The Extra/Ordinary Hospitality of St. Herman House

The following is the first of many features we will be doing on Orthodox service ministries that the OPF is partnering with or supporting, as part of our St. Macrina’s Ministries initiative. Nicholas Sooy, a member of the In Communion editorial staff and author of this piece, formerly worked full time at St. Herman House.

The Church is a hospital, according to St. John Chrysostom, and according to St. Ignatius its sacraments are medicine. It is often repeated that Christ is the Great Physician, and that the spiritual life of the Church heals the sickness of the passion-ridden soul. It is beautiful when the Church is compared with a hospital, with all its evocations of healing, compassion, and philanthropia. A contrast between the Church and a hospital may also seem instructive at first glance. The hospital cares for the body, while the Church is a special hospital for souls. This dualism, however, is something foreign to Orthodoxy. The Fathers did not see the Church as some merely spiritual counterpart to hospitals. Rather, hospitals in the patristic era were extensions of the healing ministry of the Church.Some historians believe the first hospital ever was founded by St. Basil the Great. Early medical institutions were even called Basilias.

Hospitality, the type of love practiced in hospitals, is a very Christian notion. The Greek word for hospitality is ‘philoxenia,’ love of stranger (the opposite of xenophobia). While we might think of hospitality as welcoming friends, in the early Church it meant loving strangers,“for even sinners love those who love them.” The relation between ‘hospitality’ and ‘hospital’ should be instructive for us, for we tend to separate caring for the sick from welcoming strangers. Christ, however, did not separate these activities. Instead, they were both expressions of the same love: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.”

In the Byzantine Empire, there were a variety of philanthropic institutions, like hospitals, that grew out of the Church’s commitment to hospitality, whether that be for the poor, the sick, or the stranger. The xenon was a ‘house of hospitality,’ which existed to shelter the poor, the traveller, the pilgrim, and the stranger. Sometimes these houses were large complexes, while sometimes they were rooms in the Church building. Xenons, along with orphanages, hospitals, and other such houses of hospitality, were incredibly important to the Christian witness and vocation in the early Church. St. John Chrysostom said that every Christian home should have a special room dedicated to hosting the homeless or the stranger, while one of the Arabic canons attributed to the Council of Nicaea says that a “house of hospitality for the poor should be established in every city of every diocese.”

The St. Herman House of Hospitality is one of those rare places where God is unavoidably present. God is seen in the many icons which grace the house. Some of these icons hang in the chapel, while the rest come from the streets of Cleveland. St. Herman House was founded in 1977 by Fr. Gregory Reynolds and Mother Mary Blossom, two truly saintly monastics, to serve the poor in Cleveland in a time when almost no one else was doing so. Today, St. Herman House is run by FOCUS North America (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve) and supported by the more than 20 parishes in the Cleveland area, a true expression of pan-Orthodox unity and authentic, ancient hospitality.

Last year, St. Herman House served over 73,000 meals. They are one of the only programs in the nation that serves 3 hot meals a day, 7 days a week. The house also distributes around 800 grocery bags a year to mothers with dependent children and has an emergency bread and food pantry that is available outside meal times. The house’s clothing pantry is nearly as expansive as its food pantry, and each year over 500 men benefit from the free clothing and hygiene products. Shoes, jackets, and gifts are also given out to local children and families at various school and holiday giveaways. St. Herman House is also a shelter, and at any time can host up to 28 men. In addition to the emergency shelter, there is also a transitional house attached to the community that can house up to 12 eligible men. Together with case management and the jobs program the house runs, the transitional house provides men an avenue towards stability and independence. St. Herman’s also runs a 75 acre farm, which supports the feeding ministry, and which is being prepared as a ‘recovery ranch’ for those with addictions. Finally, to add to this litany of services, St. Herman’s also practices hospitality in non-material ways. The house has a chapel in which prayers are said every morning and afternoon, and once a week there is an open Bible study in the dining room. The house also serves as a home to the homeless for those who do not sleep there. Every morning it is open for ‘hospitality time’ where snacks, friendship, and a homey place to sit are offered.

While the vast array of services offered at St. Herman House is unparalleled, what truly makes the place unique are the people. Christianity is not about services, whether they are Church services or social services. Christianity is about persons, and in particular is about the person of Christ. To love another means to attend to the image of God in them. If we fail to love others, either by neglecting their material needs, or by treating them only as material beings, we dehumanize them.

There was one man who was staying at 2100 Lakeside, the main shelter in Cleveland. 2100 is a large, impersonal facility with security guards and a prison-like, industrial environment. This man was sleeping at 2100, but every morning at 5am would get up, skip the breakfast at Lakeside, and walk many miles to St. Herman’s for a small breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and pastries. Paul Finley, the director, once asked this gentleman why he spent so much effort to have breakfast at St. Herman House, and as the man sat there teary-eyed in that friendly room, filled with couches, real wooden tables, and icons, he said, “Because here I feel like I am a human being.”

St. Athanasius taught that Christ, through the Church, was restoring the fallen image of man. The Church exists to foster the wholeness of personhood, the dignity that comes from becoming Christ-like. With that purpose in mind, it should be no surprise to hear that the Church humanizes and brings people to wholeness. This loving vocation of restoration is simple Christianity, and yet it comes to life in a very real way at St. Herman House. Repentance, prayer, fasting, almsgiving,fighting the passions, loving neighbors, loving enemies, healing, forgiving, all these activities at the heart of Christianity made sense to me at St. Herman House in the fullest way that I have experienced. In all my experiences in parishes, in monasteries, and even on Mt. Athos, St. Herman House is the one place I’ve been where I have seen the Church be the Church in the realest way possible. No one understands the passions and the need for grace better than homeless men. No one understands the need to turn away from death towards life better than those who have lived in hell on earth amidst the poverty and violence of the street.

As the Russian proverb goes, the only thing one does alone is go to hell. For many homeless, this is all too real. What is lonelier than homelessness, than the knowledge that you might freeze to death tonight and not one person in the city will open their home to save your life? Each year several dozen homeless men freeze to death in Cleveland. What is a lonelier hell than a death like that in a city of so many? If such a death is hell on earth, then where on earth is God’s will done as it is in heaven? It is often said that to enter a Church is to step from this world into the Kingdom of Heaven. Nowhere is this more real and tangible than at St. Herman House. Orthodoxy does not deal in vague abstractions. Rather, its theology is concrete, incarnate, and lived. The hospitality of St. Herman House is lived theology, not social work. It is to such theology that we are called by Christ and the Fathers. As St. John Chrysostom said,

Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, “This is my body,” and made it so by his word, is the same who said, ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.

St. Herman House is a place of golden chalices and golden souls, as the Church is called to be. It is a place touched by miracles. It is a miracle each time that the eucharist is celebrated in the chapel. It is a miracle each time an addict gets clean. It is a miracle each time a group of broken and fallen men can work together to serve a meal to their brethren. It was a miracle last year when an estate donation of 7,000 dollars came in the day after Paul Finley privately reported to the board that they were 7,000 dollars short of their budget. It is a miracle whenever a donation of batteries shows up just as the staff is about to leave to buy batteries for the house. It is a miracle each day when the men of the voluntary house wake up before dawn to say Orthodox morning prayers. It is a miracle that a place surrounded by so much pain and suffering has come to be called ‘the happiest place on earth.’ “The miracle is,” according to Fr. Stephen Callos, “that it kept going.” After over 35 years and several leadership shakeups, the house is still going, and is growing. There was even a brief transitional time when the house was run by a non-Orthodox individual, and in my favorite anecdote from the house, the daily prayers kept going, because the men living in the shelter had grown to love the prayers of the Church. It is a place that can only be described as God-directed.

There’s a beautiful, yellow, Victorian house on Franklin Blvd. where God is present, and where the Church is the Church. The ancient vision of the Church as a hospital, or perhaps more accurately as a house of hospitality, is alive and well in Cleveland, OH. It is an example to the whole city of Cleveland, to the state of Ohio, to the United States, and to the Church Universal that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Such is the wonderful message that the Church is to carry forth, and it is incumbent upon all of us to do so. Nothing is more natural for a Christian Church than to have a house of hospitality, and nothing is more natural to Christianity and to the Christian than to support such an endeavor. In truth, though St. Herman’s may be extraordinary and out of this world, that is precisely what should be normal. The super-natural, the extra-ordinary is the norm for the Christian seeking divine-human communion. The hospitality at St. Herman House is not something to be admired from afar. It is a proof to us that we can live more compassionate lives, that we can be hospitable, and that the Church is a hospital and can be as such in its fullest sense. St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the Xenons of his time, said that it was the responsibility of all Christians to practice such radical hospitality, saying:

Though you may not wish to take them into your houses, at any rate in some other way (receive them), by supplying them with necessaries. “Why, has not the Church means” you will say? She has: but what is that to you? that they should be fed from the common funds of the Church, can that benefit you? If another man prays, does it follow that you are not bound to pray?

We are hospitable, just as we are prayerful: for the sake of others, and also for our own sake. Fr. Stephen Callos told me, “We need them more than they need us… it’s important for my children and my parish… we need to go down there and look the poor in the eye and serve them.” Ultimately, this small act of looking another in the eye with love and hospitality is the point. Looking, and seeing Christ. While we all might not be able to feed 200 people a day, we can show hospitality. It is quite simple. When I asked why he does what he does, Paul Finley told me plainly, “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done… and it’s not much different from anything else I’ve done. People are people. People in the rich area of town just as much as in the poor areas are greedy, angry, charitable, envious, grateful. There are lots of kind guys and charitable guys here, just as much as angry. I saw a homeless guy give another homeless guy a dollar for a bus ticket. People with nothing helping one another. Sometimes the poor are more generous. It’s possible because we are all made in the image of God. We all have to struggle with the passions. Sometimes redemption happens; everyone has their own spiritual journey.” Or as Angel Valdez said, “It is not difficult to find Jesus in a place like this. He is here, he lives here, he visits us every day hidden behind different faces. I recognize him because he is always, always carrying and dragging a painful and heavy cross.”

To support FOCUS North America and the St. Herman House, to volunteer, or to learn more, go to sainthermans.com or focusnorthamerica.org.