I was outside of my normal jurisdiction as a Vincent de Paul Visitor but had made the appointment to visit anyway thinking it would be nice to explore the area around LaSalle University.
Since I was fifteen minutes late, the woman I was visiting was at the door waiting for me. We exchanged pleasantries as I entered her home. What do you say to someone who has come to assess your house and the life you've built? Somehow "Hi, how are you doing? Beautiful day isn't it?" doesn't quite fit the bill.
I explained who I was and the process that we would be going through, a simple tour of the house so I could see what furniture was needed and could fill out a voucher for the necessary furniture and clothes so she could pick it up at the Vincent de Paul warehouse. As we began our tour, I noticed a little girl making her way through the house with us. I asked her her name and age and bashfully she responded that she was Kaio (pronounced Kay-O) and that she was 5. "Oh so you must be starting kindergarten this week then!" I chirped back. She shook her head, a bit taken aback that this strange visitor was paying her any attention.
"No, she's starting pre-K", her mother stated, smiling kindly on her daughter.
"Oh! Well you must be excited and I bet your mom is too!" I said to both of them. Kaio avoided eye contact smiling at her shoes while her mother grinned, assuring me that it would be a welcome break.
Raising five children by yourself is no easy task, no matter where you live. But in a community where support is scarce and in a four-room home that is furnished by only two mattresses on the floor of one bed room, the task is even harder. As we talked, I learned about their life, a life strikingly similar to many of the homes I've visited over the last few weeks. A single mom, making ends meet and trying to survive not only for herself but for her children.
I try to ask a lot of questions of the people I visit, judging by their answers and general demeanor I determine how deep I can go/ how much they want to or are willing to share. My hosts are my neighbors and I must always remember that I am their guest. I have been invited into their home and it is in their hospitality that they share with me.
It is easy in my position to presume that I am giving to people who need so much and it is easy to assume the posture of a savior, to give myself a position of power/superiority through my ability to meet the needs of those I am serving. The threat of this presumption, this entitlement is present in each home I enter. I could be a savior to that little girl. I could rescue her mother. I could give them a couch and a dinette set. I could make this broken house a home. With disparate pride, I think I could, but really I can't nor should I think I can.
My job is to be a guest. To be welcomed into the home of another, to visit with them, to be gracious for what they share and to leave having taken something for the journey. What I take from each of these hosts is different. I hope that by being the attentive visitor I take something that will lighten their load, that by truly hearing their needs, needs far beyond a few pieces of furniture, I might be able to bring to them hope and gentleness in a world greatly deprived of both.
As guest, I find hosts willing to be vulnerable and in turn, I must be vulnerable too. While I strive to be Christ-like in my visitations, a savior I am not. I am not saving anyone. I may bring good news but ultimately it is those I encounter who are the one's in whom I encounter Christ.
The suffering Christ.
The simple Christ.
The very human Christ.
The sacred Christ.
The Christ who greets me, no matter how late or lost I am, at the door of an unassuming house. With a smile that shines through layers of filth and from behind faded eyes, he says, "Hi, how are you doing? Beautiful day isn't it?" and somehow in all its pleasantry and reality, humanity and divinity, that fits the bill.