Last weekend the Board of Directors of Annunciation House had their big meeting of the year. Normally, this would probably not be something that would be particularly interesting or exciting for the everyday staff of a non-profit. But there is very little that is “normal” about Annunciation House. A big difference: everyone on the board of directors is a former volunteer. Which means they all have awesome stories about how the house used to be, as much of the history is only passed along orally. And all board members, current volunteers, and community people involved with Annunciation House were invited to a cookout Saturday night to get to know each other.
While I heard about many wonderful and unique stories (including a little bit about what it was like when we used to have a location in Juarez!), this post is dedicated to a woman who was one of the original five who moved into Annunciation House. I was so inspired by her story that I felt compelled to share it, as close to as she told me it as possible…
It was the mid 1970’s and a group of young Catholics got together for about a year to discuss what it truly meant to live the Gospel. They discussed many ideas, but especially focused on the idea that they, as Christians, were called to serve the poor.
But what does that REALLY mean?
Some people answer this question by donating some money to charity or doing occasional mission projects. This group, however, felt called to something much more extreme: to move into the top half of an old, dilapidated building to do something.
Let me be clear at this point- they did not initially feel called to create “Annunciation House.” They did not decide that they needed to serve the immigrant population as an emergency homeless shelter. They had very little idea about what that something meant.
Instead, their discussion lead them to decide that they felt called to give up almost all of their worldly possessions, to live simply, and move into this building that the diocese was generous enough to lend them, because they felt certain that God was calling them to do so. And that His vision would eventually be made clear in how it was that they were to help the poor.
And so, of the more than one dozen that were meeting regularly with the group, five took up that calling and moved into the building. The woman telling me this story described what this meant for her: she had 15 credits left to finish her college degree and she dropped out to move in (though she did finish her degree a number of years later). She gave away her car. She gave away most of her clothes.
She faced many challenges from others about her decision. Her parents were especially upset with her, saying “We didn’t work this hard to get out of the barrio for you to move back into it!” (the barrio referring to Segundo Barrio, the poor section of El Paso where Annunciation House is located).
But she followed the call anyway.
She and the other four began the long process of cleaning the building, while continuing to discuss what they were really being called to do and how they were being called to do it.
For instance, they started receiving donations from people in the community (lots of green beans!), but also things like cots and beds. Should they accept them? They knew they wanted to live simply and they didn’t know if things like beds would take away from that. BEDS! They were serious about their commitment to simple living in solidarity with the poor. But they did decide to keep and use them and pretty soon had 5, one of each of them.
And then a sixth arrived. Well, surely keeping it would mean they would be living in excess? What did they need with more beds than people? But they decided to keep it, just in case. They felt called to keep it.
And guess what happened the very next day? Someone knocked on the door. A teenager who had been living on the streets asked if he could stay there. And he was the first guest to ever be welcomed into what became Annunciation House.
Then another bed arrived. They decided to keep it as well. And I’m sure you can guess what happened next… there was another knock on the door and another guest was welcomed into their new home.
As the woman said, “Every time we received another bed, we knew that God was about to send us another guest.”
In these first days they accepted anyone who came knocking. She distinctly remembers spending much time with a woman who was very suicidal, many times talking to her when she was thinking about jumping off the roof.
From there Annunciation House, as we know it now, began to evolve.
They eventually realized it was the undocumented, particularly those people fleeing violence (physical, political, and economic) in Latin America who needed them at that time. And so they welcomed those fleeing the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. Those fleeing oppression in Honduras. And so many others who had no where else to stay, as they lacked Social Security numbers to be allowed refuge in other shelters. And we continue to welcome them today, those fleeing the violence in Mexico, the violence of economic poverty, or a family separated by international boundaries drawn in the sand. Those not welcome anywhere else.
I had heard a version of this story before, as it was part of my orientation last summer when I began as a summer intern. And you can find the organization’s version of it on the website. But there was something immensely powerful to hear it from an ordinary woman sitting across the table from me on a breezy early fall night at a backyard cookout. That she, just an ordinary student and young woman, could feel a call to give up almost everything she had ever known because she felt called to help the poor in a way that she did not yet know what it was. And that she followed that call.
I have to say I felt something similar before I began here last summer. I was searching for something to be my Poverty Studies internship for the summer and just instantly had this feeling about Annunciation House, a place that actually welcomed the undocumented. And had a similar feeling that I should return to volunteer for a year. I had never experienced such a strong calling for anything before and who knows if I’ll ever feel anything like it again.
But despite many people in my family thinking my decision was a bit crazy (to decide to live and work in a homeless shelter for undocumented immigrants in a city that I had never been to, to work for an organization I knew almost nothing about, while receiving no pay to do so), I have to say that I didn’t think it was that crazy. And neither did this woman think her call was crazy, even if the world did.
As I said in my previous post, I’m not totally sure what I think about religion right now. But this is something that I do know: when Christians feel a calling to understand the Gospel, it should be centered around an understanding of working to help the poor. And when they receive their calling to help the poor in some way, even if it seems crazy, even if it means not really knowing the big picture or the tiny details, they should take up those callings. Even if it means living in a homeless shelter. Or living in a building with an unknown purpose without any beds. It may seem too hard, but how will the world change into a just, heaven-on-earth without people willing to accept the crazy calls to revolutionize the way we currently live?