Reflection by a Staff Member - Ode to a Mentor

by Lisa Roncella - Hospitality Monitor

About nine years ago, I met one of the most beautiful people I know, Michael.  I met Michael while doing laundry on the corner of 24th and Florida.  I don’t know what Michael saw in me, I was a walking train wreck, but one day he invited me to coffee.  Over many weeks that turned into years, Michael and I got to know each other. He would share his spiritual journey and insights.  He was so deep that I would be left lost as the beauty of his thoughts and insights bathed me in wonder.  Sometimes as desperate as I was to catch a drop of that beauty, I would just tell him my mind is too damaged by drugs to follow.

He witnessed my endless tears with love and compassion.  I shared my love of the Prayer of St. Michael the archangel, which begins “Defend us in battle…”  I knew I was either dancing or battling with my demons.  Michael was a physical manifestation of St. Michael in my mind.  Whenever I asked a question that had no simple answer, Michael would say "Who knows?" Then he would take a long pause, and answer "God Knows" Over time I learned to respond, "God Knows."

I remember the day I shared with Michael the fact I had sideswiped a big rig on the freeway in the East Bay while under the influence of psychiatric meds, ending up passed out in the center median of the freeway; never mind, the fact that I didn’t end up with a DUI.  I woke up the next morning in the emergency room amazed and deeply grateful that I hadn’t killed myself or someone  else.

Sharing my amazement with Michael, he said, “Grace” as in Amazing Grace.  In that moment, I was rendered speechless as I sat in humble awe before Michael.  All braggadocio vanished.

The other day while wandering down 24th Street, Michael and I once again crossed paths. He grabbed me in a deep soul shattering Gubbio hug.  I haven’t seen Michael in well over a year. I happily shared that I had been working at The Gubbio Project for almost a year.  And once again, Michael left me speechless.  He told me he use to sleep at Gubbio in the pews of St. Boniface church.

I knew Michael was a former university professor, who lost everything with a crack pipe in his hands.  But the Michael I know bears no resemblance to the stereotypical image so many of us hold of a crack addict.  I never knew that Michael.  The man I know fills my heart with wonder and joy and a belief that the most hopeless among us can find redemption and healing, myself included.

Michael, I love you for bearing witness to my journey and sharing yours with me.  Be Blessed Always.

From the Director: The Movement from Hostility to Hospitality

I am grateful to Fr. Richard, the St. John the Evangelist vicar, for sharing this Henri Nouwen reflection from Reaching Out. Henri Nouwen, who was a Dutch Catholic priest, writer and theologian, perfectly describes in this excerpt the hospitality that we offer at Gubbio.  

In our world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found. Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women and obligatory for (Gubbio) to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings. The movement from hostility to hospitality is hard and full of difficulties. Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude and do harm. But still—that is our vocation: to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

Nouwen continues:

Hospitality, therefore, 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. It is not an educated intimidation with good books, good stories and good works, but the liberation of fearful hearts so that words can find roots and bear ample fruit. It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness, but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way. The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances; free also to leave and follow their own vocations.

Defining Gubbio

The Gubbio Project is a thousand strong. We are the 200+ people who come seeking rest and shelter each weekday on the hard pews in the beautiful, dry, safe, and warm-ish sanctuary of St. Boniface Church and St. John the Evangelist. We are the 100 more who daily come to use the clean and drug-free bathrooms, to get a razor, toothbrush, or a blanket, or to find out where they can store their stuff or get a shower. We are the 12 staff members who hold the sacred space in the church, keep it clean, outreach to the community, and share our vision of a church that is radically inclusive and walks with those who are down-trodden.

We are the 70+ volunteers who come every month to share a meal they have prepared, to assemble toiletry kits, to buy the cleaning supplies, to provide a listening ear to those in the community who are in need. We are the 11 Board members who gather monthly to reflect on what it might mean for church to be sanctuary, to figure out how to embody the belief that there is that of the divine in each person, and to strategize how to pay the bills and continue the work. We are all those who hold this Project in their hearts and pray for us. We are the thousand men, women, and children who have donated supplies and finances to the Project this past year. We are the parishioners from the 5 Catholic churches (and the students from the parish schools) that collected toiletries during Lent. We are the parishioners from the 6 churches that opened their doors to have Gubbio staff share at their masses, and their wallets to share what the Spirit lead them to give. We are the people in the church in Los Angeles who collected money for 35 sleeping bags because a teen there gave his away to someone in need. We are the people who read the Chronicle article, were moved by the story, and wanted to be part of providing "sacred sleep" for our unhoused neighbors.

We are the people in our partnering organizations who go out of their way to make the cafeteria available for breakfasts, who respond to our security needs free of cost, who share their worship space with us.

It is not the case of "we could not have done it without you" but more "we are doing this work - all of us." Each person who donates a pair of socks, brings OJ to the Friday morning breakfast, sleeps on the pew, or donates $2 makes the Project what it is. You, who are reading this newsletter, have, and are now participating in the work of keeping the doors of the church open, of walking with our brothers and sisters without homes, of declaring that yes, to be a sanctuary for those on the margins is a good and right use of church space.

Seeing As God Sees

by Laura Slattery, Executive Director, May 2016

The Gubbio Project had the opportunity to reflect on the Scriptures at St. Boniface one Sunday in March.  Two of the readings for the day dealt with seeing. In the first, the prophet Samuel explains that “God sees not as people see,” looking not at the exterior of a person, but at their heart.  In the gospel story, Jesus heals a blind man.

As part of my reflection I shared that I often feel ‘blind’ when I see only the exterior of people and judge them to be ‘homeless’ or ‘addicts’ immediately.  I lament when it is my second or third thought, and not my first, that the person I am seeing on the street is my brother or my sister and wonder how long it will take me to be the kind of person that I seek to be - one that sees or notices first the heart, or the suffering, or the beauty, of a person, and not their material, living, or mental health condition.

In researching for the reflection, I came across a fascinating description of what it is actually like for people who were born blind to have an operation and be able to see.  According to one surgeon learning to see for the first time is a surprisingly painful process that can take years.  From Emilie Griffin’s book, Souls in Full Flight:

The patient on opening his [sic] eyes gets little or no enjoyment; indeed, he finds the experience painful. He reports only a spinning mass of light and colors. He proves to be quite unable to pick up objects by sight, to recognize what they are, or to name them. He has no conception of space with objects in it, although he knows all about objects and their names by touch.... His brain has not been trained in the rules of seeing. We are not conscious that there are any such rules; we think we see, as we say naturally. But we have in fact learned a whole set of rules during childhood. (p. 143-144)

More research for the reflection revealed a series of studies done by social neuroscientists Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske in 2006 and 2007.  They first studied what happened in the brain when people viewed photos of those they considered outcasts (i.e. lowest on a scale in their minds in terms of warmth and competence, those to whom they could not relate).  The part of the brain that recognizes someone as a fellow human being did not light up; their brain registered them the same way it would if they were looking at an object! In equally important follow-up studies they discovered that when people thought about preferences, wants, or idiosyncrasies that the people in the photographs whom they considered outcasts might have, the area of the brain being studied did in fact light up.

The take away from this research is that it seems that science is giving me, and us, a way to understand what the Scriptures instruct.  It is possible, and necessary - albeit a long process - to train our brains to see anew and heal ourselves from our blindness.  When it comes to those to whom we consider outcast - whoever they may be - when we think about their needs or preferences, we literally humanize them in our brains. And this is good news for those of us interested in “seeing as God sees.”

Gubbio Positioned to Start Second Site

by Laura Slattery, Executive Director, November 2015

For those of you who have been supporters of the Gubbio Project for the last several years, you know that a theme of ours during that time has been encouraging other places of worship to open their doors to those living on the streets the way that St. Boniface Catholic Church has done for the last 11 years. We have touted the benefits of opening one’s sanctuary to the homeless guests, the volunteers, and the parish. We have quoted Scripture and the pope; given rational, theological, and practical arguments about sacred space; preached in a number of churches; and talked on the phone with scores of religious leaders.

Well, it looks like the work, and the Spirit, have made it happen. Starting in December, gratefully before the worst of the El Nino effects begin, we hope to partner with St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in the Mission for 4 hours each weekday. It will be a pilot project for the next 7 months. We hope to provide the same essential services that we have been providing at St. Boniface – weekly breakfasts, massage, haircuts, HIV testing, and foot care – at this second location.

As we have done for the past 11 years, we will continue to provide “sacred sleep” to the hundred plus people who seek an oasis from the streets of the Tenderloin at St. Boniface. We will continue to provide a ministry of presence, essential items such as toiletries, socks, and blankets, access to bathrooms, and referrals to where guests can get much needed services. At the request of the parish, however, we will no longer provide the breakfasts, haircuts, and other services that we used to provide.

Thank you for all the support that you have given over the years as we continue to walk with, and be in community with, our brothers and sisters who live on the streets, worship in the pews, and live in the area.