Several months ago, I helped serve dinner at another local organization. At this dinner, the food was served cafeteria style. The servers waited behind the serving line and pushed trays to the guests through the opening. As I served, I saw many of the friends I normally see at Haywood Street on Wednesdays. However, on this particular evening, these same friends who often give me a hug or a high five as they pass through the doorway to the dining room at Haywood Street hesitated to speak to me. Some even refused to make eye contact with me. I was stumped because I greeted them in the same way I always do here at the Welcome Table. However, there were some very slight differences in the way these friends were treated. The staff ate first, before the residents were allowed to eat. I heard lots of “no”. “No, you can’t eat yet.” “No, you can’t have seconds yet.” “No, you can’t ask for a different piece of bread on your tray.” I wandered into the dining room to speak to some of the friends I knew from Haywood Street. It clearly made the other staff a little uncomfortable.
Some months later I am still pondering this experience. I am in no way criticizing this organization. The food was good. No one was exactly unkind to anyone else. The servers were all there to “help others” and were extremely nice to me. Yet the atmosphere was completely different. There was an unspoken differentiation between the staff and the guests. I had to wonder if both would have treated me differently if I were on the other side of the serving line, and why serving the same friends a meal felt so unlike it does at Haywood Street.
What I finally realized is that YOU, our companions, make Haywood Street different. Instead of trying to find ways to make the Welcome Table more efficient, we have spent weeks trying to find ways to make it more hospitable. Mirriam-Webster defines hospitable as 1: friendly and generous to guests and visitors 2: willing to deal with something new. That could go behind “Holy Chaos” as our other motto! Here we continue to try to erase the invisible lines between “us” and “them” until there is only “US”. We celebrate our friends simply for showing up, and our friends feel loved and welcomed. You, our companions, amaze me constantly with your abundant grace and compassion toward our hardest to love friends. Each week I have the best intentions of being the light to someone who is having a difficult day, but without fail, I always leave feeling that I have been given much more than I could ever give back. At Haywood Street, we practice saying “Yes,” and there is a world of difference in that.