Thursday, June 13, 2019

"Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief" (Mark 9:24)

I have been quietly grieving. Death has been demanding my attention.  Two men were recently gunned down in Memphis. One this past weekend, and one last night. One was a prominent and wealthy white Memphian. The other was a young African American in the Frayser area wanted on several warrants. The first was murdered by an as yet unknown assailant in an apparent robbery. The other by Federal Marshals as they sought to arrest the young man. Family and friends of these men are grieving. I am saying prayers and wondering about justice in this city.
                Last week, I went to a wake and a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. His long struggle with depression ended the same way as with six other friends, one of them a cousin of mine. I am grieving. I am saying prayers for my friend, his family, and friends.
                In the past week, several friends have shared that they have lost a parent to death.  Another has lost a brother. I am remembering my friends and their grieving in my prayers.
                And death on a larger scale dominates the front pages.100 Killed in Sudan and Dozens of Bodies Are Pulled From Nile, Opposition Says” (New York Times, June 4, 2019). “Afghan War Casualty Report: May 31-June 6,” with this first sentence, “At least 50 pro-government forces and 19 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past week” (New York Times, June 6, 2019). “Russian jets carry out deadly bombings in Syria's Idlib,” with this first sentence, “At least 25 people have been killed in aerial bombardment carried out by Russian jet fighters in Idlib region, with schools and medical centers knocked down during a continued Syrian military offensive” (Aljazeera, June 10, 2019). I am grieving and saying prayers and wondering if war will ever end.
                With all this death and grieving on my heart, I saw one of our guests at Manna House looking closely at the crucifix that hangs in the “chapel” at Manna House. The chapel is an open space set apart by a storage shed on one side that creates a wall, with the other three “sides” open but under a roof supported by wooden beams. The crucifix hangs on the shed wall. A small wooden statue of St. Francis stands just to the right of the crucifix.
                The chapel is often where our most vulnerable guests gather. Set apart by the shed and the roof the chapel has distinct boundaries, creating a sense of refuge that draws those who find other people’s company difficult, those who are loners and/or those whose mental illness makes them uncomfortable in a crowd of people.
                The guest staring at the crucifix is one of those vulnerable guests. He was shot and paralyzed from the waist down several years ago. At the same time he tries to project invulnerability. He is a young African American man known on the streets for his anger, his bitterness, and his quick resort to violence and threats of violence. He makes his way in the world through the dangerous work of selling drugs. He is a seller who also uses. There he sat, gazing intently at the cross. He knows death and was staring at this symbol of death—the cross.
                “The God of Jesus’ cross,” James Cone wrote in The Cross and The Lynching Tree, “is found among the least, the crucified people of the world” (Cone, 23).  And yet the particularity of Jesus’ death by execution also includes the broader human experience of death. As a disciple of Jesus I am called to be in solidarity with the crucified—those whose deaths have come from injustice, and those whose deaths come from our human condition. As a disciple of Jesus, I am to embrace the shared vulnerability of death so that I can practice compassion and self-giving in resistance to the power of death. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
                Here is where I am faltering right now. I am trying to resist death (and its close friend injustice), but feel overwhelmed by its power. I am trying in prayer to listen to and for God’s graciousness. But I am not hearing much. I am trying to say my prayers that those who are grieving will be comforted. But I am wondering if such condolences offer only empty words. I am like the man in the Gospel who said, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
                So I am meditating on this scripture, and on this line I came across recently, “At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.”—Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2018
                May God help me, may God help the man in the wheelchair at Manna House, may God help the family and friends of Brandon Webber, and of Glenn Cofield, and may God help all of us, to feel loved by God, to live in the hope of the feather of God’s grace. “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Love Incarnate is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, liked to quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, from his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Loving humanity in the abstract is easy. Loving a particular person is hard. Serving “the homeless” is easy. Serving the guest who is consistently cranky and demanding is hard. I get reminded of these truths almost every single day we are open at Manna House.
                 In the Manna House neighborhood there is a man in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot wound he suffered several years ago. He is known as a low level drug dealer. He has a perpetual scowl on his face. The last time he was at Manna House (several months ago) he threatened to kill a volunteer. He was asked to leave, and only the pressure of many other guests sent him on his way. He is not a very pleasant person, to put it mildly.
                He showed up last week and wanted to get on the shower list.  Do we let him shower? After a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. He showered and got a fresh set of clothes to put on. As he was leaving he gave a hearty thank you to those who had served him. Even if he had not done so, it was still the right decision to offer him hospitality.
                On Tuesday, a woman showed up who wanted to get on the shower list. She struggles mightily with mental illness. Her illness often renders her mean-spirited, foul mouthed, and generally difficult to work with in selecting clothing to change into after her shower. She’s probably been banned from the shower list six or seven times over the past two to three years. Do we let her shower? Again, after a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. She came in and did fine, not great, but better than other times. It was the right decision to offer her hospitality.
                Saying “no” is another part of loving in the particular and concrete that is hard. It is never easy to say “no” to a request from a guest.  Sometimes, however, love and hospitality require saying “no.” A guest approached me in the backyard. He asks for “special favors” almost every day he comes to Manna House. This time was no exception. On this Tuesday, his request was for a backpack. I explained that we give out backpacks on Thursdays to those on the shower list. He continued to plead his case. I continued to say, “no.”
                How is this love and hospitality? Love for each person who comes to Manna House means ensuring that each is treated with equal respect. If getting something depends upon the quality of a story and ingratiating one’s self to the person who is purportedly “in charge” then some will be left out, some will be disrespected. Guests who are less mentally adept, less skilled at playing to my sympathy, less pleasant in look and or smell, are not treated with equal love and respect by such a system.  
                Further, such a system is not hospitality. Rather, it is a patronage system that simply reinforces power over and exploitation of those “in need.” It casts me in the role of “savior,” making me the one who decides on my own who gets what. This is ego-inflation, not hospitality. Hospitality gives to each person who comes what is made available for all through the community offering hospitality. There is a discipline to love that includes listening to and being obedient to this particular community of hospitality. That is a reality that is “harsh and dreadful” because it stings my ego.
                A particular scripture helps me to see how love has to be made concrete and not left to an abstraction. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Or as Jesus put, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). God calls me to make my love particular, just as God did in becoming a particular human being in a particular time and place. My love has to take on flesh, or it is not love.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Come Out of Babylon

Moses stood in the backyard at Manna House reading from the Book of Revelation about the fall of Babylon. Around us were men and women and two children sitting at picnic tables, benches, and a few lawn chairs.  We were all there, seeking sanctuary from the streets of perhaps the most powerful empire in history. Empire lives on the deadly malignancy of despising the vulnerable, of creating a system in which persons are expendable.   
            Moses read, “After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. And the angel cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!” (Revelation 18:1-2).
            I walked toward the back of the yard where we somehow got into a conversation about where people are from.
            “Brewton, Alabama.”
            “Valdalia, Arkansas.”
            “Philadelphia, Mississippi.”
            I had never heard of the first two, and the guests from each said they were too small to be of any importance. I had to look them up. The power of cell phones and Google went to work.
            Brewton, Alabama got its start as a mill town. Two sources of water run through the town, Murder Creek and Burnt Corn Creek.  Trees were harvested and lumber was produced. The usual celebration of commerce continued in the history for a while, as the town became wealthy, with timber barons building fine houses. Then a turn to something different. I read out loud from the short Wikipedia article, “In October 1934, Claude Neal, a 23-year-old African-American man arrested for the murder of a local young white woman in Greenwood, Florida, was moved to the jail in Brewton for safekeeping. After a lynch mob learned where he was being held, about 100 men came to Brewton in 30 cars and kidnapped him from the jail. He was smuggled back into Jackson County, Florida, where announcements of his planned lynching were broadcast on the radio. Neal was tortured, shot and hanged by a small group near the Chattahoochee River before his body was taken before a crowd of thousands. His body was later hanged from a tree in the Marianna courthouse square. Whites later rioted in Marianna, prompting the Florida governor to order more than 100 troops to town to put down the violence. More than 200 people were injured, mostly black, but including two police officers. Black-owned houses were looted and burned in the riots.”
            The backyard got quiet. White guests shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, especially the one from Brewton. African American guests were shaking their heads.
            “I never heard that story before,” said the guest from Brewton, “I’m not fond of that history.”
            “You scratch a bit here and there and that stuff comes out, all the time,” said an African American guest.
            “What about Valdalia? Let’s move on,” said an African American guest, “I know that stuff too well.”
            I could not find a Wikipedia article on Vidalia, Arkansas.
            “Try Cherry Valley,” the guest from there suggested helpfully. Sure enough an article appeared. Total population these days of about 600. Four famous residents over time. One seemed worth learning more about, Pat Hare, blues musician. He left Cherry Valley and came to Memphis where he recorded at Sun Studio. I noted this, “His guitar solo on James Cotton's electric blues record ‘Cotton Crop Blues’ (1954) was the first recorded use of heavily distorted power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music.” Hare spent the last 16 years of his life in prison, where he formed a band named ‘Sounds Incarcerated.’”
            “Never heard of him,” said the white guest from Vidalia.
            We listened to one of his recordings.
            “That’s definitely a man with the blues,” said an African American guest, “He could have been from my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi. I’m Choctaw. They tried to run us all out, but some of us stayed.”
            “Were you there when those three Civil Rights Workers were murdered in 1964?” I asked.
            “Yes, a bad time, but all the times then were bad for us. You had to stay low.”
            I was back in the Book of Revelation. Babylon, “a dwelling place for demons.” And the author of Revelation had this advice, seek a sanctuary, “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and let you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Revelation 18:4-5).
            Come out, indeed. Resist empire. Create sanctuary. Practice hospitality. Find another way.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Bathroom Beatitude

Nothing like starting the morning cleaning shit off the street in front of Manna House. Some poor soul lost bowel control in the night. Guests who had arrived early and were waiting for me to open the gate warned me as I came across the street. After applying some buckets of hot soapy bleach water and a doing a thorough hose down, my street cleaning work was complete.
            Memphis is a place where to quote Ed Loring of the Open Door Community, people cannot “pee for free with dignity like Jesus did in Galilee.” Nor can they, “take a crap without getting a police rap.” A severe lack of public restrooms in this city makes finding a place to legally go to the bathroom an arduous task. And as a Southern city, in which those in poverty and those with dark skin are especially not welcome, the task is even more difficult and reflects a long history of segregated bathrooms, and denial of access to bathrooms. A recent article in “The Nation” magazine rightly points out,Restrooms outside the home have always served to reify norms of who is and isn’t welcome to occupy public life” (Natalie Shure, The Politics of Going To the Bathroom, The Nation, May 23, 2019).
            Consider how many restaurants post signs that say, “Restrooms for customers only.” Consider how few parks there are that have restrooms. It is no surprise that when Manna House is open our restroom is in almost continuous use.
            Three basic worries are common among people on the streets: where am I going to eat, where am I going to sleep, and how am I going to go the bathroom. Arrests for public urination are common among those experiencing homelessness. Some 20-30 percent of homeless people indicated in a recent survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty they have been charged with this “crime.” Fourteen states classify public urination as a sex offense. In Tennessee, public urination falls under “public indecency.” First and second-time offenders of public indecency face a Class B misdemeanor with a $500 fine. After that, the misdemeanor goes up to Class A, the fines increase to $1,500, and jail time enters the picture (a maximum of 11 months and 29 days behind bars).
            In light of the criminalization of urination and defecation does the Bible say anything about going to the bathroom? A little biblical research turns up nearly 30 references related to use of the bathroom. Deuteronomy 23:12-14, for example, gives clear instructions to crap outside the camp “so that God may not see anything indecent among you.” In the New Testament there’s nothing about Jesus going to the bathroom; no instruction on the matter. But given Jesus’ humanity, he had to go somewhere, and his disciples did too. And since they were not among the elite owning large houses with bathrooms, it is probably safe to say they went where they could, and Jesus’ instructions about food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, and clothing for the naked could easily include access to bathrooms for those who have to go.
            As I was reflecting on the denial of bathrooms to people on the streets I came across Psalm 123, which has nothing directly to do with this issue. Yet I think it gets to the contempt for persons on the streets that denies them access to restrooms, and to God’s concern for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger—those who were the overlooked, vulnerable, marginalized ones. Through the prophets and Jesus, God continually calls us to care for those to whom our society shows contempt.
Our eyes look to the Lord our God,
    till God shows us mercy.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
    for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
    of ridicule from the arrogant,
    of contempt from the proud.

We need to reflect God’s mercy, and we need to affirm that access to adequate restrooms is a fundamental necessity for everyone. All God’s children gotta pee for free with dignity like Jesus did in Galilee.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Through Love May We From Sin Be Freed

“Through love may we from sin be freed”—Nox atra rerum contegit, hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great (540-604).  

“God bless the coffee… Make it hot!
God bless the sugar…  Make it sweet!
And God bless the creamer… May it take all life’s bitterness away.”

The call and response that closes our opening prayer at Manna House had just finished. Most guests were headed to the coffee line. A few surrounded Kathleen, getting their names on the shower list or the list for socks and hygiene. I was approached by a guest who handed me a slender book.
“Here look at this,” he said with a slight smile, “It is about my wife and me.”
I opened the book. It was filled with pictures of this guest and his wife. It told the story in beautiful pictures and short sayings from each of them about their lives and their love following her being diagnosed with cancer.
On one of the pages I read this from the guest, “We done seen a lot, but you just got to keep yo peace and blessin’s in God’s hands.”
These two guests have been coming to Manna House for a long time. They have known poverty, including some periods of homelessness. Now they face the challenge of cancer with a terminal diagnosis.
            I finished looking through the book, and I shared it with Kathleen. Then I found the guest. “This is a very fine book. I love the pictures and what each of you has to say about what you are going through.”
            “Thank you,” the guest replied, “It means a lot to us to come here. We can feel the love. Be sure to pray for us.”
            “I will.”
            As I turned away from him I saw another guest getting coffee. He and his wife are regular guests who have been coming to Manna House for years. He is usually rather gruff with few words to say. His wife is quiet too but sweeter. I saw a hospital ID bracelet on his wrist.
            “Have you been in the hospital? Are you ok?” Each time I’ve seen this guest lately I have been worried. He has been losing weight and has not seemed as energetic as in the past.
            “I went to the emergency room.” And then he pointed toward his wife, “She has the papers. I don’t really understand what is wrong with me.”
            His wife shared the discharge papers from the hospital with me, including a prescription for an antibiotic. There was a list of ailments, including several chronic illnesses and one infection that needed the antibiotic. Poverty wears people down.
            “Be sure to finish your antibiotic,” I said to the guest. He assured me that he would. Then he looked at me and said, “I’m not doing well. Keep me in your prayers.”
            “I will.”
            I thought of what I had read in the book from the other guest, “We done seen a lot, but you just got to keep yo peace and blessin’s in God’s hands.” The hymn for Morning Prayer I had read earlier that morning had the line, “Through love may we from sin be freed.” I thought of how sin creates the conditions of poverty that wear down our guests, that lead to illnesses that are chronic and to higher rates of cancer.
            I try to believe in the power of love, to set us free from sin, from all the heartache and brokenness and hardship of human life. I have long cherished the vision of the power of love given in the Book of Revelation:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people, and God will be with them and be their God. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Revelation 21:1-4).

            That is the power of love. I saw that power in the pictures and words of the book the guest shared with me. I saw the power of love in the guests who come to Manna House so faithfully and share their lives with each other, with volunteers, with me. I saw the power of love in guests asking me for prayer, just as I have asked them for prayer. I want to believe in this power of love to set us free from sin, to heal, to bring wholeness. Lord help my unbelief (Mark 9:24).