This winter season, I have been thinking a lot about hospitality, especially hospitality in the time of COVID-19. Since November, I have been working at the Winter Weather Shelter run by my service site, Operation Safety Net (OSN) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The winter shelter is a low-barrier shelter that allows anyone, regardless of background, circumstance, or sobriety, to have a place to sleep to shelter them from the cold. The winter shelter is not an ideal place for anyone to be, sleeping on mats on the floor because they have nowhere else to go, but the shelter staff does their best to make people feel welcome and valued and connect them to resources that can get them off the street. This year, planning the shelter was made especially difficult because of all the new and ever-changing rules and precautions that have to be taken to protect those in a congregate setting from COVID-19. We were worried about how persons served would react to the stricter rules, but the additional structure has yielded surprisingly positive results. With fewer people in a more spread out arrangement, staff members have had greater opportunity to focus their hospitality on a more personal level. Working in this environment has taught me the importance of holistic hospitality. I have seen how it is not enough to just give people what they want or need; it is also about getting to know others so that you can best fulfill their needs. I work mainly at the women’s shelter, and when I ask the women, “Do you need anything?” most of the time they say no. But when I follow up with more specifics, “Are you sure? Can I get you water, socks, deodorant, shampoo…?” usually they say yes to almost all of those things. These women are so used to getting by with so little that they will rarely say they need anything. But once they become comfortable enough with the shelter workers, they will let us connect them to what they need most. I see the shelter as a chance to show hospitality to those who are rarely shown it.
With Christmas just around the corner, I have also been thinking about the hospitality that surrounds the holidays, at least for me. In my family, we have a Christmas rotation, which mostly involves eating copious amounts of food: Christmas Eve at my Aunt and Uncle’s, Christmas morning at my house, and Christmas evening at my grandparent’s house. The opportunities for hospitality are spread amongst all the family in the area, allowing us to share our homes and our time with each other. This year, however, things are different. With the number of COVID-19 cases still on the rise, traveling home for the holidays brings with it as much worry as it does joy, even when taking every possible precaution. How do I get home safely? How long can I take off of work to quarantine before/after I go home? Can I get access to a COVID-19 test? Experts say that a significant portion of positive COVID-19 cases come from indoor gatherings, making sharing hospitality in the traditional sense difficult, even dangerous, and irresponsible. Needless to say, my family will not be jumping between each other’s houses this year.
In the face of so much worry and uncertainty, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on some new definitions and practices of hospitality. Hospitality was the theme of the Mercy Volunteer Corps Fall Retreat this year, and at retreat we spoke about hospitality in two ways that have been particularly relevant to my experience of living and serving during a pandemic. The first is hospitality as a “sacrament of self” or “a willingness to be imposed upon for the sake of another’s well-being”. In a pandemic-less world, this might have meant welcoming people into your house, providing food and drink, and sacrificing your time cooking, cleaning, or entertaining. Now, however, we must sacrifice activities we enjoy and time with the ones we love in-person to keep our families, friends, coworkers, and community members safe from harm. As the pandemic stretches on longer than anyone originally expected, these sacrifices can become more and more difficult, but thinking of these sacrifices as a way to demonstrate hospitality to my new Pittsburgh community helps me find the strength to keep going.
The second new way to think about hospitality is being “at home with oneself”. During my year so far, I have had more time for personal reflection than any other in my life, and I am guessing that social distancing has provided this opportunity to many others as well, especially those that live alone. In my reflection, I discovered I have a tendency to run away from my own feelings, to avoid reflecting at all costs. When I was still in school, I would fill my days with work, studies, extracurriculars, other people, TV, or anything on my phone to distract from any personal anxiety or pain for the world. But now, with no homework and nowhere to go outside of work, I felt myself trying to fill a hole in my life with music, YouTube, or FaceTime. To combat this, I have started journaling to force myself to feel these feelings I usually suppress and feeling them more deeply has been very freeing. I realized that not understanding my own feelings had become a stressor of its own. I like to think about this practice as extending hospitality to myself, allowing my true and most authentic self to take center stage in my mind and in my life. As with all things, it is a work in progress, but I think being at peace with myself makes being there for others easier and more genuine.
Despite the strangeness of doing a year of service or celebrating the holidays during a pandemic, this experience has pushed me to grow in the best of ways and become better at extending hospitality to myself and others.
Caitlin O’Brien: Pittsburgh, PA