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Crisis Hospitality

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling completely out of sync.

The COVID-19 crisis reshaped our daily lives so quickly and so dramatically. Over the last two months, perhaps especially in New York City, nearly all of us have experienced the grief of lost loved ones, delayed opportunities, and increased isolation.

Days can start to run together. Sleep schedules are all messed up. And, honest admission, I might have eaten my first Pop-Tart in years (I recommend giving them another shot). 

For those of us over at the Urban Outreach Center, our work with homeless and low-income New Yorkers has kept us running at full speed: distributing nearly 10,000 meals a week, fundraising, advocating, and loving our guests throughout this scary time. 

I’ve been so proud of the ways that Shaun, Josephine, and the whole crew – volunteers and board, included – have stepped up in ways big and small. I know that y’all are proud of them, too. 👏🏽 👏🏽 👏🏽

But, in the middle of all that running, my own grief around our “new normal” snuck up on me slowly. 

This week, I picked up a classic book that had been sitting on my shelf for years: Henri Nouwen’s THE WOUNDED HEALER: MINISTRY IN THE CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY. 

As I dove through in a single sitting (a quick read at just 100 pages), it opened up insight after insight that I had missed when I first read it in seminary. Then I really began to process the journey that we’ve been on together.

Nouwen gives us the example of Jesus as the way forward between two of our cultural tendencies in the face of crisis: (1) the mystical, to dive inward in search of deeper meaning, and (2) the revolutionary, to overturn tables to reset the course of unjust systems. 

Nouwen writes that Jesus images a ministry of healing by mediating “two aspects of the same attempt to bring about radical change. Mystics cannot prevent themselves from becoming social critics, since in self-reflection, they will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, revolutionaries cannot avoid facing their own human condition, since in the midst of their struggle for a new world they will find that they are also fighting their own reactionary fears and false ambitions.”

What does that require of us?


I know, I know, a common refrain from Pastor Beverly and me these last several years.

Nouwen puts it like this – hospitality “requires first of all that hosts feel at home, in their own house, and second, that they create a free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.” 

That’s a heck of a charge for a church about to launch in a new space, right?

He writes that to in order to extend hospitality, we have to embrace two concepts: concentration and community. 

It requires that we hone our ability to pay attention to the guest – setting aside our own needs, worries, and tensions – to go after the one lost sheep (Luke 15:4) amidst our 99 other (seemingly) urgent concerns.

It also calls us to be willing to create spaces that are “friendly . . . where the guest may feel free to come and go, to be close and be distant, to rest and to play, to talk and to be silent, to eat and to fast.”

The paradox, Nouwen says, is that hospitality “asks for the creation of an empty space, where the guests can find their own souls.” We’re able to create and hold that kind of holy space by understanding our own loneliness (did he write this in 1972 for our 2020 social distancing?) for exactly what it really is.

A healing hospitality comes from understanding our wounds as a recognition of the depth of the human experience that we all share. When we are able to share in our fundamental human-ness together, as Jesus so often calls us to do, then liberation begins to be possible. We cannot “take away the loneliness and the pain of others, but [we can] invite them to recognize their loneliness on a level where it can be shared.”

Nouwen closes us like this, “when we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed into signs of hope.”

May it be so, Avenue Church NYC!

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“I came to the Church years ago, looking for a community that was progressive, justice-minded, and open to creative worship.  I stayed because I've felt loved and supported by the community:  through good times (my wedding) and bad (the loss of several family members).  I'm proud that our community has evolved over time to meet new needs, from serving Czech immigrants over a century ago, to our homeless outreach program today.” 

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