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A slice of a mural outside the Casa Juan Diego in Houston.

From the Inn Side of the Inn Door

Shannon McPherson

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  • Conrad Goodwin

    Thanks for writing. I appreciate your honest look at our humanity, and form, and limits. I'm glad to see your acceptance of those limits-cheers! I am learning to accept my own limits, and this hits the nail on the head, somehow. Never give up.

  • Stewart Patrick

    Gosh this is interesting. Incredible shifts in populations all over the world are happening. God is in control and, "We are not God". Great insights here.

  • Carolee Uits

    It was in the late ‘80s when I had a turn at innkeeping. I had been asked to start a church in a deteriorating city full of hundreds of people made homeless by people buying up “fixer-upper” investment and weekend escape homes from Boston – and then letting them sit until they could fix them up. The people were either in the streets, about to go to the streets, or hanging on with higher rents and furnishing couches to those in between. To many, it was safer to sleep on these streets than to stay in shelters which were known to rob possessions and prescription meds (and sometimes the virginity of women). As a result, even in summer when it could be freezing, people frequently preferred the streets. Then there were the guys, men with AIDS marching toward death in back bedroom beds and couches of those who took them and care for them - in a time when there was no hope, only the Death Sentence. What made it difficult beyond other inner cities I had lived in was how there were very few churches because of the total rejection by the people of the old puritanical version that had once engulfed this region. These few were either the elite edifices of the rich or more often small and as bedraggled as those who lived on the steps and pavement in their shadows. In total, there were fewer declared Christians than in countries where churches send missionaries. The church was unwelcome, the message of the Gospel further distorted based on the anger my neighbors felt by their plight. As I met my neighbors, knocking on doors and walking the parks and byways, I found that, underneath all this, was a plea for God to care. I decided to open my home on Wednesday nights and see what would happen. Upwards to 60 people eventually took up my offer (although they openly told me that the food at the soup kitchen tasted better!). There would be a quiet tapping at the door, and then a rush to grab one of my Bibles. My white couch was the first choice, then chairs, then the floor – with people crowding around a Bible. We would open with a prayer for God to come into our midst and then folks would share their weeks. Usually they were filled with negatives- fights, injuries, injiustices, rejections, hunger of body and soul. There would always be a theme – fodder for focus on a couple of Bible passages that were mined by hungry hearts. We would share and pray, then share in conversation in an atmosphere of relief, renewed hope, forgiveness, and increasingly acknowledged blessings. The Guys, tucked in this place and that, always were the most receptive of all. As far as they were concerned, they were getting their just deserts from a God who condemned their sexual choices. They were condemned by their families, their ex-employers, and dwindling number of friends – alone, stripped of their healthy bodies and inner spirit. These were the hungry ones for hope and forgiveness, even more than the people of the streets. They searched the scriptures between gatherings. Often they brought to our times together, lists of questions, and deeply thought out questions about life with Christ, discipleship, and the afterlife which with Him would be shear paradise compared to their excruciating existences. These memories of the ”innkeeper” in me are both bittersweet, and fond. I knew – and know that all that they needed and wanted was (and is) possible by God. The hard part was – and still is in my current “innkeeping: There is a daily required energy, courage, and determination to face another onslaught of people in pain, to treat each person as a valued individual, and to influence and confront the earthly powers-that-be. This takes an ingrained faith to keep going despite the lacks so well described by Shannon McPherson. May God bless all of us Innkeepers wherever we are.

  • Kenneth Hougland

    The innkeeper did give them a place to stay. The inn was crowded -- probably with people sleeping on the floors. It was no place for a woman about to deliver a baby. But he did offer them a quiet place to stay away from the crowd in the stable with clean straw and the animals whose body heat took the chill out. The innkeeper did offer them hospitality.

There’s one character in the Christmas story who really dropped the ball. The innkeeper of Bethlehem had this incredible opportunity to show hospitality to the baby Son of God, and instead he shut the door on him. I, however, find him a little harder to dismiss this Christmas.

Just a couple hundred miles north of the border, Houston, Texas, is the nation’s third largest city, and growing. It’s a happening place. As condominiums rise around us, we here at the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker have our own drama to field. Our houses of hospitality for new immigrants dominate a small city block – and they are absolutely full. We have been at maximum capacity for months, and yet immigrants and refugees continue to pour into the city, undeterred by the winter cold.

As a fulltime volunteer at Casa Juan Diego, I’ve become well-acquainted with the hands and feet of hospitality. Here, it’s as proximate as the front door; as real as – yep, there goes the doorbell. Innkeeper? That’s my job this year.

The closed door and mural of the Casa Juan Diego Catholic Worker in Houston.

Outside Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker house.

Here in Houston, Mary and Joseph mostly turn out to be Cuban, although we receive them from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico too. They seek asylum from more distant chaos as well: Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. And we expect they’ll soon be coming from Syria too. As it was at the time of Jesus’ birth, it’s always a string of distant events, disputes, and decisions that drives them here. The refugees from Cuba who show up at this door didn’t arrange for a sixty-year embargo any more than Galilean peasants called the census. The drug wars that people from Central America are fleeing started long before most of them were even born.

That winter two thousand years ago found Bethlehem packed. Because of the census, the entire nation was on the road. The inn was full. No, I bet it was overflowing. There wasn’t space. Period. You can’t will an empty bed into existence, no matter how hard someone pleads for help, or how cold the night, or how congested their cough. But that doesn’t mean they’ll stop pouring into the city or knocking on doors for help. For many of those who make it here to Houston, the door they find is ours. And my answer? Sometimes it has to be no.

Innkeeper? That’s my job this year.

By now, I think I’ve seen every possible reaction to the answer “no” – each as colorful, as affecting, and as varied as the people themselves. Some just won’t believe me. They grasp at straws – maybe it’s the language barrier – and explain themselves all over again in over-enunciated Spanish. No, I really do understand your situation. Some ask to speak with the director: maybe this girl can be bypassed. Others just deflate. This is their final destination after days, weeks, months of travel, trauma, hunger, unknowns. This is the door where they were told they’d receive their first welcome. They have no fight left in them. Still others will beg and plead: “Senorita, where should we go? Do you know what I paid my coyote to bring me to your door? We have no one. Don’t leave us out on the street...” Some people snap. I’ve gotten some passionate earfuls. When one guy simply refused to accept a no, I told him I’d call the police. “Do that,” he said, “It will be warmer in a police car than out here.”

I wonder: how did Joseph handle it? I’ve always imagined a sort of exhausted resignation or acceptance that turned his feet toward the stable, but I’ve seen, too, how a man can panic when his pregnant wife is in question. Never mind when the child is due any day.

The innkeeper is so easy to write off as nearsighted, cold. What happened to Baby Jesus was a crime against human rights. We want someone to blame. But was he really just a stingy guy who slammed the door and missed the miracle? Giving hospitality is a workout, whether it’s for a fee, as his probably was, or free, as at Casa Juan Diego, a gift of mercy. Each new guest requires time and energy to admit and to care for. Yes, that’s the whole reason we’re here, but we’re limited, merely human. It’s essential to take stock of the demands on one’s time and energy before deciding if they can be stretched further.

I get it. He was tired. You realize quickly, when you live in a constant extreme, that if you don’t maintain yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else.

Regardless, need keeps knocking. Tomorrow I will likely open the door to find more people seeking shelter. Hopefully we will be able to accept them, to give them clean beds, hot showers, warm food, clothes, toiletries, safety. Possibly, we won’t.

So what’s the answer? One trying morning a month or two ago, I was starting to cave under the weight of my own inability to fix the brokenness and fill the deficit all around me when a coworker looked at me and said simply, “We are not God.” Remarkable, how such an obvious statement could snap things into perspective. I can’t fix the world. I can’t fix Houston. In truth, I can’t even fix me.

What then can I do? Well, tomorrow, whether I turn those immigrants away or admit them into the house, I can make them feel like more than a burden grudgingly shouldered or hurriedly shrugged off. If there’s no room for them, I can hear out their stories, let them know that their journey matters to me, before closing the door. Maybe I’ll let them use our bathroom and give them a few of the sandwiches saved for day laborers. I can give them bus tickets to get to another shelter. I can look them in the eyes, hug them – that doesn’t cost a cent – and tell them God will be with them. And I really mean that last bit: as I recall, there wasn’t room at the inn for him either. He, too, will be on his way to the stable – if he isn’t already there.


Casa Juan Diego is a Catholic Worker house in Houston, Texas. Founded more than thirty years ago by Mark and Louise Zwick, who still run it today, it is now the largest Catholic Worker house in the United States. Casa Juan Diego focuses on helping the immigrant community and has the capacity to offer hospitality to about ten families, twenty-five women and sixty-five men at any given time.


Now it’s your turn: Have you ever had to be the innkeeper? How do the thoughts shared in this article apply to your daily life? Leave a comment to tell us what you think.

At the door of Casa Juan Diego Houston Catholic Worker. The author answering the door at Casa Juan Diego.
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