05/28/2013 06:18 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Tale of a No-Tell Motel

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When I worked in East Palo Alto, Calif., for the Ecumenical Hunger Program, I served on an inter-agency committee to start the first shelter for homeless families in the area. After two years of effort, we found a site. It was an old travel court motel that had not been upgraded since the 1950s. In its waning years as a business, it became known as a "no-tell motel," often rented for an hour or two, rather than for a night. In a storage room, during one of our volunteer clean-up projects, I found a stack of dusty Gideon's Bibles next to a stack of 1950s pornographic magazines. The courtyard was barren with dry crabgrass; the deafening roar of the Bayshore Freeway next to it drowned out conversations. But we were thrilled at the opportunity to have a place to send homeless families with kids.

For a month, until the shelter began operation, I was the keeper of the dozens of keys to the old motel. One day at Ecumenical Hunger Program, Nevida, the director, called me in to her office. Nevida remains a powerful role-model for me in the arts of service. She never treated people like clients. She welcomed them into her heart like family members, and they felt the difference. When a family had a need, she'd get on the phone and hustle agencies, businesses, donors and volunteers until she got what was needed for them. Like everyone else, I found it hard to say no to her requests.

"Jim," she declared. "We've got to do something about the Hernandez family."

Hector and Leticia Hernandez had six children and one on the way. Hector had been laid off work as a carpet layer. He was undocumented, which made it harder to find work despite his valuable skill; he was left to work with fly-by-night contractors who sometimes stiffed him on his pay. Leticia, who spoke Spanish only, was burdened with a huge family, but she still found time to volunteer at our agency, packing food and sorting clothes. She was a beautiful soul, a warm and patient person.

The family lived in a one-room, ground-level garage in "Little Aguililla," the Hispanic barrio in nearby Redwood City. It was winter. There was no heat. One by one, the family caught the flu, coughing and hacking at night, suffering through the day.

"You have the keys -- do something!" Nevida pleaded.

"Sure, I have the keys, but the shelter program staff hasn't started working yet! We have a deal with the housing agency that we won't start till we have a staff on site!"

My protest sounded just as weak to me as it did to Nevida. The warm but insistent tone of her voice was enough to break me down.

That night, I left the eight members of the Hernandez family in a tiny but warm, lighted motel room, children smiling, parents shaking my hand -- first Hector, then Leticia, then Hector again. As I drove home, I cried.

They didn't need the room in the shelter for long. Hector got back on a carpet-laying crew; they saved their money and rented a house, and with our agency's help furnished it with donations.

Several months later our Ecumenical Hunger Program staff accepted the invitation to attend the christening party for the seventh child of Hector and Leticia Hernandez. Brightly colored plastic children's toys littered the front yard as we approached. The healthy and happy family swarmed us with goodwill as we joined in the conversation and good food.

Thank God Nevida talked me into bending the rules for the sake of helping that wonderful family!

Service is grace that redefines and regenerates justice.

No matter how good our government policies might be, no matter how strong a "social safety net" we weave -- and in America we've got a lot of weaving yet to do -- there will be times when love must trump the rules. Being of service leads us to take graceful action above and beyond the written and unwritten rules by which our society functions. And we trust that our acts of grace will lead by example, pressing for change in the system.

Excerpted from 'Hitchhiking to Alaska: The Way of Soulful Service' (St Johann Press, 2013, available at, a new book by Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California.