The View from Below

by Joe May

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell in Nazi Germany: “We have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”

Matthew 25 House is a house of hospitality where we offer transitional housing to homeless men in the Akron area. I started Matthew 25 House with my father three years ago with the desire to live the Gospel in a more direct way and to follow Christ more closely.

The whole journey began for me when I went off to study at Holy Cross Seminary in 1992. I went to Holy Cross with the intention of testing the calling to the priesthood and possibly working in academia. There I was studying the scriptures and reflecting on the difficult passages like, “Whatever you do for the least, you do for me,” and “give all of your belongings to the poor and follow me.” These lines were so hard and exploded my categories of thinking.

The Jesus I discovered in scripture was born poor, lived with the poor, helped the poor and died without his own grave. Great Lent only underscored this point for me. I began to see a connection between being a follower of Christ and standing with the poor. I felt like that scriptural finger had pointed my way, and I wanted to do as Dorothy Day said, to “take Jesus at his word” with regard to the command of Matthew chapter 25.

I thought about the fact that my life did not resemble this Gospel in any way. It was remarkable really how little I looked like a follower of Christ, if you looked past the externals like my studies and my worship at Divine Liturgy on Sunday. I lived a privileged life and traveled around the world. I never came into contact with the poor. I went to school with people like me, worked with people like me and socialized with people like me. I took a good look at my expression of Orthodox Christian life and realized it was indistinguishable from average American consumer society. Where was the Christian witness? The most annihilating and utterly damning part of all is that it was un-Christic.

God cornered me. In Luke chapter 3, John the Baptist cornered the people who had come out to see him and they sheepishly asked, “What then must we do?” In the same way God had cornered me. I needed to find a way to answer: “What then must I do?”

Faced with this dilemma, I set out to find people who were doing the work. I went to Haley House, which is the Catholic Worker House in Boston, and to the Pine Street Inn, a mission in downtown Boston. What I saw was a revelation. I began as a person who put a dollop of potatoes on each person’s plate but did not look into anybody’s eyes and was transformed into someone who took people to AA meetings and shared life stories. My involvement began out of guilt and grew into love.

By the time I was in my third year of a four-year Master of Divinity program, I knew that I was not meant for the priesthood. It wasn’t that the calling I originally had heard was false or dead. What was there was a calling within a calling. After many psychological flights, I decided that I wanted to stand on the side of the poor, to live and work with the least in society. This kind of work was what I thought about when I went to bed and what I thought about when I woke up in the morning.

After finishing my Master of Divinity degree I returned to Akron, where I gradually defined my plan. I wanted to live the message of the Gospel, in voluntary poverty; living with the poor and offering hospitality to people in need. The same instinct I had in Boston led me to seek out people who shared that desire. It had worked before!

I have to say that most of the Orthodox friends with whom I shared my vision either looked at me as though I had soap suds coming out of my ears, or they could sympathize with it in theory, but not in practice. I received loads of discouragement as people warned me about theft, lice, STDs and being killed in my sleep. But I kept searching for people who felt the same conviction.

This search lead me to the Catholic Worker Community of Akron, situated in south Akron on Princeton Street. Their community was just forming and their first house of hospitality, the House of Peace, was just opening. From them I learned about the writings of Dorothy Day, about their pacifist stance and about their desire to live in simplicity. I fell in love with them.

Next door to the House of Peace was an old 1913 duplex with three-thousand square feet that had been a notorious crack house. It was smelly and full of debris. The house was vacant and I kept eyeing it thinking that it would be perfect for hospitality. I thought that this was the one!

My father and I found the owner, bought it, and championed the cause of bringing the house back to what it once was. We named the house Matthew 25 in honor of the passage which is the lens that I want to look and live through.

I will never forget the day my father lowered one of the tiles of the ugly suspended ceiling in the kitchen and a bag of crack fell to the floor. I am certain it was the first time either of us had ever seen one. He flushed it down the toilet. (There are still prosperous crack dealers at each end of our block.)

Our neighborhood is racially diverse, mainly African-American, but with Asians, Hispanics and other groups well represented. It’s a very poor neighborhood, with a median household income of $9300 per year. We are the town’s second highest crime neighborhood.

The men who come to live with us are truly at the bottom of everything. They come here because they have no other place to go. Their families do not want them. Most of the men are in recovery from an addiction to either alcohol or crack. Many have a history of incarceration and/or mental illness.

We have also been blessed by many Hispanic guests, who are usually “undocumented,” as people living in the US by their wits rather than permission are sometimes called. This poses challenges in finding them employment. I am often asked what services I can offer these men and what successes I can point to. It is hard to address this way of thinking, because we measure success in such different terms.

I think our primary role is to offer love, to be a family, to offer a place to stay, a listening ear, a smile, something to eat. I try to remember that the way I act can say, “I am glad you are here, you are wanted and I love you.” I am sure many times my words and actions do not live up to this standard.

At present we have eleven men living here. Since its inception, Matthew 25 House has had over seventy guests, and the house has always been at capacity. We live with no air-conditioning or cable TV. We share the house with mice and cockroaches. Our house does not smell the best that it could. We eat what is donated and from what the small income from our jobs can supplement. Sometimes I have to break up a fight on the third floor at 4 AM. Sometimes there are disagreements — someone claims that another is urinating on the floor or not doing his share of the house cleaning or the dish washing.

This has been a learning experience all the way. I have made many mistakes. Our very first guest, “Chuck” I’ll call him, was a crack addict. Chuck was very smooth and had me completely fooled. During the three weeks that he stayed at the house, Chuck stole checks from one of our volunteers totaling $1500.

I will never forget one of our first guests named “Rob”. He was only 29 but had already alienated a wife and three-year old daughter because of his alcohol addiction. His drinking had also damaged his liver. He came to us from the county jail and made a million promises to turn away from drinking and crime. We found him a job and things started to look up. We became friends and Rob shared his plans of reuniting his family and the work he would do in the future. Then he lapsed. I remember looking into his eyes, which were just as scared as mine because we both knew down deep that his addiction was much bigger than he was. I remember being broken hearted when he finally disappeared.

One guest, “Donald”, was living out in the woods and was found by a local agency. They brought him to us. Donald ended up being diagnosed with cancer, and he needed to go to the hospital to have a colostomy. The next thing I found out was that Donald was discharged from the nursing home where he was recovering without anyone checking to see if he had a place to go. Donald ended up back in the woods, now with a colostomy bag to contend with. We were grateful that somebody helped him to find his way back to us.

Hospitality means finding a way for Jesus from Guatemala to get tests and treatment for his failing kidney. It means sitting with Oscar from Honduras at the free clinic in Cleveland so that he can get three abscessed teeth pulled. Hospitality means visiting a former guest at the county jail and listening to his story because nobody else will. Hospitality means partying on Christmas eve with the guests and decorating the house. Oscar and I ran around the house throwing garland and tinsel, yelling out: “En Casa Matteo Veinte Cinco — decoration, no deportation!”

My relationship with the Princeton Street neighborhood has been slow in building. When I was first moving in and getting settled into the neighborhood, I was overwhelmed by the absurdity of the crime and poverty and I was worried that I would not be able to connect with the people who lived here.

Then something happened that gave me a shove and God showed me how it would happen. One really hot June day, I decided to get rid of a positively septic refrigerator in the kitchen. The smell from this refrigerator was burning my nose and constricting my throat, so my father and I banished it out onto the front porch where it would wait until we could take it to the dump. It wasn’t long before one of our neighbors spotted the refrigerator and stopped by. His name was Raymond and he told me that his refrigerator had just broken down and he needed one badly. I tried to impress upon him what bad shape it was in. Yes, theoretically it would cool things. Yes, I told him he could have it if he really wanted it. Raymond promised that he’d be back with someone to help him move the refrigerator.

Later on I was alone in the house peeling off old wallpaper when Raymond returned. He had his daughter with him and they were going to haul the refrigerator to their house on a small, sad appliance dolly. I looked at the dolly, then at his daughter who couldn’t have been more than 11 years old and she had a look of fright on her face when she saw the refrigerator. She couldn’t pull it up over the first crack in the sidewalk as her father pushed from behind it.

I remember hearing those horrible words come out of my mouth: “I’ll help.” It was a momentary lapse of sanity because I promised this without asking how far we were going.

There we were, wheels wobbling and squeaking. Raymond pushing the refrigerator from behind, me pulling it with a rope in front to get it over the bumps and cracks of the sidewalk. And we proceeded one sidewalk square at a time with awkward bumbling for several city blocks.

At one point we stopped after a couple of tries to get over a really bad bump when we just broke down, laughing and laughing. By the time we got it to his house we were exhausted, but I realized I had a new friend. My neighbor and his wife got some baking soda and water and set out to clean it. I went home and came back with a bottle of bleach. The end result was a clean refrigerator — a miracle of God — and everybody was happy. We may never have met or become friends if we both hadn’t been in need.

This work has never been about me bestowing my beneficence upon the poor guests who come to live here. That would be the saddest and most boring story. These are my people, my ethnos. This is my family, because God says so. Hospitality, if it is from God, is done out of love and not done out of dry, grim will-power or a sense of hard, determined duty.

I often fall short of this and so I pray for God to give my heart a greater capacity to love. It is in this work that I encounter my own short-comings and villainies. God has shown me that I am no less broken, sinful, or in need of healing and salvation than any of the guests to whom I have opened my door.

I have gone through so much of my life living with the thought in the back of my mind that the poor are where they are for a reason (character flaw, transgression, bad luck), and that I am in my place of comfort for a reason. This is a monstrous and numbing lie. Hospitality is simply an acknowledgment of the truth — the truth that the people who are in great need are family to us and that we are to love and protect one another. God offers us the ultimate hospitality, which is life itself. When we refuse to open our circle of inclusion to the poor, we are calling God a liar.

There has been a generous financial response from the Orthodox communities here in the Akron area. I am forever thankful for this because our work would not be possible without that generosity. Unfortunately, so far there has been very little response in the way of presence and relationship from anyone, which is what I believe Christ asks of us.

I wish that every Orthodox parish had a house of hospitality where parishioners could role up their sleeves and encounter the beautiful souls in this other world. I think that we could then be like Joseph of Arimathea, who “lived in anticipation of the Kingdom of God.” In the Kingdom of God, the poor are the VIPs. We are the poorer ones for it if we do not meet Christ in the poor person. We all answer the question, “What then must we do?” in a different way but we do all have to answer the question.

The best thing that I have ever done was to get out of my terrarium (the protective bubble that I was living in) and to encounter the poor. I found a whole other Akron that I did not know existed. Ever since I have lived at Matthew 25 House, I am always excited for what the day will hold. I know something incredible will happen.

And it always does.