The Gospel of Necessity

by Joe May

Matthew 25 House is a house of hospitality in Akron, Ohio, offering transitional housing to homeless men. Many guests have been refugees from Latin America. Joe May founded the house in 2001 after graduating from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. As he wrote in an earlier In Communion, his motivation was “to live the Gospel in a more direct way and to follow Christ more closely.”

Photograph: Guests and volunteers at Matthew 25 House. Joe May is in the middle, second row.

After four years of living at Matthew 25 House, it has become clear to me that this house is not my own but an embassy — God’s embassy where the least people can come and be family. The rules here are different than the rules of America, its culture and its society. Four years into this project, we are ever more committed to the fact that this house is part of our discipleship in Christ. He is at the center of it and we are here out of love for Him. We try to love the neighbor that we can see, as a way to show that we love God, whom we cannot see. And I think that the poor, especially the homeless, need relationship and love. It is a lot easier to throw food and money in the direction of the needy. It is harder to be family to each other. We have been ennobled by the friendship and love we received from every guest that has lived with us.

Sometimes I have a real glimpse of that connection of love, of God’s kingdom. Not long ago I was sitting in the living room with Gabino, one of our brothers from Mexico. We were both just home from work and Gabino looked very tired. Gabino is tall, slim, talks gently and often is smiling. He goes to the Seventh Day Adventist Church and works two restaurant jobs in order for his three children to eat and to go to secondary school in Mexico. Free education only goes through primary grades, he says; you have to pay for a private secondary education. With my broken Spanish and his broken English, we visited and I suddenly felt so glad to know Gabino. He invited me to stay with his family in Mexico anytime and I could see that he was missing his home and his family. We talked about how we want Matthew 25 House to be God’s house, where people can be safe, and loved as in a family. Since he hasn’t seen his children in three years, we prayed together in the living room for his family. I could only recognize some of his prayer in Spanish, but it didn’t matter.

The house has really become a family and the guys look out for each other, and they look out for me, too. Victor, who came here as a stranger, has become a trusted friend who is always cleaning house and keeping an eye on things. Peter Yehl, a full time volunteer who lives here at Matthew 25 House, is 21 years and has dedicated his life to working with the poor. He just came back from spending four months in Calcutta working with the Missionaries of Charity. Peter has added so much to the life of the house through his friendship, hard work, integrity, his love for God and his love of his neighbors. We are blessed to have him here.

People ask me what it is like to do this work and live this life. Are we happy? Do we have successes? I find it hard to describe how we are always up against powerlessness, which places us directly in God’s presence and there is still love and joy. We do the best we can here to love our neighbors and run the house and to get by with limited resources, but it is like trying to play the piano with boxing gloves on. We have thirteen people in the house — two gentlemen from Guatemala sleeping on the living room floor because there are no available beds. We have roaches and fleas in the house, there was a gas line leak this morning, leaky faucets last month and stains on the carpet everywhere. While we maintain our own jobs to pay the bills, we are often taking guests to and from work late at night or early in the morning. Sometimes I shine with joy. And at other times I become hard and crusty, barking monosyllabic orders and responses. Stress has a remarkable way of throwing a clear light on all of my shortcomings! And then I find my way back to myself again and laugh at myself.

As Dostoevsky wrote, love in practice is sometimes a sad and painful thing. One of my friends, “John,” is heavily using alcohol and so he cannot stay at Matthew 25 House. But he’ll come over for coffee and to mow the lawn for some food. Or he comes over for a ride somewhere and I cringe each time I see him because he gets thinner and thinner with each visit. One night when I was driving him to an AA meeting, John’s nose started to bleed badly (from his alcohol use) and he nonchalantly pulled out a handkerchief and slowly wiped his nose. After he got out of the car, I cried all the drive home.

One of our guests, “Karl”, is a twenty-six year old man who is bipolar, and suffering from schizophrenia and epilepsy. Karl was living in a parking deck last winter. He came to us last March on a snowy night, with many bags of clothing and a scared look on his face. I found out about Karl’s illnesses one night on the porch when he went into a seizure and bled and vomited on me as I held him. It turned out that Community Support Services (a local mental health facility) had given him prescriptions for his illness but he had no money to pay for them. Welfare no longer helps out with prescription costs so we had to scrounge around for over two hundred dollars to pay for the greatly needed medications. When we celebrated Karl’s birthday, he said it was the first time that anyone had wished him a happy birthday in eight years. Recently we had to ask Karl to leave because he got into fights and built a giant bonfire in the back yard.

Often God places people in our path who need so much and all we can offer is some loving kindness. Saturday morning as I was leaving for work, I passed Peter Yehl, our full-time volunteer who lives here at Matthew 25. He was talking with a young man at the dining room table. Late that afternoon when I came back from work they were still visiting, so I set my book bag down and joined the conversation. The young man’s name was Matt and he was homeless. Matt was tall, in his mid twenties, with a large red mark on his face that looked like some kind of injury. He was articulate and soft-spoken and had a habit of pushing his blond curly hair behind his ears as he talked.

At first I didn’t notice it, but soon I had the feeling that this guy was suffering from mental illness, since he talked about how his family was out to get him and the police too, they were trying to “photograph his contact phone numbers.” The more we talked, the more I discovered that his strands of thought were not connecting and the whole thing left me with a heartbreaking impression. Our house is way over its capacity at the moment, so the best we could do was to give him some food and an offer to come back some other time when we could help him find agencies that offer the help he needs. Here was somebody who didn’t mean any harm to anyone, I thought. God love him. I pray that he comes back.

We have had a tough time living on Princeton Street this year. The drug culture rules the roost and this summer things really heated up. Gang fights broke out every other night last June and July, always starting around 1 a.m., sometimes with over one hundred people involved, jumping on cars, and one evening involving a stabbing and gunshots. It is amazing how many young people between the ages of ten and fifteen turn out on the streets for one of these brawls. One night after the police came to break up a fight, one of my own guests broke away from the group and snuck his way back to Matthew 25 House. I was furious. This was a young man that we helped get enrolled at the local technical school, who we had given rides to agencies, bus passes and lots of attention. At one point I prayed to God, “Helen and Joe’s son cannot do this anymore. I need your help right away!”

I have had feelings of fear, sadness, and anger toward gang neighbors taking over the street. I’ve fought racist thoughts that I knew in my heart are not God’s truth. And it seemed God always brought somebody into my life who is African American and who is the epitome of love and grace to help me come back to my authentic self. I remembered the words that my Old Testament professor, Fr. Paul Tarazi said at Holy Cross: “We all stand under the Word…” Yes, we all are in need of healing and salvation. God’s command to love my neighbor can never leave the level of the commandment. In other words, thank God this whole thing does not depend on what I think about other people, or what they think about me! My prayer must be to see people the way God sees them.

From the beginning, we have consciously asserted that our life at Matthew 25 House is not just about offering hospitality. Because of our love of Jesus Christ we are trying to live in voluntary poverty. This is of great importance for us. We have cast our lot to live here with the poor. I have learned that necessity, the state of being in need, is a great blessing and gift from God. Every day we feel the limits and pressure of circumstance here at Matthew 25 House. And every day we are turned in the direction of God by that necessity.

Our poverty has manifested itself in the form of having fewer choices, and decisions have to be made accordingly. We have no medical or dental insurance and face illness the same way that the poor do. I commute to work by bicycle as much as possible. I have cut my driving way down and the commute by bike allows me to get to know the poor who hang out in downtown Akron. Pete and I buy no new clothing and we hang our laundry out to dry rather than use a machine. We try to eat simply in order to stand on the side of the majority of the world who have little to eat. Simplifying is a progression for us and we are trying to get better at living it. We certainly learn from it every day, and it places us in the merciful hands of God and in need of the generosity of our brothers and sisters. We cannot stand independent here.

Thus in order for Matthew 25 House to survive, I must do a great deal of public speaking to raise money. What I am about to say is hard, and you cannot be a good spear thrower when you are desperate for financial help. But I’ll say it anyway:

I find that most Orthodox conversation about poverty remains on the theoretical rather than experiential level, from the chin up, so to speak. It tends to be evasive, pallid and utterly sterile. This is sad because there is an important transformation that poverty brings to people, both by sharing one’s life with the poor and by experiencing necessity oneself. In poverty we find an essential aspect of being a servant of God and a witness to Christ. Christ told us as much. So let’s talk, and not from our theoretical selves!

I think that the wealth of the American Orthodox (which is a relatively recent phenomenon in our experience) creates a wall between us and the two-thousand-year tradition of our Church. It runs the risk of becoming a wall where there is not the slightest breach through which the Gospel can slip. If our great grandparents were to appear and observe us, they would be in disbelief at the wealth we have at our disposal.

Where is the Gospel in this? For instance, I would welcome in our church a serious discussion about the meaning of fasting, in a nation where we throw away 48 million tons of food, where we suffer from obesity and diabetes and spend over 34 billion dollars on weight loss programs.

It is important to remember that — please allow me to say it — most of the voices getting “air time” in the Orthodox Church are people of great privilege, as I am, and we do not hear much about the poor or poverty from those voices. More and more I am interested in hearing what the bishops and priests have to say about the Gospel in places like Albania (such as Metropolitan John who was my neighbor in the dorm at Holy Cross Seminary) and the ones in places like Indonesia and Uganda. I seek to give, at least for myself, equal attention to those who are putting everything on the line for the martyria of Christ — those who have absolutely nothing to profit from the Gospel and aren’t leaning on comfort.

I have been invited to speak about Matthew 25 House to many groups of people, to lovely Orthodox Christian people all over. I do my best to share a bit about our different kind of life at the house. Having visited with so many of these people, I have great faith in our capacity to love. I believe Orthodox Christians can handle a serious exploration of what the Jesus’ Gospel has to say about the poor and about living in simplicity. I pray to God for this to happen in our Church. I ask all of you to please pray for our family here at Matthew 25 House and for peace to our neighbors on Princeton Street.