My morning as a Jesuit Volunteer at the Harry Tompson Center (“HTC”) begins with preparing the shower area for the guests at 7am. The HTC is a homeless day shelter in New Orleans that provides space for its guests to attend to their basic needs like showering, access to a bathroom, making phone calls, holding medical appointments, and simply relaxing. The Center is committed to improving the quality of life of its guests and treating them with dignity, respect and compassion, after the example of Jesus. I strongly believe in the Christian work to transform the world back into God’s garden, a place of kinship and transformation. Symbolically, the HTC is a beautiful representation of God’s garden on earth. It is a welcoming place where all guests, staff, and volunteers can come together in friendship.
The HTC is part of an entire community of ministries and nonprofit organizations in NOLA providing services to those in need. The Harry Tompson Center is located at the Rebuild Center, which also includes DePaul USA, an organization that helps homeless men and women to secure housing, and Lantern Light, which provides a breakfast snack and lunch and helps guests to attain identification such as a Louisiana state license. The Center is located behind Saint Joseph’s Church, which is also involved in its ministries.
To grow closer in knowing the guests and their stories is both beautiful and transformational. I have experienced transcendent moments where I can only marvel at how magical the HTC is, at how beautiful the guests are and can be, and at how lucky and privileged I am to be able to share in their moments of gratitude and their lives. For me, this was an excellent example of the HTC as God’s garden, “the place of tranquil friendship, of the giving and receiving, quite gratuitously, of good gifts” (Lash 117).1
There have been many such examples. Like on a Tuesday when John asks me for a backpack because his had a huge hole in it and he had a job interview that day. With almost perfect timing, several backpacks had been donated on Monday, so I gave him a new one. John really appreciated the backpack and remarked, “I have my whole life in here,” while showing me several important papers. On Wednesday, John came back to the HTC, telling me that he had passed his drug test and gotten the job.
Similarly, Father Greg Boyle, SJ, explained this in his commissioning speech at my JVC Orientation, that the goal of JVC is not for us to rescue anyone, but to be transformed together: “Service is the hallway that leads to the ballroom…We’re all a cry for help, all in need of healing… We do not go to the margins to save anyone, but to find salvation…We do not go to rescue, but if we all go there we might find rescue.” The HTC is a place where such salvation and rescue is and can be found. It is found in practical ways, such as providing or receiving showers. It is also found in more powerful ways, such as sharing stories and laughs.
As part of this transformation, I believe in true Christian justice as reconciliation. I would describe reconciliation as healed relationships rooted in agapic love. Father Greg stated, “If kinship is the goal, we will no longer be promoting justice but celebrating it.” I agree. If we can make the world more like the HTC, if we can learn to view each other as brothers and sisters, and if we can root all our actions and relationships in agapic love, we will no longer be working to transform the world into the garden. We will have all transformed, with the world, into the garden. We will have all transformed, with the world, into the Kingdom of God.
Lash, Nicholas. Believing Three Ways in One God: A Reading of the Apostle’s Creed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993. e-Book.
Michael O'Connell attended Boston College, where he was privileged to receive spiritual direction and attend philosophy and theology courses that transformed him and eventually lead him to JVC. This year, he serves at the Harry Tompson Center in New Orleans.