This article was originally published in December 2015.
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.
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, 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.