Happy Advent. OK, I admit that I am not the most faithful in maintaining the integrity of the season of hope and preparation, and I have even started to look forward to Christmas. But I feel I am not alone as most people I know will not wait to hold their Christmas parties until Christmas Eve.
Thinking about celebrations led me to reflect on different social situations, and their respective rules of etiquette. Most people may not think in these terms, but I find that our guests at André House also have quite a system of etiquette, just like you may find among other social classes. In this season of hope, I would like to share three of my favorite “unwritten rules” at André House that help to keep this place one of peace and joy – for staff as well as guests.
1) Be Respectful of the Church. This takes many different forms, and does not only apply to when we celebrate Mass. Several times, while presiding at Mass, I have heard language not usually used in a church. However, often when people start getting a little loud, guests step forward to ask the person to tone it down while we pray.
The “respect the church” rule means the most to me when I see someone new to André House trying to find a seat for dinner. Many times I have seen people get bumped and start to react – start falling into the pattern of feeling the need to save face by staring down the offender, or puffing out their chest, or doing something to show they will not back down from a challenge nor allow themselves to be disrespected. Then another guest will quietly say something along the lines of: “calm down, this is not that kind of place. No need to do that here.” Blessed are those peacemakers who help to enforce this rule!
2) Do not try to sell anything to the chaplain (or staff). The Gospels have many stories of Jesus ministering to prostitutes and sinners. Many of our guests at Andre House carry those same labels. As has happened to other Holy Cross priests who have served here, every blue moon a person offers to sell me (or our staff) something. Sometimes it is something as small as “rollie” (roll your own cigarettes), other times it is drugs, other times people offer themselves. Of course we always refuse. Truth be told, most of the time we don't get the opportunity to respond as another guest quickly intervenes saying something along the lines of: “Sorry chaplain, she’s new here.”
We struggle to help people stop these unhealthy activities. As we try to minister to our guests struggling with similar their sins, just as the "sinners" in the Gospel struggled with theirs, we hope to spark conversion. Hopefully the fact that this rule exists opens the door for God's mercy and grace.
3) Do not touch things left in the squares. Weekly, if not daily, I hear stories of people getting their belongings stolen. Every week people come into the clothing closet looking for a backpack, something so sought after that we hardly ever have any in stock. The guests’ need/desire for a good backpack reached a point that during my shift in the clothing closet on Wednesdays, neither I nor the others ever say the word backpack. If one comes in, we let each other know that we actually have “that which shall not be named.”
Yet, with the number of backpacks and blankets that I know have been stolen, I find it incredible that guests think nothing about leaving a backpack on one of our squares marking their spot in line for showers, dinner, or something else. They leave these precious possessions with full confidence that it will still be there when they return from whatever errand they are doing. It almost always is … hopeful expectation fulfilled as they return to undisturbed belongings.
In this Advent season, we wait the blessed hope and coming of our Savior. We do not wait, pretending that He did not come the first time. That first coming will take much of our attention as we rightly spend a lot of energy as we prepare our Christmas celebrations. In Advent, we remember that we live in a still broken world. You do not have to visit a neighborhood like “the zone” around André House’s Main Hospitality Center to know its brokenness. We wait for mountains to be made low and hills filled in so that the glory of the Lord may be revealed for all to see (Isaiah 40:4).
But even as we wait, we see that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Even in the midst of brokenness, there are signs of hope and the presence of God. People respecting the property of others, even when they feel they desperately need what the other has (rule 3). People realizing that some things are just not appropriate (rule 2). And, most importantly, there are places where peace and reconciliation abound (rule 1). Our unwritten rules may, in their own way, help prepare the way of the Lord.
Fr. Eric Schimmel, C.S.C., is the Director of André House of Hospitality in Phoenix, Arizona. He is in his second year as a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica blog. Learn more about the missionary work of Holy Cross priests and brothers to extend the Good News of Jesus Christ across “borders of every sort.”