Hospitality Among the Flies
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."
June 27, 2014, Words By: Stephanie Dunlap, Image By: Two Women in the Park by Evan Bench
I could tell that every moment of Diane’s hospitality was painfully dissonant for her. I sat on a piece of ragged cardboard and ignored the smell wafting from bags of tenants’ trash piled high in the corner. This room was meant to house an apartment building’s trash, not a human – not Diane. A bag of her clothes, a sleeping bag, her cell phone and charger, and a book or two were all she kept there.
Diane and I lived on the same Cincinnati street. But we might as well have arrived by way of separate solar systems. I had moved from the white, middle-class suburbs to Over-the-Rhine, the downtown neighborhood infamous for its 2001 racial uprising. At the time I was working as a reporter for a local paper. Diane was mostly homeless and long addicted to crack. She scraped by any way she could.
We met through a street writing initiative. She turned out to have a soaring written voice, the kind that can’t be taught. After that, we’d run into each other on Main Street where it turned out we both lived – me in a charming, renovated apartment, and Diane in the trash room two blocks south.
On this occasion, in that room, she read me her poetry. Her voice and her stories, singing of humanity, lifted us above the stuffy air. I think the visit also lifted us both above our narrow ideas of friendship, intimacy, and hospitality.
This week’s lectionary gospel verses speak of hospitality. I have recently been invited to join the Street Psalms staff, and the job description contains this: “As Street Psalms staff, Stephanie will be expected to evidence in her working relationships, both within the organization and with other partners, the ‘manners’ of Street Psalms: generosity, hospitality, simplicity, and vulnerability.”
I have taped those words – generosity, hospitality, simplicity, vulnerability – next to my desk at home. Three of those I grasp naturally and practice imperfectly, but as an introvert, even wrapping my head around “hospitality” can work me into a pretzel. I’d always understood hospitality to mean nice table settings and appetizers before dinner parties, and sometimes that is what it means. But now, I realize it is much broader than that.
I remember that visit with Diane and the reverence I felt for this invitation into her world. Flies buzzed around trash bags as grotesque symbols of her shame. It was not so unlike my own shame, just less hidden. This invitation into her home, however temporary a home – into her all-too-permanent world – was more intimate and vulnerable than any dinner party I’d ever attended. In turn, my role was to appreciate her hospitality, regardless of setting. Luckily, in that moment, appreciation came easily.
I remember, too, a string of days those years ago when I walked home from work sobbing openly. One day when I turned onto Main Street, Diane found me like that.
She put her arm around me and, moving as a pair, she walked me home.