Sometimes I can be so blind. Who would have thought that when I walked into work at the Carondelet Center here in St. Paul, Minn., the Monday after Thanksgiving, I’d have an experience that surprised even me?
First, I have been battling a mysterious bug for weeks which has sapped my energy, so I was happy to see the note from Rebecca (our administrative assistant) telling me to set up only six tables instead of the usual eight. At Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality this fall, we are studying a collection of theological articles giving voice to women regarding the nature of Jesus Christ. The writings reflect the clear witness the Samaritan woman at the well gave after discovering Jesus to be not only a prophet but also the savior of the world (John 4:4-42). Class participants are mostly regulars and feel comfortable with each other, so our meetings are both social and enlightening.
Our director Barb was the instructor that night. As she was about to begin she noticed that more people were checking in than we had tables set for, so she asked me to put a placemat, nametags, pens and a candle at the seventh table. She opened with a song, so I waited.
I was frustrated because Nancy and I had set the six tables well ahead of class time and moving about now felt unsettling. I dug through the cart behind me and put pens, nametags, candy, a candle and a lighter in a basket. I grabbed a placemat and noticed my frustration mount as even more people were arriving late. It felt chaotic and I wondered how I could do what Barb asked without being even more distracting.
The new people also waited for the song to finish. I thought, “Good, we can move now,” but Barb then read a prayer. More waiting, and too much time to think about the scene unfolding before me. I assessed the entire room and all potential distractions. I could eliminate myself, reasoning that the latecomers could just sit down and join in. They’re not newbies, they bring their own pens; everybody knows them. I perceived my involvement in more setup as needlessly troublesome. How wrong I was.
The song and prayer ended, and those waiting walked to the far side of the room. I followed and saw that both empty tables were filling up. I brought items for only one table! Dear God, let me be invisible! I quickly put all the stuff on the first table and lit the candle. Now, here’s where it began to feel weird. I’m working as quickly as possible, trying to be invisible, but all the people at the table are smiling and saying, “Thank you, thank you!” I’m completely taken aback by their gratitude because I wonder why they are not instead irritated by my interruptions.
I glance over at the far table and decide I had better set that one, too. I walk all the way across the back of the room, gather more items and walk back to that last table. I’m sweating with a mix of surprise and anxiety. I will have to stand at the front of the table to reach the middle, block the participants’ view, and distract everybody. I quickly arrange the placemat and other things, light the candle, and see that these people also smile and whisper, “Thank you, thank you!” I return the smile, knowing it is more because their reaction is not what I imagined.
I think I was in shock. I walked back to the registration table, feeling gifted and happy. How did this experience mirror the “clear witness” of the Samaritan woman? The women at those two tables were my witnesses, as their genuine gratitude for this simple act of hospitality made it clear to me to be constantly vigilant of how Christ lives in the world.
Barb had simply asked me to set a table with the same items the others had, which intrinsically made the latecomers feel welcome and included. I felt their response all the way into my soul.
Never, ever, underestimate the power of the smallest act of hospitality.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)