Why we should all be more radically hospitable
What would happen if the world, or at least the folks in the East Bay, committed to practicing radical hospitality? This is a question I’ve become obsessed with as I make my way through the world collecting and telling stories as a writer and as the director of the Center for Women & Gender Equity at a local college.
The term radical hospitality is sometimes claimed by folks in certain religious communities, but as a believer in the universe I’m here to argue that it’s something that’s universally applicable and relevant to everyone—particularly those experiencing hardships. What is it? Radical hospitality, as I define it, is a practice that enables us to meet others where they are at, literally and figuratively, while being intentionally inclusive.
It means thinking through a simple, but extra, step to make others feel welcome. It means when someone walks into my office with a question I can’t answer, I take an extra 30 seconds to help navigate how or where we can find what they are seeking. It means that, during Ramadan, we add a compliment and gratitude jar as offerings to our weekly Coffee & Connection program for folks who may be fasting and share the intention with the community to make sure that it is known that all are truly welcome.
Then, when folks of any background or social stature show up, I teach my students to set their phones down and engage with them. The interactions may be as little as 10 seconds or as long as 10 minutes, but the hope is that folks walk away with a positive experience in their pockets that they can then pay forward to the next person they encounter.
I walk through life with this mentality and I try to do what I can, where I can, when I can. Sometimes that means offering a smile and a greeting, sometimes it means offering a snack or some spare change, other times it might mean troubleshooting something or, once in a while, doing nothing at all.
Perhaps this comes in part from my humble beginnings as the daughter of a janitor with mental health challenges who experienced bouts of homelessness and involuntary holds at the psychiatric center throughout his life and relied on strangers to stay alive. And perhaps it comes from my own experience as a single mom of two without family in the state.
I recall a time between paychecks, when my youngest daughter was months old, that I scavenged up pennies, nickels and dimes in hopes of buying a partial gallon of gas so I could drop my daughter off at Headstart and get to work. The cashier took a five dollar bill out of her own pocket to help me buy a whole gallon.
Recently, a man in line at Peet’s bought my coffee and that of the person behind me, because he shared that he was making good for some of his earlier misdeeds in life. I paid it forward later to a man at a Starbucks who held the door open for me. An unhoused man helped me with directions and I offered up a dollar.
The list goes on and on. The point is that we’re interdependent. What separates most of us who have a roof over our heads from those who don’t is often a matter of a paycheck or two. Radical hospitality invites us to consider what small thing we can do in any given moment to make someone feel a little more comfortable, a little more seen, a little more cared for.
This weekend, while entering a Starbucks, I bumped into an employee who had cocked his head out the door to take note of a woman who was sleeping on the sidewalk with several belongings. When the employee gestured toward his colleague, I had a feeling the woman on the street was either about to get breakfast or be asked to leave. Neither thing happened so my friend and I vowed to get her breakfast on our way out.
Ten minutes later, an officer who was a good six feet tall came and poked her with his baton several times to wake her up. He asked for her ID. It took her a minute to find it. He asked if she had any bracelets on from any hospital or if she’d spent any time at any jail. The exchange went on for several minutes, while the tall officer hovered over the thin woman sitting on the pavement. I overheard him repeating her words. “You’re just waking up?” You’re from Pittsburgh,” before I heard him offer her a directive. “You’re going to have to move it along.”
The woman’s eyes were teary as she looked up at the armed officer who stood over her. I didn’t hear him ask her if she had a place to go or if she had someone to call, nor did I see him offer her any resources. The officer’s sole purpose seemed to be to remove what a Starbucks employee had perceived as an eyesore from the pavement, where she sat sleeping.
When the exchange finally ended and the woman began walking towards the BART station, I asked her if she was hungry and offered to get her some breakfast.
The officer, who followed her, spoke up to scold me. “Ma’am, that’s not what she needs.”
“A bagel and cream cheese,” she responded.
“Ma’am, she needs to leave,” the officer said. The woman kept moving forward toward the BART station as he continued to follow her.
My friend V, who works with unhoused residents in the East Bay, and I brought her the bagel and sat beside her at the station, where she shared that she didn’t know where she was heading or have a safe place to land.
A few months earlier, an acquaintance whom I’ll call Kyle, who worked at a shelter during winter nights, shared that he’d kicked someone out who caused a ruckus because he wanted so badly to charge his phone. I asked Kyle where the person should go to charge his phone.
“Starbucks, an outlet on the back of a building, anywhere, he can figure it out,” Kyle snapped. “It’s not my problem.”
I reflected back on the comment as I watched an unhoused woman being led away from Starbucks. I thought about how stressed out my loved ones are when my phone is dead and I’m temporarily unreachable or how worried I am when I can’t reach my 81-year-old mother or when I temporarily become unreachable to my children.
Like the police officer whose priority was to remove the unhoused woman from a storefront for the sake of business, Kyle’s response fell short of seeing the humanity in the man’s desire to have a working phone, a means for connection. Radical hospitality goes above a dead end response of “sorry, no” and adds on an intention to collaborate in addressing the matter. “No, I don’t, but let’s see what we can do about this.” There may be nothing, but it leaves the person feeling seen and validated.
Maybe the problem is that housing insecurity is just too close to home for many of us, which is what causes some to otherize or blame people for their circumstances in much the same way society blames people whose lives have been cut short by police for their deaths or those who’ve experienced domestic violence or sexual assault for their abuse. I crave a day when those who are fortunate enough to have housing practice radical hospitality when engaging with the Bay Area’s 38,000 unhoused people on any given night.
When that happens, we’ll ask “How can I help you?” as we ponder the question “How can we meet you where you’re at?” When that day comes, the Starbucks employee will simply allow the unhoused person to sit on the sidewalk in front of their store just as they’d allow any other person to sit there. If the person is in the way, the employee will offer food—perhaps one of the excess pastries or sandwiches that will be thrown out at the end of the day—and water, and politely ask the person themselves rather than calling the police.
Perhaps we’ll work towards providing unhoused folks with solar-powered phone chargers along with their other supplies so they’re no longer at the mercy of the Starbucks staff or even a shelter. When an officer intervenes for a wellness or a “keep-it-moving” call, perhaps they’ll come armed with a snack, water and some resources.
I know it’s true that even if we practice radical hospitality and sprinkle the world with random acts of kindness, there are no guaranteed outcomes. But, what is the alternative?