I spent my spring break in Cleveland, Ohio. My group and I were given the opportunity to become familiar with the Ohio City neighborhood. We ate many meals at soup kitchens, though we helped serve not a single one (this might seem odd, weren’t we on a service trip?). Our experience was really much more of an immersion than a service. The focus was on building relationships and becoming familiar with the reality that is poverty. One of the many places in we visited in the neighborhood was the Malachi House.
It is a little difficult to explain what the Malachi House does. Most people from the area will tell you that it is a hospice, but that’s not what those who work and volunteer there will tell you. The Malachi House is a home. It is a place to stay for those who have no money or nobody to care for them and who have been diagnosed with six months or less to live. The residents range from those who spent their nights in homeless shelters to former professors who now find themselves without any money or family to take care of them. The staff and volunteers there have no special training; they are trained as much as any caregiver at any home can be. The services provided are completely free and 100% of the funding comes from donations (no government support is needed) making the Malachi House unique to the country. But that isn’t the amazing part.
What really separates the Malachi House is the little things: the personalized welcome signs for new arrivals, the frequent ice cream parties, the option of privacy when needed, the availability of someone to listen when wanted, the teddy bears given to each resident specifically to be hugged late at night, bubble wrap appreciation day (that’s right, you know you wish you had a day set aside for bubble wrap). For many of the residents this is the first time they have had a room of their own, or the first time their room has been regularly cleaned, or the first time they have received meals on a regular basis. As one volunteer stated, “It is not a place to go to die, it is a place to live until you can’t live any longer.”
When you think about it, the work done at the Malachi House does not really accomplish anything. The positive environment might extend their life some, but they will eventually die all the same. Much like Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, it does nothing to stop the imminent end (she gets a dirty handkerchief and Jesus’ face becomes covered once more in sweat and blood before he is killed). But does it mean anything? Yes, in fact, it means everything. It is the smallest actions that show someone their life is worth living, that they are loved. These things make life worth living. Like chatting for a half an hour with someone at a soup kitchen rather than handing them a tray through a window and wishing them a good day, never to see or talk to them again. Like stopping in and talking to Mrs. O’Malley to hear her life story. Like having a conversation with a Salvadoran immigrant in his native tongue instead of English, which he can hardly understand. Like sending a friend a letter instead of a hastily composed email.
Is it because we become vulnerable when we recognize another’s dignity that it is so foreign to us? It is because the moment we do so we instantly acknowledge that we are really on the same level, that we’re not so different after all? We are not the haves serving the have-nots, we are people. All of us. We are people living together and loving each other, which does not take some epic feat of social change. What it does take a less impressive form of heroism in the form of appreciating the people in your life.
If the Gospel appeals to you, it is easy to come out against general social injustice, against the exploitation of the poor, in favor of pacifism, ethical vegetarianism or other isms. But it is a thousand times harder to tackle the problems of hostility, coldness, or injustice in the relationships with those with whom you are in contact everyday. It is also much less spectacular.