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Faith column: Welcoming the stranger on Christmas (and every day)

December 28, 2010

I have always been really inspired by Lynn Goodman-Strauss and the work she does at Mary House Catholic Worker. And of course the whole Catholic Worker philosophy. So it was nice to be able to tie this all in for my Christmas Day column.

Here’s the full text:

South Austin’s Mary House offers a reminder of Christ’s message about those in need


When I was a child, my family would place candles in the windows of our house during the Advent and Christmas season. The electric orange glow against the frosty window panes on those dark New England winter nights signaled to the world that our door was open. That, especially at Christmas, we were called to see Christ in the stranger and to remember that when the holy family sought shelter in Bethlehem, they were repeatedly turned away.

No one ever knocked at our door seeking shelter. But I loved the idea that we were ready and waiting just in case. That we, unlike those Bethlehem innkeepers, would never turn people away.

It’s easier to embrace this kind of hospitality as a child. We become more fearful as adults. Less trusting, less open. We have seen too much of what the world can do when we let our guard down. We tell ourselves we can’t possibly accommodate the desperate family. We have too much to lose.

Children don’t accept these explanations so easily. And some adults never lose that childlike optimism, something I witnessed earlier this month when I visited Mary House, a Catholic Worker community in South Austin, for a Nativity play and celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The Catholic Worker movement, started during the Great Depression by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, is a collection of communities throughout the country that provide shelter, food and dignity to people on the fringes, people Catholic Workers refer to as guests. Theirs is a radical hospitality.

During the Nativity play, children — some of them nieces and nephews of a Mary House guest — re-enacted the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem as longtime Catholic Worker Lynn Goodman-Strauss narrated the story.

“Mary and Joseph did not have a place to stay,” she told the children. “Can you believe that?”

They looked at her with incredulous eyes.

In that warm South Austin duplex, with its colorful tapestries and buffet of food and the welcome candle burning year round, the idea of “no room at the inn” seemed unfathomable.

For the past 20 years, Goodman-Strauss has taken in terminally ill people from the streets and helped them die with dignity. She’s guided men and women who’ve lost their way toward jobs and self-reliance. She’s worked the phones with bureaucrats and administrators to ensure her guests receive health care and benefits.

As Goodman-Strauss said in a recent talk on homelessness, “Like Mary and Joseph in the barn with a newborn, we have come to recognize that God has come among us in exactly those places we most avoid.”

She has passed this philosophy on to the next generation of workers, including Heidi Baker, who began serving at Mary House this year.

“Lynn likes to refer to us as the innkeepers,” she said. “Our guests come to us from all sorts of different places from around Austin, and they are spiritually and emotionally and physically exhausted. We follow the example that Christ set for us to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, care for the sick. To do anything different would be not only unloving, but unjust. We are able to see Jesus in all of our guests especially because Jesus came into this world helpless and homeless, relying on the love of others to survive the night.”

On this Christmas Day, I’m not so presumptuous as to think I’ve found the “real meaning” of the holiday. Christmas encompasses a broad spectrum of ideas from the commercial to the sacred. But hospitality has a solid place on that spectrum. And surely, the struggles of the holy family on that fateful night teach Christians to think twice before turning away people in need.

I think most of us — Christian or not — long to help others. Even if only once a year, we light a candle in our window. No matter how we celebrate it, Christmas remains that time when we imagine the possibility of our best selves.

It’s a lesson that Jesus delivered in his adult ministry: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”

But it is perhaps more poignant when he imparts this message as a helpless babe in a manger. A reminder, amid all that consumes us on this day, of how different the world might be if we open our doors.



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