I still remember my first experience with backpacking ministry. I had volunteered for organizations who help the homeless community before, but I quickly learned this was different.
I signed up to join through my parish, St. Aloysius. What I admire most about St. Aloysius is its heart for the homeless community in Detroit. Placed right in the midst of the city, it isn’t a place that shuts its doors and lives separately from the reality of poverty: it engages it as part of its identity.
Backpacking ministry’s vision of hospitality is meeting people where they are instead of asking them to come to us. We travel around with a wagon of supplies — sandwiches, hygiene supplies, socks during the winter — that no one has to “earn” by coming somewhere. We go into train stations, bus stations, or are invited into tent communities.
It’s easy to serve in a place I am comfortable and pass out supplies, serve food, or talk with people who are expecting conversation. It’s another thing to be outside of your usual space, going up to anyone you see, and asking them if they would like anything.
For the first few people we encountered, I hung in the back. As much as I don’t like to admit it, I was uncomfortable with approaching people without warning. Soon, however, I went up to a man, asking if he would like anything. I soon learned his name — Paul — and his interests, and we ended up spending a while just chatting. We talked about his plans for the day, NFL games, and we bonded over our mutual love of fall.
By the time the conversation was over, I almost completely forgot to give him the things I had originally offered him. I rushed over with the supplies, embarrassed. He smiled, and said that the casual conversation made his day. It still stuns me that something this small, something I was originally uncomfortable with, was a light in his morning.
This outward view of hospitality focuses on the person instead of what we could give them. It allows us to swallow our pride, even if just a little bit, by taking us where we are unfamiliar. I don’t remember what I specifically handed to Paul, but I do remember him asking me if the Detroit Lions are going to win on Sunday (it’s the Lions, so they likely…no). The times I’ve gone since, I’ve been amazed by the wonderful stories of wonderful people, the gratitude shared between two parties, and a newfound conviction to travel out of what is comfortable.
While it can be rewarding, it’s definitely a riskier and more heartbreaking way of hospitality. You’re more likely to be rejected by someone you approach randomly as opposed to someone who willingly comes to your doors. You encounter the messiness of humanity and poverty in a much more real way by bringing yourself to encounter the reality. When we are in our own preconstructed conditions, we control what reality we see.
Dorothy Day captured this in her writing. In her book The Long Loneliness, she says, “We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” Serving the homeless shouldn’t be glorified — that makes it easy to put aside when it gets difficult. When I’m not careful, or when I have a particularly tough backpacking ministry experience, service becomes a once a month checkbox. Living in Detroit, I encounter it every day without actually encountering it. Backpacking ministry can only be once a month, but it can also be a daily lens of outward hospitality.
We shouldn’t be asking “what is hospitality?” We should be asking “what can hospitality be?” I used to think of hospitality as simply hosting people in a space that I set up. I thought of when my friends come over for a football game, or when my work puts on events for students to attend. While these are all forms of hospitality, it can also be making eye contact with someone who has the same human dignity that you do. It can be asking the name of a homeless person looking for money, even if you don’t have anything to give them. It’s more than making people feel at home in your quarters — it’s bringing them a piece of home in their own space.