This year we celebrate our fortieth anniversary at Jesuit Social Services. We have been reflecting on the key words that sum up our mission: welcoming, courageous, discerning. Like most words that name ideals, they are attractive. But, of course, when we ask whether they describe how we are living, the words are also very challenging.
Welcoming evokes smiling faces and brings back happy memories. In my case, memories of myself as a nervous boy at a youth camp fearing the worst, and finding myself met by young people who took an interest in me and quickly made me feel at home. As a traveller arriving unexpected after midnight and being met, fed, chatted to and shown around by a host who had an early morning start next day. And of waiting at a hot bus stop in Jericho when an Arab shopkeeper invited me in to share coffee and to chat. All small things, but welcomings that have encouraged, connected and built trust.
Memories like this are challenging because they ask us whom we welcome. Friends are easy to welcome. Strangers can be more challenging.
When a neatly dressed, smiling young person comes to the door, it is easy to open the door with a smile. When a young person with tatts, piercings and a desperate look on their face comes to the door we are more likely to be wary and to shut the door without looking into their eyes and hearing them out. To be welcoming of people whom society sees as outsiders, as scary or as rubbish is a rare gift. It is challenge. It is also our calling at Jesuit Social Services: to welcome people whom others look past, dismiss or find too difficult. We began by caring for young people who had been in prison. We still welcome them and others like them, and try to help them connect with society.
Our memories of being welcomed also lead us to ask how we welcome others. Some receptionists have the gift of making us feel special and at home. Others are impersonal and do the bare minimum. We notice the difference.
The welcomes we remember are often of people who went the extra mile for us, who went out of their way to touch as persons and not simply as clients or customers. They welcome us even after we have let them down.
Our mission at Jesuit Social Services is to hang in with people for the long haul – in their failures to live as they would like as well as in their growth.
Many people have a gift for welcoming the most amazing range of people through thick and thin, regardless of their religious or cultural traditions. The tradition we inherit at Jesuit Social Services has stories that keep us honest. Of the father who has cashed out the family estate and binged his half on wine, women and cards. When his cash runs out he is derelict and decides to come back home. His father not only lets him in the door – he is waiting by the window with one foot raised, ready to run out to him. He embraces him, dresses him up and puts on a feast for him.
That is welcoming.
Andy Hamilton SJ is a Jesuit priest and a member of Jesuit Social Services’ policy team.