It was mid-afternoon when I got the call. Picking up the phone, I was greeted by a friend from a local refugee welcoming centre. Immediately I could tell from the strain in her usually cheerful voice that something was wrong. It didn’t take long for her to explain what it was.
The Red Cross had called the centre, looking for a place for a family of six refugees, who had just arrived in Canada, to stay for the night. Due to the lack of affordable housing in the city (and frankly, across most cities in Canada), those who are staying in the shelter system are unable to leave for more permanent housing. As a result, the intake lines to the shelters have become waiting lists, and new arrivals are forced to find other arrangements: park benches, backstreet alleyways, storefront entrances.
Then she made her pitch.
“We don’t have space for this family here. All our bedrooms are full and we already have people sleeping in our lobby and in our offices,” she said. “This is no longer just a need. It’s a desperate need. We need the church to act. We need ordinary people to act. If we don’t find someone to take in this family, they will be sleeping in a park-tonight. Do you know a place where they can stay?”
Having focused my academic life on studying Christian communities that welcome refugees, I should have expected that this request would come. I should have been prepared for it. In a sense, I had trained for this: having immersed myself in the stories of rescuers such as Magda Trocmé, who, when a Jewish refugee fleeing the Gestapo knocked at her door and asked to come in, replied, “Well, naturally, come in, come in.” I had pledged to myself that when the knock came at my door, like Trocmé, I would try to make welcoming the stranger in need natural.
I wish I were that faithful.
Instead, when the call to provide hospitality finally came, I was caught off guard. “I don’t have room right now,” I replied. After all, I thought to myself, I live in a small two-bedroom apartment with three other people (soon to be four) and a Siberian Husky. Still on the phone with my friend, I gazed out the window toward my neighbours’ houses. If anyone takes them in, I thought, it should be someone who lives in one of those big empty houses.
I told my friend that while I didn’t have room at the moment, I thought I knew some people who did. Working together, we were able to find a safe place for the family to spend a few nights until space opened at the refugee welcoming centre.
A few months later, a different friend called. He was coming in for a meeting and asked if he could stay the night. “Well, naturally,” I said, “Of course. We can just move the baby into our room, and you can sleep there.”
It was only over coffee the next day that I realized the irony.
To rearrange my space, to readjust my routine, to redefine the boundaries of my home to include a stranger seemed impossible with the space I had: I just didn’t have enough room. So why was it different when the person asking was a good friend? I began to think that the lack of room was not really in my home, so much as in the imagination of my heart.
It’s easy for us to stand in judgment of those with bigger houses, those with more resources, those who have a greater capacity to help people in need, and to redirect the calls for help we receive onto them. Certainly the more resources we possess, the more morally responsible we are to use those to address the needs of others. However, as I have come to realize, my ability to help is often greater than I might initially perceive it. My imagination is far too limited. While my two-bedroom apartment might be much smaller than my neighbours’ large houses, it’s certainly more comfortable than a park bench.
In the Gospel of Mark, after a long day of ministering to a large crowd, “the disciples came to [Jesus] and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send [the people] away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat’ ” (Mark 6:35-37).
The disciples were caught off guard. They didn’t have the resources of the village. In their eyes, the little they had just wasn’t enough to help. Jesus responded by asking them to gather what they had anyway. He took it, blessed it, broke it, and redistributed it to any who had need. “And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men” (Mark 6:42-44).
Miracles do happen. In offering the little we have to God in service to others, Jesus takes it, blesses it, and uses it to break open the imagination of our hearts, enabling us to better meet the needs of those who are calling for our help.
As the national housing crisis and the global refugee crisis continue to worsen, I imagine Jesus’ words to us today are much the same to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark: “You take them in.”
The next time I receive that call, I pray that God gives me the courage to more faithfully respond: “Well, naturally, come in, come in.”