A few weeks ago, on Thursday, June 4th, we had the privilege of attending the blessing and dedication of the new Nativity House in Tacoma. Nativity House, which has been offering homeless individuals hospitality and a safe space out of the elements and off of the street since 1979, recently transformed into what is now the largest and most comprehensive facility serving homeless and low-income adults in Pierce County.
The new Nativity House is home to services previously offered by three separate programs at three separate locations: Hospitality Kitchen, Nativity House, and Tacoma Avenue Shelter. The new location provides everything from hot meals, day shelter, and overnight shelter, to mental health and chemical dependency assessments and referrals, pathways to permanent housing, job training, and access to mainstream public benefits like Medicare and SSI. In addition, the Nativity House Apartments (just above the day shelter) offer 50 units of permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless single adults with disabilities.
A couple of hundred people attended the building dedication on a beautiful June day and had the opportunity to tour the facilities after a program and blessing presided over by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, Mike Tucci, Sr., chairman of the capital campaign for the Nativity House, and Denny Hunthausen, Director of Catholic Community Services Southwest. It was moving celebration of a sacred space that provides housing, hospitality, and hope to those living on the margins.
Tom O’Loughlin, a public school teacher and deacon in the Catholic Church, has volunteered at CCS shelters for years. Five years ago, he began an internship at Catholic Community Services’ Tacoma Avenue Shelter as part of his formation to become a deacon, and he never stopped. Tom now works at Nativity House once a week. He participated in the recent dedication of the new building and reflects on his experience with Nativity House and its community below, speaking to the importance of building relationships of trust and companionship.
By Tom O’Loughlin
Nativity House is a home of humility and grace. People arrive as they are, often feeling abandoned and alienated from their dreams of better options. Something, or often, many things have gone wrong in their lives, and they seek a place to recover, to settle, to reconnect – to do more than simply survive. Nativity House, like all programs that serve the homeless, seeks to provide skills and support to help all reach their dreams.
Some of the best moments are hearing the stories of pain, loss, and hope that some of the guests share. It takes time and trust for those stories to unfold. The stories are sacred and, even though everyone has them, only some will share them over time. Others are hesitant to share their stories because they don’t want that part of their life known or they don’t want to be betrayed as they’ve experienced all too often before.
The grace is in the listening: listening with an attitude of openness to what the person shares and who the person is. It’s not judging what is shared or who is sharing. It’s realizing that I can’t fully understand what’s been experienced by someone on their journey with homelessness, but I can be there as a person of support and care.
Relationships of trust are built through knowing guests’ names, ribbing guests’ favorite sports teams or players, laughing through different incidents that happen at the shelter or elsewhere, and grieving with others during struggles, sickness, injury, or death.
A few years ago one of the older guests who had been sick for a while died on the street. His body had shown signs of shutting down for a while; he had been in and out of the hospital a number of times. He was a friend of some at the shelter but no one was doing a memorial or service for him. I spoke with some of his friends and we held a memorial service for him at the Hospitality Kitchen. Several of his friends and CCS staff showed up to remember and honor him. People shared humorous and moving stories about how they knew him. We had some quiet time for prayer, read aloud some readings that seemed to capture his spirit, and joined in some music. It was a sacred moment to recognize the gift of his life and the gifts of all lives at the shelter.
Tom O’Loughlin is a public school teacher in Port Orchard. He’s married to Jennifer and they have three wonderful grown children. He is a deacon at St. Theresa’s Church in Federal Way. His family also attends their home parish, St. Leo Church, next to Nativity House in Tacoma. Tom received a Masters in Pastoral Ministry from the Seattle U ITS program in 1986-1987.