Friday, December 14, 2018

Singing in the Womb


“Good morning. We’re going to do a short prayer and then open. Join in if you want to.” Every morning at Manna House, that is how we begin. Guests and volunteers are invited to join hands with each other and pray.

But this morning is not most mornings. This is the season of Advent. We are in a time out of the ordinary, a time of expectation. We are in a time when we are invited to enter into the darkness of the womb. Mary invited the very Word of God into her womb, and we are invited into the womb of God to be expectant with Mary, to respond to the promise of new birth.

Sojourners Magazine recently shared a prayer from Shannon Casey who wrote in Embracing Darkness This Advent Season, “In the darkness of the womb, the future is waiting to be born. And yes, sometimes we’ll feel terrible, but this Advent, may we have ears to hear the midwife as she compassionately reminds us to breathe.”

How do we hear the midwife and compassionately breathe together? Maybe it can happen in song. To sing together we have to listen to each other and breathe together, we have to find harmony together. So for this Advent, for our prayer together on the front porch at Manna House, we are invited to sing together, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

There is something powerful about pulling this “church song” out of church and placing it into our lives at Manna House. Each one of us on the front porch at Manna House are in various ways broken, hurting, and in need of being reborn. We each carry our sins, our faults, our histories of wrongdoing and failings. We are all human beings, vulnerable, in need of love and welcome and respect. Some of us have housing, some do not. Some have some degree of wealth, others struggle with different levels of poverty. For all of us, for Manna House to be a place of hospitality, we have to extend some trust to each other. We each stand in expectation and hope of a better life, of wholeness.

And so we sing together “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and listen and breathe together the words of this song that alternates between the darkness of the womb and the light of new birth.

We are captive, we mourn in lonely exile, until the Son of God appears.

We are under Satan’s tyranny, in the depths of hell, but then comes victory over the grave.

We experience “the gloomy clouds of night” and “death’s dark shadows,” but then comes the Light.

We are not at home here on this earth. We are alienated from God and each other, but then comes the key of David to open the door, and we are all welcomed into God’s home, into the Beloved Community.

Singing on the front porch we are a motley choir. A bit off key now and then. A bit forgetful of a word or two of the song. A bit hesitant even to sing. But somehow the song envelopes each of us and we gain a glimpse of another time and space where homelessness ends, where racism and classism and homophobia and sexism cease, where people are just people together.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

Friday, November 30, 2018

Advent Journey

Early winter in Memphis. I watch leaves let go of trees. The backyard of Manna House is almost completely covered by the fallen leaves.  I see winter's approaching starkness in the bare branches overhead. And I find my faith in Light and Resurrection tested. In my morning prayer, I read apocalyptic visions that will culminate in a Son born among the least. Yet I know that Son will be immediately threatened by a murderous ruler. This is a time of advent journey.
In this advent journey, I feel the cold of the mornings. I hold the hands of guests during our opening prayer on the front porch. Their icy flesh hints of death. It is a harsh reminder of what it means to have no warm place to stay for the night. Even if they found shelter, that momentary warmth is gone by the time we open at 8.a.m. Shelters usually ask people to get up and get outside by 6 or 7 a.m.
In this advent journey, the line forms quickly and quietly as our guests enter the light and warmth of Manna House. They seek coffee to warm their bodies. They seek welcome to warm their souls. We are going through more hot coffee more quickly each morning. It takes about twenty minutes for the first one hundred cup coffee pot to be emptied. Some guests have taken to filling small thermoses so even after we close they will have some hot coffee. They try to carry the light and warmth of the house with them.
Along this advent journey, my faith is tested, both in God and in humanity. The Christ who arrives at Manna House suffers from our sins, and he is announced by an angel from on low, “There’s a man in the front yard who needs an ambulance.”
I go outside and see a man seated on a chair near the front gate. Another guest had brought a chair down to the gate for the man to sit on. The man is shaking slightly as he sits. He is old and black, and though I recognize him, I cannot remember his name.
He reminds me of his name, and says, “I was just discharged from the Med about an hour ago. They left this in my arm.”
He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an IV port, still taped to his arm. Then he hands me his discharge papers. Dizziness and high blood pressure and dehydration conspired to put him into the emergency room. People in a hurry apparently conspired to leave the IV port in him. The temptation is to rush, for all of us. It is how we lose the Light and end up in darkness.
A guest insists I call an ambulance. Another urges the man to get a lawyer and sue.
“No need to do that,” I respond about the ambulance. “I’ll take him back to the Med.” We have enough volunteers (thankfully) so I have the leisure to leave Manna House for a while.
I get my car from across the street. A few guests gently deposit the man in the front seat. I reach across to click his seat belt into place. Off we go on our Advent journey.
The Med (or should I say its new fancy name, “Region One”?) is about three quarters of a mile from Manna House. We talk along the way.
“I was headed to Catholic Charities,” he says, “I’m working with them to get a place. Do you know Dick Hackett there? He’s going to help me.”
“Sure I know of Dick Hackett. He was the mayor of Memphis.”
“When he was mayor, my Momma cleaned his house, so I figure he owes me.”
We arrive at the hospital. I help him out of the car. He takes my arm so I can steady him while he walks. We take very slow steps as we head arm in arm to the Emergency Room. The nurse on duty at the front desk listens to his story. She does not apologize or offer any explanation about why the IV port was left in his arm. She does come around immediately and go to work.
“There, all done,” she says, as she swiftly and cleanly pulls out the IV port.
We walk slowly back to my car, arm in arm. I drive him to Catholic Charities. He methodically makes his way up the steps, holding the railing, and enters the building. I wonder how his meeting with Dick Hackett will go. It is still Advent.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Bowels and Mercies


Last Monday a very tattered and incomplete New Testament surfaced from the back pocket of a pair of pants going into the laundry at Manna House. On Tuesday when I was asked for the Word of the Day, I happened to open this worn New Testament (King James Version) to Philippians 2:1-3, 5.
“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. … Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
The question came quickly from a guest.
“What does ‘bowels and mercies' mean? What do bowels have to do with mercy?”
“Maybe we need to look at another translation,” another guest suggested.
Google quickly gave some other translation options, “tenderness and compassion,” “kindness and compassion,” “affection and sympathy.”
But still we were mystified by “bowels.”
“Maybe it means being moved deep within to be merciful” a guest offered, “Like feeling something in your gut.”
“That makes sense,” I said, and I promised that I would ask our New Testament professor at Memphis Theological Seminary for help with finding the original Greek word translated “bowels.”
Dr. Mitzi Minor responded to my inquiry.
She told me “the Greek word translated as compassion/affection/kindness is quite literally the word for ‘bowels’ in Greek. So, the KJV is literally correct. But it's a poor translation for us because we don't usually know that for ancient Greeks the bowels were considered the ‘seat’ of compassion in the body. Sort of like a ‘feeling in my gut.’ And a lot like we use ‘heart’ to indicate ‘love. Imagine 1000 years from now when ‘heart’ is no longer used that way, and someone then trying to make sense of someone now writing ‘I love you from the bottom of my heart.’ They'd think, ‘What does the bottom of the heart muscle have to do with love?’ and likely end up translating the line I love you deeply.’ That's what's going on in Phil 2:1. I'd prefer to translate that phrase, ‘If there is any compassion and mercy’ (though I'm also not sure that people really understand ‘mercy’ well either, but I really don't like sympathy for that word).”
 I asked her if this the same Greek word or related to "splagchnizomai” because I had once heard a similar explanation for a description of Jesus’ being moved to compassion in Matthew 20:34,
Yes, she added, that’s the verb form of the noun that is the word in Philippians 2:1.
Given this explanation for “bowels and mercies,” I thought about how the passage on bowels had come from a New Testament in the back pocket of pants worn by someone who would often be denied access to a restroom. Business owners have to be moved in their bowels to open bathrooms to others whose bowels are moving instead of restricting bathrooms to “customers only.”
And I also thought about how this passage is connected with Jesus being a model for compassion. I am encouraged to be moved like Jesus was moved, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”
If only I could feel deeply moved by the love of God known in Jesus’ life and teaching, then maybe my bowels of compassion would move too.
I look around and see the results of a severe case of compassion constipation. Fears of “difference,” of “not enough,” of “foreigners,” drive a restrictive politics and economics, bound up by trying to control and dominate “the other.”
This old New Testament text, in its strange translation, points to another way. A way in which somewhere deep within, perhaps where God resides in each of us, a compassion movement can begin. It urges a different way, where we graciously loosen up and take on the compassion of Christ. Moved by Christ’s love we can see each other as sisters and brothers, as sharing in the same humanity. Love can move us, deeply in our guts, to have mercy.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Is God Dead?


“Who is your favorite dead person?”    
                I thought this might be a provocative question to get guests thinking about who they would like to remember on the Feast of All Saints. In the Christian calendar, All Saints Day commemorates all the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven. It is an ancient feast, having its origins in remembrances of the martyrs and its official establishment goes back to 837 when Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance. Closely following All Saints is the Feast of All Souls, commemorating all of the faithfully departed.
                As the days get shorter and the nights get colder and the trees begin to lose their leaves, death seems more in the air. And these days, the power of death is thickly present in our society: bomb threats sent to political leaders, a murderous attack on worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, two African Americans gunned down by a white supremacist at a grocery store with story after story of whites harassing African Americans, a president ordering soldiers to the border to confront a “caravan” of asylum seekers, while at the same time he stokes more and more racist fears and enmity toward any political opponent. And, too, on the very Feast of All Saints, yet another execution in the State of Tennessee.
                Remembering the dead in this time of death might seem a strange way to resist death. But the dead are not remembered to dwell on death. We are to remember the dead to be renewed in the hope of redemption, of new life, of fullness of life, all solidly grounded in the Source of Life, God, who is Love.
                And so the guests at Manna House shared answers to my question. Though I admit my question elicited more puzzlement than responses at first until I refined it. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?” In response, guests offered their sacred memories of loved ones who still live in their hearts, and whom they hope to see again.
                The first few guests I talked with had memories accompanied by the uncomplicated grief and love of a loved one lost.
                “My Grandmomma. She raised me. If I have any sense at all that comes from her.”
                “I had a friend. We ran together in high school. He died young. I still miss him.”
                “My mother. She loved me, without hesitation or judgment. And she kept on me to be better.”
                “Daddio and Ten Four, they both looked after me and I looked after them.”
                But then came a memory that was very painful. A guest teared up as he said, “My daughter. She died of an overdose when she was twenty three. I’ll never get over that.” He shared with me her name and we prayed together.
                The journey through death, went deeper when a guest gave me an answer that stopped me in my tracks. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?”
                “God,” the guests said, “He’s dead to me.”
                I could tell he did not want to say anything more. In this moment, in his suffering, I simply stood there in silence before saying, “You are loved” and then I walked away.
                I thought later of an exchange that happened between Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. As the story goes, Sojourner Truth was in the audience at Faneuil Hall in Boston back in 1847 when Frederick Douglass, despairing that slavery would ever end suggested that God had abandoned African Americans. Truth stood up and asked, “Frederick, is God dead?” The question is inscribed on her tombstone. In the face of the powers of death, the power of slavery, Sojourner Truth asserted her faith in a God who is Love, who is Liberating, and Life-Giving.
                The Feast of All Saints and its companion feast of All Souls both reflect the most important feast in Christian life, Easter. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s life-giving, liberating, and loving overturning of the power of death, and those powers that impose death. I wonder if while Jesus was on the cross if he did not share with this Manna House guest the deep despair of feeling God’s death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus said as he died.
                This death of Jesus touches upon and connects with the death of each person who suffers and dies at the hands of the powers of death. Jesus was, after all, executed by the most brutal form of capital punishment the Romans used. Jesus’ death connects with the death of each homeless person, each person in poverty, each person killed in justice struggles. Jesus’ death question connects with the Manna House guest who in his suffering feels God’s death. And, yes, Jesus’ death also connects with each one of us who face the question, “Will I love and give of myself in love? Will I reject the power of death that makes me afraid of the stranger, of the other, of losing face, of not winning the rat race?”
                Jesus got his answer in the resurrection, God’s emphatic overturning of his death sentence, and God’s loving promise to overturn every death sentence. Love is what liberates us from fear of death because love is what liberates us from death.
                The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls echo Easter, when God spoke into the ear of Jesus as he lay in the tomb, and raised him with the words, “You are loved.”

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

“Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

“Do you know how I can get my check started again?” a Manna House guest asked as folks gathered in the front yard of Manna House drinking coffee.  “My check stopped when I was in jail.”
            I was curious about why he was drawing a check.
            “Disability” he said, “I have a brain injury. I get seizures. I can’t work.”
            Other guests started to offer advice. One said, “They’ll make you prove that disability again, even though you proved it before.”
            This elicited some hard realism from another guest. “They’ll turn you down at least a few times before you’ll get approved. Seems like standard practice.”
            The guest was discouraged. “I don’t know if I have it in me to get through all that again. I had a social worker help me the first time.”
            This led to more advice, about who could be asked, what organizations might help. But again the realism, “Seems like they just don’t want you to get help.”
            Then a word came from a guest who had been standing by silently, taking it all in, “Whatever you do, remember, the people at the Social Security Office didn’t make the rules. Your battle is with the system, not with the people there.”
            At that, our resident Bible scholar, looked up, turned a few pages of his Bible, and read, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” And he added, “Ephesians, 6:12, King James Bible.”
            “Well, ain’t that the truth?” a guest added his version of “Amen.”
            “How,” I asked, “Do you go about rejecting the system but loving the people complicit in the system?”
            I had been to a MLGW office with Manna House guests before. The long lines, the multiple layers of regulations and requirements to get power turned back on, the presence of an armed guard, the long lists of rules posted on the walls as we sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs, all were typical of places where the poor go to plead their cases for justice or for mercy. The Social Security Office on Cleveland, the “pit” at 201 Poplar, General Sessions courtrooms, jail visitation areas, emergency room waiting areas—they all have a mean spirit, just as they tend to be organized to be inhospitable.
            A guest offered this wisdom born of years of confronting the principalities and the powers. “You can’t get caught up in the place. Stay loving with the people. They have it hard too.”
            Manna House guests regularly experience and look deep into the reality of evil structured in the way things are. As a guest said to me one morning, “I’m told I’m nobody so often in so many places and in so many ways. They try to take my somebody away.”
            But he concluded, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”
            When I heard that I thought of Kathleen who often says, “Our guests bring us their best.” Their best comes with a strong realism regarding how things are messed up, but an even stronger sense of hope. This is not a facile optimism, but the kind of hope grounded in faith tested by suffering and injustice, and unwilling to yield to the powers and principalities. This is the faith and the love I experience each time our guests come to Manna House, because we certainly do not meet all of their needs, and we certainly have days when our edges are a bit rough.
            The witness of the guests at Manna House helps me to buck up and to not give in to the “luxury of despair” that tempts the privileged. They teach me how to live in hopeful and loving resistance to the principalities and powers, seeking justice, as Sharon Welch writes in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, “without the assurances of eventual victory and without the ego- and group-building dynamics of self-righteousness and demonizing.”
            Or, to put it more succinctly, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

Thursday, September 27, 2018

"Go to the poor. You will find God."


The rain has come every morning this week. Mostly gentle, occasionally intense, the rain moved us from the backyard to the front porch and inside the house. Elbows ran a bit closer together, and chairs were a bit harder to find.  Some might call it “cozy” while others may say it was “crowded.”  Either way, being inside at Manna House is a precursor to the winter months which will be here sooner than we think.
Due to the rain, our guests arrived in various stages of being soaked. Not everyone who comes to Manna House is suffering from homelessness. Some manage to maintain a precarious grasp on housing. The housed were more likely to arrive sporting an umbrella. Those on the streets sometimes had umbrellas, too, though they were typically missing a rib so the canopy sagged and provided less protection. Some had donned flimsy ponchos, the kind you can get for a buck or two at a convenience store. Those lowest on the rain gear “food chain” had resorted to plastic bags for rain protection. The bag would cover their torso as they popped a hole in the bag for their heads, and two more holes for their arms.
Housed or homeless, everyone’s shoes were wet, and so were their socks. Dry and clean socks were a more precious gift than usual. And those on the shower list were happy to discard their wet clothes for fresh and dry clothing.
I was reminded by the rain of how we all need a place to stay; a place to protect us from the elements. We humans are fragile creatures. We lack fur to keep us warm. We do not carry our resting place with us like turtles. Water does not just roll off of us like a duck’s back. We need places out of the rain and cold, or out of the heat and the humidity. A shared and basic human need is for shelter. Even more, we really need a home, especially a home where we can feel secure and welcomed and loved.
I also thought about how Jesus identified with those who have no homes, when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). In context, he was laying out the cost of discipleship to someone who had too easily proclaimed, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus calls us comfortable ones to take the risk of going where he goes, to go where people are suffering. There our hearts can be opened and we can find the compassion and desire for justice born of shared vulnerability. I know I am tempted to think I can ward off my human fragility by acquiring more and more and pretending I do not need help. Jesus calls me to compassion born of a broken heart.
This morning was the feast of St. Vincent de Paul. He said, “Go to the poor, you will find God.” In saying this he did not romanticize the poor, nor did he deny the horrors of poverty. Instead he saw how serving those in poverty could open hearts to see our shared humanity, our need for each other; the recognition of mutual vulnerability that calls us into seeking life together. In the person soaked by the rain, covered by a plastic bag, God invites me into what saves all of us, namely, love. As St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Handcuffs of Gentrification


A guest approached me the other morning at Manna House with disturbing news.
“I was handcuffed by the police yesterday.”
This is a guest who carries with him a well-worn Bible that he frequently and devoutly reads. We often talk together about “the Word of the Day” find some phrase or story that connects with our lives. Other guests often ask him to pray for them, and he does, right away. He puts his hand on the person’s shoulder, bows his head, and prays. He is in many ways a pastor for people on the streets. He is always ready to listen, to offer an encouraging word, and to share a passage from the Scriptures that might inspire. His Christian faith reminds me of St. Francis, a wandering ascetic whose love for others was always readily apparent.
“Why would the police handcuff you?” I asked, stunned that he would be subject to any police suspicion.
“I was sitting on the steps of a building with another guy. He doesn’t come here, but he’s a good guy. We were just sitting there. I had used a water tap to wash my face cloth. It was a hot day, and I needed a cool cloth. But the cops came up and grabbed us. They said we had broken into the building. They pointed to a window that was open.”
“Did they arrest you?”
“No. But we were in handcuffs for two hours.” 
“Two hours? Did you at least get to sit an air-conditioned police car?”
“No. We were in the sun the whole time. They called the owner of the building and it took him an hour to get there. He knows me, and he immediately told the police they had the wrong guys. They should let me and the other guy go. The funny thing is that the window the police pointed to was the one I had told the building manager about last week. He told the police all that and then left.”
“And they still held you for another hour?”
“Yup. And threatened us, saying they could still arrest us for criminal trespass, and that we shouldn’t be in this neighborhood. I guess they didn’t like being shown up by the building owner or something.”
I thought of an article I read recently, about the criminal justice system and systemic racism. Systemic racism, the author wrote, “means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede is rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.” (See, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/?utm_term=.31621d6b3822)
Keeping black people in their place, like telling them they “shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.” Did I mention that this guest and his friend are both African American? And yes, it is not only about race, it is also about class. Systemic classism tells poor people that they are not welcome in certain areas.
What “Word of the Day” might speak of what this guest experienced in being handcuffed? Micah the prophet saw this oppression of the poor, and connected it to denying people housing, “But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses” (Micah 2:8-9).
This guest was handcuffed in the area now being called “The Medical District.” The plan is to make this area around the UT Medical School, the Southern College of Optometry, Region One [the Med], and LeBoheur more attractive for wealthier people to move into. You can’t have poor people in such an area, and certainly not homeless black men. This is how gentrification works.
While I was talking with the guest who was handcuffed another guest arrived. He had on a t-shirt that said, “Dixie Homes Reunion.” Dixie Homes was a large public housing project near LeBonheur that was torn down back in 2005. This guest, I found out, had grown up there. We talked about the reunion.
“Where are the people from Dixie Homes now?”
“All over the city.”
“Any live in the houses that were built on the old Dixie Homes property?”
“O hell no!” he said, “Nobody could afford to live in those.”
So, a little more from Micah to chew on in these days. God sees the injustice that is going on.
“Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).