A Boarding Home Welcome

Kate McGee is the new Chaplain/Executive Director of Boarding Homes Ministry.

Returning to Boarding Homes Ministry has been an unusual and profound kind of homecoming for me. It’s been disorienting, in some ways, because my return is marked, even defined, by grief. Rodger Hunter, the founder of the ministry, was my beloved mentor and dear friend. Humble to the point of being sarcastic, I’m sure he’d deflect this praise: he was my greatest teacher in ministry. More than imparting knowledge, he trained my heart. In many ways, Rodger recognized and fostered my potential as “minister” where my Catholic seminary could not. Put simply, he welcomed me.

Rodger founded Boarding Homes Ministry with a radical sense of inclusion, of holy hospitality that embraces the whole person right where they are. He called it “agenda-free presence”: meeting marginalized people in their homes, no assessments or evaluations, no checking credentials, just love.

Rodger created welcome and received welcome in ways that seemed to spin magnificent, portable cathedrals out of the thin boarding-house air. His great gift was to create spaces where people of very different walks of life could meet each other, face-to-face. Spaces where we could accept and be accepted. It was a transformative magic.

BHM gave me the keystone of my vocation and of my spiritual life: a welcome that is not of this world. I’d go so far as to call it a way of being, a spirituality in its own right. He taught me what welcome feels like, how to recognize it, how to offer and receive it, how to build it tenderly in the face of corrosive neglect.

Rodger brought a deep reverence and devotion for God-in-the-Other, and gave the remarkable but quiet gift of his own self. The residents we met belonged to many faiths, and many to no faith. He ministered to each person’s needs with great gentleness and respect. He rarely spoke God’s names aloud, but his love for our guys was a more powerful testament to God’s majesty than words could convey. In our long talks after the visits, he would spell out all of the conscious pastoral choices that led him to this simple but deliberate approach. But when we were in the home, it was just Love. Attentive, delighting, celebrating, sorrowing, companioning, welcoming Love.

After being immersed in Rodger’s spacious and generous welcome-in-the-Spirit as his student for three years, I transitioned to hospital chaplaincy. In each hospital I worked with people who in some way shared struggles with our guys in the homes: people with mental illness and addictions, people who had endured trauma, people with complex and chronic physical health conditions, people who lived in poverty. It was my deep spiritual commitment to keep Rodger’s “agenda-free presence” at the heart of every encounter I had, despite the mounting clinical demands of psychotherapy and chaplaincy. To see the person before me and offer, without so many words, the great, expansive, welcoming Love that had found me.

April 4th marked the first anniversary of Rodger’s death. Our communities still miss Rodger terribly. The Board decided that Boarding Homes Ministry must continue, so in January, I stepped away from hospital chaplain life to come home to BHM. Many of the residents and most of the volunteers are the same. Boarding home life hasn’t changed. I feel just as embraced by this community as ever. On my first visit back, one longtime resident said, “Kate, I’m glad you came back to us. You belong here”.

That is the welcome of one resident, and it is also the welcome of God. It is a welcome that has been carefully crafted and cultivated over the years by each member of this community- by Rodger, by his students, by our volunteers and our precious residents. This ministry has celebrated the love of God in dreary boarding home living rooms for over twenty years now. My hope, as its steward, is to do everything in my power to maintain and expand that welcome. Wherever we meet each other in tenderness, the embrace of the living God is always there to enfold us.