The room at the top of the stairs in Jeffrey Wald’s house probably wouldn’t inspire any of the producers or viewers of HGTV. It is, as Wald describes it, “clearly the creation of a do-it-yourselfer,” not one with extraordinary skills.

“The ceilings on either side slope excessively, so there is only about a foot-wide path down the middle on which I can stand and walk (I’m six feet tall). There is no closet and barely enough room for a bed,” Wald wrote recently for Plough magazine. There is also the matter of the occasional critter that flies or scampers in and has to be trapped with a fishing net.

But, as Wald tells it, the room at the top of the stairs has come to serve as the Wald family’s “Christ room” — the most important room in the house.

I’d never heard the term before, although I knew of Pope John Paul II’s description of a family’s home as the “domestic church.” A Christ room, I supposed, is similar in that it bestows upon a home — or at least a single room within it — a kind of ministry.

Wald, who lives with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota, wrote that the French theologian and social activist Peter Maurin “preached that every church should have a house of hospitality, and every home that can should have a ‘Christ Room,’ where the ambassadors of Jesus can be housed, fed, clothed, and offered a bit of dignity. But more importantly, where they can be Christ to us.”

With Dorothy Day, Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1930s. Day, whose case for sainthood is currently under consideration by the Vatican, herself wrote of the Christ room as shelter provided for a homeless person — a primary mission of early Catholic Worker groups. As an article about Day in The New York Times explained, the groups set up residences across the country to serve the homeless. “These homeless people were served by young volunteers who shared their guests’ poverty — a modern version of the hospitality that Benedictine monasteries had provided in Europe before the Reformation.”

This practice is still continued at many monasteries today, where visitors can rent a room and retreat from the world temporarily.

What Day and Maurin launched, however, was more of a Christ house. More recently, a Catholic Worker community in Charlottesville, Virginia, Casa Alma, began a project more in line with what Wald was talking about in his Plough essay: hospitality on a small scale as a spiritual practice.

Casa Alma’s Christ room ministry encourages “singles, couples, or families of any economic level or faith background” to open a room in their home to people who temporarily need help and a physical manifestation of Christ’s love: whether they be women recovering from domestic abuse, refugees, immigrants, young adults leaving foster care, and people recovering from illness, trauma or other difficult circumstances. These “support households,” as Casa Alma calls them, could provide help for any period of time, although the group recommends a minimum of 12 weeks.

The place where no one dies alone

Of course, many families generously take in refugees and foster children without thinking of the room they occupy as a “Christ room.” And perhaps this is not so different from people who freely open up their homes to travelers they don’t know via Couchsurfing. But as Claire Burt told the National Catholic Reporter a few years ago, designating an empty room as a Christ room subtly changed how she viewed the space, making it more like a ministry than a guest room, a place of “radical hospitality” worthy of reverence. (When no one is there, she uses it as a prayer room.)

It also made her think more about how she could use the space to be helpful to others — in short, to be more Christ-like herself.

Casa Alma recommends that people thinking about setting up a Christ room read “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition” by Christine Pohl. But one doesn’t have to be affiliated with a Catholic Worker organization, or even a Catholic, of course, to adopt the custom for themselves.

And sometimes we might already have a Christ room without having recognized it as such. That’s what happened in the Wald household, as the small room housed one foster child after another.

“I never intended the room at the top of the stairs to be a Christ Room,” Wald wrote for Plough. “I struggle to dignify it by even calling it a room. Cave seems more appropriate. But then again, the king of kings was born in a cave. Was buried in a cave. And rose from the dead in a cave. Maybe a room’s dignity is not so much what it looks like but who occupies it.”