I live and work next door to St. Thomas of Canterbury Church in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Our parish runs a soup kitchen and a food pantry during the week, so it’s not unusual for people to be milling about on the church steps.
On a recent Saturday morning while on my way to visit the nearby St. Francis Catholic Worker house, I saw two men looking lost on the church stairs. They saw me walking out of the house attached to St. Thomas of Canterbury and asked if I worked at the church. We struck up a conversation, which altered the course of my day — and impacted my life and the lives of many others since then.
One of the men, Oliver, lives on my street. He explained to me that the previous night, at 2 a.m., he found the other man on the church steps along with his wife and two children. The Venezuelan refugee family had arrived tired and hungry in Chicago that night from Texas with nowhere to stay and no money.
Oliver explained to me that he is underemployed and shares a studio apartment and had no room for the family. But, still, he let them sleep in his enclosed yard outside on patio furniture and fed them food from McDonalds. I took down his address and said I would be back in an hour to see how we might help. My original plan that day had been to enjoy a cup of coffee at the Catholic Worker with my girlfriend and an out-of-town friend visiting Chicago. After explaining my recent encounter over coffee, we cut short our visit and the three of us went to meet the family.
When I think of hospitality, my mind often visits the parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan is confronted with a wounded man in need of aid. He personally takes responsibility for the suffering person in front of him. He dresses his wounds and transports the man to safety. He pays an innkeeper to continue the injured man’s care and offers to come back and pay for any additional costs if the man needs more time to heal. Perhaps the Good Samaritan has somewhere to be, maybe he has business in another town or a wedding to attend. He can’t stick around, but he accompanies the person as far as he can.
When we met the family and saw where they had slept, we were heartbroken. I remember their ten-year-old son had a smile that made everyone else smile. The family was on their own — no connections, no friends.
The Good Samaritan needed help, and so did we. Reaching out to our networks, we found clothing, food, and other basic necessities. The family has moved three times since we first met. They stayed three nights with a family who had two young children themselves. The couple gave the refugee husband and wife their own bedroom. We took the family to a Spanish mass and the priest listened to their story, took down all of our numbers, and said he would be in touch. A community down the street housed them for a month. They needed sheets for the beds in their new, temporary house. Two women texted their friends, and soon we had crowdsourced more than enough funds for sheets.
After a week, an email began circulating and slowly the basic needs for the family began to emerge. Housing, food, healthcare, education, and employment are all coming together. The family is now living in an apartment in the Oak Park section of Chicago and is supported by a few parishes. Not only are their material needs taken care of, but a deep sense of community has been formed by all involved.
I’m not entirely certain what is meant by “radical hospitality.” Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, described hospitality to the poor as a Christian “duty.” Cain asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and Jesus answered him in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We are our brother’s, neighbor’s, and stranger’s keeper.
In the story of this Venezuelan family, many people said yes to helping another. My neighbor Oliver said yes when he stopped to help when so many others had walked by. The priest said yes when he took down their information and called them back to connect them with services. St. Francis Catholic Worker said yes when they took them in and began making calls for help. Lawyers, social workers, parishioners all said yes to the stranger.
In doing so, this family has a home and a chance to create a new life. As we all work towards creating a more hospitable world, let’s remember that the first step is saying ‘yes.’