Benedictine hospitality and tough love

As church winter night shelters (CWNS) are shortly to start up again here in Southend (check out here), I thought I would share some thoughts about my approach as the manager of one of them – but first an update as to where I think we are …

At the start of last Friday, our local (Ferndale) CWNS budget, and there are all sorts of bits and bobs, especially food, that need to be paid for, was precisely zero. At the end of Friday it had risen to £1200. Besides receiving a £300 gift, we were able to raise the rest as a result of a fund raising meal, with raffle and auction. Lots of people were involved, who I won’t embarrass by naming, and the general feeling was the event was a success. Having wondered if we had taken on more than we can chew, I am pleased we did, not just because we were able raise money from putting on a good evening, but we were able to raise homelessness awareness and foster a lot of good will. Besides some logistical stuff that needs sorting out, getting volunteers to sign on the proverbial dotted line, and for some training we want to take place, we are all set to go.

As I have reflected in earlier blogs, running a night shelter is not without its challenges. Two years ago, one man turned up drunk on the first night and became abusive when asked to leave (later we became friends and had one surreal moment playing chess while listening to Beethoven). One year ago, one lady turned up, a bit hyper likely due to drugs or alcohol, but wouldn’t shut up even when the other guests were sleeping. She too was asked to leave. I wonder what unexpected happening will occur this time? I have learned we need to be well organised and prepared for all foreseeable contingencies, and yet to expect the unexpected.

This got me thinking how doing night shelters under the umbrella of the church might lend itself to a different ethos to those of agencies that are non-faith based and run according to strict rules of engagement. I should say in passing that while we adopt a Christian ethos, guests and volunteers are of all faiths and none, and there is no compulsion – we are not there to judge, but we are to love. Having picked up the concept from our local vicar, I often tell my secular friends that we operate on the basis of Benedictine hospitality. One of the central planks of the rule of St. Benedict is we treat guests who come to us, as we would if Christ himself had come to us, and this has many ramifications, like the need to show care and compassion and treat people as individuals, with dignity.

But the other side of the coin is we need to be firm as to our expectations, as would anyone would who shows hospitality to guests. This is where the tough love bit comes in. I often begin, with new guests or guests who have misbehaved in night shelters in the past, by reading the riot act while looking them in the eye. While there is a need to be flexible, there is also a need to be firm. While there is a desire to accommodate all without making judgment, experience teaches us that health and safety (for other guests and volunteers) is of paramount concern. Moreover, there is a need to recognize our limitations and sometimes in order to survive and flourish, rules and regulations are unavoidable. There is much we cannot do and we shouldn’t even try (often others are better placed to do so and even if we aren’t we must recognise we can’t do everything we would like to do), but we can undertake to give our guests a good experience during the twelve or so hours they are with us, by showing them Benedictine hospitality.

I look forward once again to helping to make a small difference for a small number of needy people.


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