As Vinnies we inherit a Christian tradition. The Society began as a movement within the Catholic Church and in its beginnings was inspired by the life of Jesus. His example and his instructions to his disciples guided Frederic Ozanam in his work with people who were poor.
In Mark’s Gospel he gives his most detailed instructions when sending out his disciples to preach the Good News:
He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ (Mark 6:7–11)
The instructions are quite clear. But what is not so clear is why Jesus told the disciples to go out in this way, and what his words mean to us. Many people see it as a story about the formation of the disciples. Their experience is like a boot camp in which they learn their craft and the resilience they will need when they go out on their own. They must live simply and travel light. We can learn those attitudes from the story without worrying too much about the details.
I think that way of looking at the story sells Jesus short. In the Gospels he is always very sharply focussed on what matters. And what mattered most to him were the people whom he met. He would hardly use them as guinea pigs in educating his disciples. We should assume that Jesus gave his disciples such detailed instructions because they were the best way to reach people and to encourage them to reflect on their lives. And if that is the case, we also need to take them seriously and understand what he was getting at.
All of Jesus’ instructions are designed to make the disciples depend totally on the people in the villages they visited. They brought no food, no money to buy it or to rent a room, no bag to put gifts in, and no spare clothes against the night cold. They had to ask for food, water and a place to stay. They depended on the hospitality of the people whom they approached.
This meant that they came as receivers and not as givers. Beneath this surprising strategy lies the insight that people are more likely to be open to people to whom they have done a favour. They have built a relationship that they feel good about, they will talk more freely about themselves, and will be more interested in what their guests have to say.
If the preacher came in an air-conditioned Merc, wearing an Armani suit and sporting a gold Rolex, they would be unlikely to listen to him, particularly if he told them how they should live. He would have nothing in common with them. But someone who came with the dust of their streets on his feet begging them for food might get a better hearing.
Jesus’ instructions were not simply about commending a simple way of life. They were designed to lock the disciples into relating to people as beggars, not as benefactors, when they spoke of the Good News. He made sure that they had no other choice.
If we need fancy phrases to describe it we could call Jesus’ strategy the path of reverse hospitality. The most effective way of reaching people is not first to offer hospitality but to beg them for it. If they respond by offering us hospitality they will be more ready to accept us and what we have to offer. This is the strategy of the gospel. Jesus’ quickly gets a reputation for accepting meal invites from people who were seen as low-life. They then listened eagerly to him. His behaviour echoes the heart of Christian faith: that God loved us enough to enter our world as a baby, totally dependent on the hospitality of others.
What does this have to say about our Vinnies work? In a word, everything. It explains why so many people say they first came to work with Vinnies in order to give but found they received much more than they gave. It explains why the richest encounters on the soup van occur when the person who receives food feels herself to be offering hospitality to the person who comes. The relationships we form with the people whom we serve and the attitude of seeking hospitality we bring to them are more important than what we give.
Jesus’ strategy also suggests that the success of our Vinnies’ works is not measured by numbers or public esteem but by the quality of relationships. It follows that our generous financial and business advisers who serve us help us shape what we do but may never control it. Our masters are the people whom we are privileged to serve.
Andrew Hamilton SJ is Chaplain to the St Vincent de Paul Society of Victoria’s Young Vinnies.