Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas and Cross in Contention

Christmas and Cross in Contention

Christmas Day was Friday. Saturday was the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Today, Monday, was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which remembers Herod’s slaughter of children under the age of two in his attempt to kill the baby Jesus. Jesus and his family fled to Egypt, refugees seeking shelter in a foreign land.
The Church’s liturgical calendar is not very subtle in its point: the powers that be quickly threaten Christmas, the coming of Christ. The domination system acts quickly to suppress movements for liberation. Or as Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [be prepared for the Roman method of execution] and follow me.” (Mark 8:34).
            Christmas and Cross were in contention this morning at Manna House.
Christmas: We opened Manna House an hour early so guests could come right in from the rain as soon as they arrived.
Cross: The domination system produces homelessness spitting expendable people out into the streets. Housing is just another commodity in the free market. Homelessness means having no shelter from a storm. Homelessness means being soaking wet and cold when it rains. And this morning it was raining, hard. Even those who had enjoyed some shelter also arrived drenched. They had been turned out at daybreak, as is usual shelter practice. Their dry night became a wet morning as soon as they stepped outside.
Christmas: Hot coffee was served all morning to anyone who came through the doors seeking shelter from the rain. Dry socks were given out to any who asked. Dry shirts were also available.
Cross:  A guest told me as he waited in the coffee line, “I got evicted on Christmas Eve. I’ve been on the streets ever since. Some neighbor complained about me. I still don’t know what I did.”
Another Cross: A guest came in with a split lip and a visible lump on his head. “I got jumped. They took everything I had, which wasn’t much. I told them, ‘Don’t leave me in pieces.’ And I’m still in one piece.”
Christmas and Cross: A guest needed some medical attention. He had cut his finger severely a few days previously. He needed some new bandages and antibacterial ointment. Volunteers in the clothing room patched him up.
Cross: Some of the guests who struggle with mental illness seemed worse today. They were very agitated and edgy. People who had been doing well are descending back into chaotic suffering and the system does not care. Check that, the system will care to arrest a mentally ill person who acts out badly.
Christmas almost Crossed: Guests on the shower list looked forward to getting a hot shower and a dry set of clothes. Then the hot water heater stopped working. No hot water. A few bravely went in to take cold showers and put on the warm dry clothes as quickly as they could. Then, as Kathleen described it, “A Christmas Miracle” happened. The hot water heater started working again. All those on the shower list except the first three got hot showers.
Christmas: We had a lot of cookies to share with guests. Chocolate chip were clearly the favorite with oatmeal raisin a close second.
Cross: We closed at 11:30a.m. as usual.

Christmas: The rain had stopped an hour earlier.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Biblical Fairness

Biblical Fairness

“It’s not fair!” The cry came out as I volunteered at Room in the Inn helping get guests on the list for shelter for the night. A guest was not happy about the method by which the limited number of shelter spaces would be allocated to a large number of people hoping for shelter. There were forty nine people seeking shelter. There were twenty four shelter spaces available. Not everybody seeking shelter through Room in the Inn would get shelter this night. More churches are needed to offer shelter. And also needed is more commitment by people to the justice of housing for everyone, housing as a human right.
                But for now, the problem. How to distribute the limited good of shelter in the face of abundant need? This guest who complained had the solution, drawn from the capitalist culture which cast him into the streets. “I was here two hours early and I waited. I earned a spot. Those who came later, who were lazy, should not have an equal chance.” Ah, meritocracy! Goods are distributed according to hard work, effort, competition. Goods are rewards for winning the war of all against all. It is survival of the fittest.
                Room in the Inn worships a different God. In the distribution of goods the needs of the most vulnerable have priority. Women and children are the most vulnerable on the streets, so they are put on the list for shelter first. On this night that meant twelve shelter spaces went to women.
                How to avoid meritocracy in distributing the twelve remaining spaces? Another biblical response: distribution by lottery. (see Acts of the Apostles 1:26, Luke 1:9, Numbers 26:52-56, 1 Samuel 10:20-24, 1 Chronicles 24:5-19, Nehemiah 11:1 and Proverbs 18:18). Such biblical distribution sometimes serves the purpose of revealing God’s will, but more commonly it an exercise in humility in the face of a difficult decision. Lottery distribution recognizes when there is equal need and when a meritocracy distribution would harm the weak while also increasing the arrogance of the strong.
                Maybe this is behind “the great reversal” theme present throughout the Old and New Testaments as well. God frees the Israelite slaves from the Pharaoh and his government. In the New Testament, Mary sings “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  And Jesus proclaims, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Mt 20:16). In perhaps the greatest reversal, Jesus rises from the dead, overturning the death sentence imposed by both the Roman Empire and the power of sin. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the gracious of God who freely loves us not based upon our merit but upon our being joined to Christ.
                But the culture of meritocracy is strong and so are the judgments that come with it. To go with a biblical view of justice challenges meritocracy. The biblical view of justice overturns fairness defined as reward to those who are already dominant.

                Another guest came up to me after I had a little discussion with the one who cried foul about the lottery allocation of shelter space. “He doesn’t get it,” this guest said, “we’re all in this together.” Another added, “Sometimes I go; sometimes I don’t. It’s in God’s hands. I just wish more churches would get on board. And besides, no one should be rewarded for getting here two hours early. That’s against the rules.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Waiting in Emptiness

Waiting in Emptiness

Through the kitchen window at Manna House, I see a man walking down the street. He pulls behind himself a tattered nylon rolling suitcase. It is crammed with his possessions. He had greeted me when I had arrived to open the gate ten minutes earlier. I was there early to start the coffee.
            “Are you open?”
            “Not until eight.”
            “What time is it now?”
            “Six forty-five.”
            “I’ll be back.”
            As I see him going away from Manna House, I remember a question Ed Loring of the Open Door Community in Atlanta asked many years ago. We spent twenty four hours on the streets with guests from the Open Door acting as our hosts. Ed had asked, “Where do you go when you’ve got nowhere to go?” I wonder, where is this man going? Will he come back?
            Sometimes I have to simply sit with the emptiness I feel, and that I hear about and so often see in our guests. And in these days, emptiness seems prevalent. The landscape has turned stark. The daylight is shortened. There is a chill in the air. I look outside from the kitchen window at Manna House and see a lone shriveled leaf clinging to the end of slender tree branch.
            When I get to Manna House at this hour to start the coffee, I have about forty five minutes to sit in the kitchen. I take the time to quietly wait, to listen to the coffee percolating, to read, write, and pray. These days of Advent are a particularly good time to sit with emptiness and to let it feed expectation.
            I read of the “Saint of the Day” from Robert Ellsberg’s “All Saints.” Today was the feast of Walter Ciszek. He was a Jesuit priest who spent twenty three years in Soviet prisons. He had been swept up by Soviet troops at the end of World War II after entering Russia several years earlier to serve as a priest.
            During his long years of imprisonment, which included many years in Siberia, he maintained a daily discipline of prayer. He also served as priest to other prisoners. He came to realize in this time of emptiness, “There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God's will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. … I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God's sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.”
            I turned to Psalm 130, praying with expectant emptiness, reflecting on Fr. Ciszek, on the man going down the street, on my own life.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord,
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
            I saw at the end of the day the man who had left so early. He had returned. He got coffee and some fresh socks. He learned about Manna House. Then he was off again to somewhere. He may come back Thursday. I will have to wait and see.             


Friday, December 4, 2015

Joy and Bitterness

On a cold morning a cup of hot coffee goes down pretty easy. The line for coffee went through the living room and dining room back to the old fireplace at Manna House. There, Mike sat at a table serving coffee, greeting guests as he handed each a hot cup of coffee. 
Men and women patiently waited their turn. And then they briefly waited again to get creamer and sugar as those before them poured in the amount they wanted in their coffee before stirring with a spoon until they had just the right consistency. 
This morning’s coffee line never let up for the first hour. People were coming back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. Clyde and Lucy made sure there was always enough creamer and sugar on the tables.
Meanwhile Kathleen called people for showers and for “socks and hygiene.” Those serving in the clothing room sought that delicate balance between warm welcome and keeping the momentum needed to serve everyone in a timely manner. It was not long before laundry was piling up from those who had showered and Jenny began her work in the laundry room.
Then the donations started coming in. The first Thursday of the month donation of sack lunches arrived. A wonderful donation of red string backpacks filled with goodies like gloves, socks, deodorant and more followed! Manna House tries to live up to its name and does not hoard the “manna” that comes as a gift from God (and good people). So Edie and Lilly joined with Ashley and others to get all of this “manna” distributed to our guests. Soon the rooms were filled with people enjoying snacks and other gifts. Christmas joy had arrived early. 
But the bitterness of life on the streets always lurks about. A guest began to tell me about his encounter with a police officer outside of the Rite Aid store on Union Avenue. The guest said he was just sitting outside the store not bothering anyone when this cop drove up.
“He yelled at me, ‘Hey nigger, what you doing? You can’t be here.’” 
“He said that?” I asked.
“Yes he did. And I said, ‘You can’t call me that and I ain’t doing nothing. Then he came at me and tried to handcuff me. I kicked at him, but he got me cuffed. A person from the store who was standing there said to the cop, ‘I got your badge and car number. I heard what you said and I see what you’re doing. I’m watching you.’”
“What did the cop say?”
“He said, ‘Watch all you want. I don’t care.’” 
The guest spent the night in the county jail at 201 Poplar. The next morning he went to court.
“I told the judge what happened, what the cop said. The judge threw out the charges. And then he told the cop he was in the wrong.”
“That’s unbelievable,” I said.
“Yup. And you know where I learned I didn’t have to take that from a cop?”
“Where?” I asked.
“Right here at Manna House and from H.O.P.E’s ‘Know Your Rights’ booklet.” 
The joy was back.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Refugees from Class War


“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isaiah 5:7-8).

This morning as I walked through the living room of Manna House, Bert stopped me and said, “We are refugees, refugees from class war.” The house was packed with people, as was the front yard. A steady wind intensified the morning cold. Guests from the streets wrapped their hands around their recently filled coffee cups, trying to get warmth back into frozen fingers. Last week a guest told me, “We’re refugees from Mississippi.” Another guest responded, “I’m a refugee from Arkansas.”
                Later in the morning, still thinking about refugees, I asked a guest where he was from. “Eritrea,” he said, “I couldn’t live there anymore.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrea government's human rights record is one of the worst in the world. Over the years we have had refugees from Mexico and Vietnam, and perhaps other countries. Still most of the refugees at Manna House are “internal refugees” from right here in the U.S.A.
                Neither Bert nor the other guests I talked with begrudged admitting refugees from Syria. They just wanted to make clear they knew the suffering of refugees. They, too, had to move because life was no longer tenable where they were. Sometimes it was job loss. Sometimes violence or the threat of violence. They, too, faced suspicion and even hatred and harassment as they sought to find a new place to live. They, too, know what it is like to be unwanted. They, too, have experienced relying upon the hospitality of others in order to survive.
                In the past week, as the debate about lettering Syrian refugees enter the U.S. has raged, some who oppose letting them in have claimed the U.S. should first take care of the homeless, especially homeless veterans. I have my doubts that those making that claim have actually ever really cared about people on the streets or veterans. I think that way because it was mostly Republican leadership rejecting admitting the Syrian refugees, and their record on providing services to people experiencing homelessness, including homeless veterans, is not exactly laudable. They also lead the charge for cutting any “welfare” programs, including social security.
                Bert, I think, got it right. He and others who come to Manna House are refugees from class war. The prophet Isaiah, saw class war as waged by the wealthy upon the poor as a rejection of God. Wealth which God intended to be distributed justly ended up in the hands of a few. In this class war, Manna House is a refugee center. Shelters are refugee camps. Class war (and so often joined with race war) drives people out of homes and into the streets. And then once in the streets, the powers that be see “the homeless” as a threat. So laws are passed against “aggressive panhandling,” and “urban camping” or “climbing a park structure” (the charge for sleeping on a park bench).
                How to respond to refugees? Prophets like Isaiah knew the God of the Exodus. This God stood first with slaves, and then with refugees from slavery, and finally reminded them once they had their own land, “You shall neither wrong strangers, nor oppress them: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 21:23). And then Jesus took it a step further. He urged his disciples to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcome to the stranger, and visit those sick or imprisoned. Remember, he said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

                I am grateful Bert made the connection this morning between Manna House and refugees, and between refugees here and those coming from Syria. The clear commitment biblically is to welcome refugees, wherever they come from. And why? Not only does God say so, but God stands in the midst of those refugees and identifies with them. God promises to be present when refugees are welcomed. That is a mighty joyous promise to stand on.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Hospitality is Dangerous

Hospitality is Dangerous

                She was dancing in the living room of Manna House. It was Christmas a few years back. We had music and she took the floor. As she rhythmically moved about, a knife fell from somewhere in her clothing and clattered upon the floor. In a graceful move she bent low, scooped it up and put it back in her clothing and kept dancing.
                I would guess that if we had metal detectors at Manna House we would uncover knifes or similar weapons each day among the clothing and belongings of our guests. The streets can be dangerous. Some of our guests carry knifes for protection. Our simple rule is that they not be displayed or pulled out in a threatening manner.
                Yet, on some rare occasions, a knife has been pulled, or a brick has been picked up, or a stick brandished about as a fight has broken out. Usually a fight just involves fists or “fighting words.” But the potential is always there for worse.
                How do we respond to fights? We break up fights by getting between the assailants. We ask all the parties involved to leave. In a worst case scenario, which has happened just a few times, we have closed Manna House for the day.
                 Violence at Manna House is very rare; so rare we rarely think about how offering hospitality to strangers can be dangerous. Of course by now, most of our guests are no longer strangers. We know them by name and they know us by name. And they are just as concerned as we are to keep Manna House a sanctuary from the violence of the streets. We work consistently along with our guests to urge politeness, to not use denigrating or dehumanizing words, to treat everyone with respect. All this goes a long way toward keeping Manna House peaceful.
                The threat of violence has also come as we have practiced hospitality in the form of the occasional police officer who wanted to throw his weight around. About a year ago, two volunteers were arrested for videoing police officers harassing homeless persons near Manna House. Several years back, I was told by a police officer to “watch my back” when I refused to allow him and his fellow officers access to Manna House. The official violence of the state comes down hard on our guests from time to time.
                Given these realities, we would be na├»ve to think we can offer hospitality with no danger to ourselves. In “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” Christine Pohl writes, “In a fallen, disordered world, strangers may be needy, but they occasionally take advantage, bring unanticipated trouble, or intend harm.” And when the Christian people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France offered hospitality to Jews during World War II they knew they risked their lives in defying the Nazi regime. Disciples of Jesus practicing hospitality should be realistic about sin, about the brokenness in the world, in themselves and in the persons they will serve.
                But Christian realism accepts the reality of sin without allowing sin the final word. The final word is not sin but redemption. Redemption means living into the hope that love is stronger than sin, stronger than violence, stronger even than death. Redemption means offering hospitality in a sinful world. Redemption practices the risk of hospitality so that strangers can experience welcoming love consistent with their being children of God. As Paul wrote, “Welcome one another in Christ as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).  

                Redemption cannot happen without risk and neither can hospitality. Ask Jesus who both urged hospitality when he said “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46) and also realistically told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).                

Monday, November 2, 2015

Commemoration of All Souls, What a Joke!

“What’s the joke of the day?”
            I am asked this question almost every day at Manna House. The question elicits both smiles and groans on the part of Manna House guests (and volunteers) because they know I am going to answer it with a (usually) lame joke.
            Several years ago I was handed a joke book that came in with a donation. Like a lot of donations, this one was discarded because its quality was less than stellar. I began to read aloud some of the jokes. They were so painfully bad that both guests and I began to laugh.
Thus began the tradition at Manna House of “the joke of the day.”
            Today, Tim wanted to hear yet again the joke about the man with penguins in the car who gets stopped by the police. It is actually not a bad joke. He said his day was going so poorly that he needed to laugh about something and he knew this joke would do it, even though he could not remember the details.
            I think Tim and other guests particularly like this joke because it pokes some (gentle) fun at the police, too many of whom are not friendly with people on the streets.
            Today was a good day for a joke or two. Monday. Grey and drizzle. The somber Christian, “Commemoration of All Souls” or “Day of the Dead” in which we are to remember all those we have known who have died.
            The day did not start with a joke, but with prayer. When we prayed with our guests, I made the invitation to call out the names of people we knew who had died. This past year we have lost Freddie and Twin and Aaron. But the names of other guests were called out as well. Frank. Sarah. Earl. Roosevelt. Semaj. Tony. I thought of still others afterwards. Michael. Bennie. Radio. Daddio. Herman. Karen. Tommy. Charles also known as Dusty. Willie. Elaina. Leroy. Carol. Mark. Nannette. And there are yet more guests who have died whose names have slipped from my memory. Some of you who are reading this may add further names.
            We need to remember that death comes earlier and more often for those in poverty, for those on the streets, for those of a darker skin color, for those who live in war-torn lands or violent neighborhoods, for those whose lives are considered expendable. This is death not simply as shared human mortality, but death from the failure of human morality.
            According to the National Coalition for the homeless, “the average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.” The lack of healthcare and the lack of housing combine to kill people. This is death by social policy, by legislative and political and cultural intent. This is the power of sin and death firmly established in our political and economic institutions.
            Given these particular realities on top of the reality of death, this “Commemoration of All Souls” is at first glance, no joke. On it we not only remember those who have died, we are encouraged to remember that we all die. There is ancient wisdom here. “Memento mori”—remember that you must die. Or as the Rule of St. Benedict puts it, “Keep death daily before your eyes.” Perhaps St. Benedict had in mind a line from the Psalms, the prayer book of the monastic liturgy of the hours: "Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart” (Psalm 90:12). This remembering of death, including our own, may encourage a degree of soberness. Not surprisingly, this day of remembering the dead occurs towards the end of fall. The church tells us to remember the dead as the season changes from fall into winter. Death is around and easy to see. Leaves change colors and fall to the ground. Fields have been harvested. The days grow shorter and colder.
            But I would like to urge that remembering that we die is the key to good humor. I would like to suggest that “wisdom of heart” that comes from knowing our shortness of life requires keeping our sense of humor. Not taking life too seriously. Practicing what Christian ethicist Miguel de La Torre calls “an ethic of “para joder” (an ethic that ‘screws with’).”  A “joder” he writes “is purposely a pain in the rear end, who intentionally causes trouble, who constantly disrupts the established norm, who shouts from the mountaintop what most prefer to be kept silent, who audaciously refuses to stay in his or her place.”
            Jesus was a “para joder” to the religious and political leaders of his day. And, as Daniel Berrigan (another para joder) says, “If we are going to be disciples of Jesus, then we’d better look good on wood.”
            We have had our share of para joders at Manna House. Semaj who died about a year and a half ago, was a para joder. He died arguing. Twin was too, in how he played Scrabble and stood up for his dignity. So was the man in the joke who had a carload of penguins. (Ask Tim to tell you the joke). And so was Mother Jones, the labor organizer and former Memphian who said, “Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”
            Not a bad slogan, I would say, for the “Commemoration of All Souls.”


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder

“Who’s got the list?” “Do you have the list?” “Can I get on the list?” “Where am I on the list?” “Is there still room on the list?” “Is the list full?”
            I can imagine St. Peter at the pearly gates hearing those questions on a daily basis as new folks arrive. Right now, I hear those questions every morning at Manna House. I have no idea what St. Peter’s list looks like. At Manna House the list is a spiral notebook on a clipboard. St. Peter’s list is very important to be on. It means you get into heaven. The list at Manna House is not quite that important. If a guest gets on the list, they either get a shower and a change of clothes, or socks and hygiene (which includes a fresh shirt off the rack and with colder weather, hats, gloves, scarves, blankets).  
            Even though the Manna House list is not about salvation, both volunteers and guests see it as sacred. The list represents a kind of covenant between Manna House and the guests.
            Manna House promises that there are always twenty-five slots for men’s showers on Monday and Thursday (each man can only shower once a week), fifteen slots for women’s showers (they take a little longer), fifty-one slots for socks and hygiene on Monday and Thursday, and sixty slots for socks and soap on Tuesdays. Manna House also guarantees that if a guest arrives before 8:30a.m. on a Monday or a Thursday, they will get on the socks and hygiene list even if there are fifty-one or more already signed up.
            The guests, for their part, give us their names to get on the list (and it is usually their actual name). They also faithfully (most of the time) listen for their names to be called. They also patiently wait (most of the time) to go into the clothing room only when their name has been called.
            The list at Manna House got its start through the suggestion of guests. When we first opened Manna House ten years ago, guests stood in line for showers or for socks and hygiene. One day a guest said, “Why don’t you take our names and then call us?” Good idea. A list is not a line. With a list, people can enjoy some coffee and each other’s company while they wait to hear their names.
            The list has also functioned to help us get to know the names of guests. I am not so good at remembering names, so I appreciate working the list. Taking names and calling names helps put them in my memory.
            We save the old lists. A spiral notebook lasts about six months before it is filled. Sometimes we go back over the old lists and see names of people we have not seen for a while. Sometimes we see names of those who have died. We also see how long some of our guests have been coming to Manna House.
            I like to think St. Peter might keep his list a bit like we keep ours. Our list is a way to organize our hospitality. Our list helps us welcome guests by name. We do not require any identification. As I said to one guest who was starting to take his I.D. out of his wallet, “You don’t need that here; you’re a child of God.”
            Maybe St. Peter keeps a list just to welcome people. He does not ask for any identification beyond “child of God.” I imagine his saying that is a mighty grace-filled moment and there is both laughter and tears of joy.
            I am not trying to minimize judgment, which is to say, accountability, for wrongdoing. I have some hesitation about what is called “universalism” in which everyone goes to heaven. There have been a few (very few) guests over the years who have so violated hospitality that they are no longer welcome to get on the list at Manna House.
            Likewise, in the Book of Revelation, we get this judgment scene, “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds” (Revelation 20:12).
            But beyond judgment, I know that we all need God’s grace to make it through this life and into the next, and I cannot imagine God’s hospitality being any less than ours. I can, however, imagine that God’s hospitality is quite a bit better than ours.
            Our list at Manna House for showers and socks and hygiene is, I hope, a sacrament of God’s hospitality. This hope is what made me think of the parallels between St. Peter’s list and ours. It is the same hope I hear in that old Gospel song which confidently sings, “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Of Fall, Feasts, and Freddie

Of Fall, Feasts, and Freddie

Fall is starting to give some hints, winter will be here soon enough. The days are growing shorter. The mornings are cool, and sometimes almost cold. The leaves are dropping after brief bursts of red and orange and yellow. Manna House is transitioning from welcoming guests into the shady backyard to escape summer’s heat to welcoming guests to the front porch and inside the house to seek warmth.
            In the midst of these changes, from light to darkness, from warmth to cold, from life to death, the church gives us the Feast of All Saints (November 1) and the Feast of All Souls (November 2).  Both remind us of those who have gone before us in the faith, our ancestors both recently and long dead.
            And so, I remember Freddie Adams who died October 10th. I wrote about Freddie a few weeks ago as “Donald” whom we could not find. He had been hospitalized at the Med after suffering a broken neck earlier in the summer. He had fallen from a wall, one day before he was supposed to get off the streets and into his own place. For weeks he was in intensive care. We visited him. We prayed with him. We saw his frustration with not being able to speak (he had a tracheotomy and was on a ventilator). Then suddenly he was gone from the Med and we could not track down where he had gone. About a week ago a rumor began to go around that he was dead. The search intensified. Enough phone calls were made by enough people that the truth finally emerged. He had gone from the Med to a nursing home and then to St. Francis and there he had died.
            Freddie was not a man of many words. In the ten years that I knew him, I do not think I ever had a conversation with him of more than a few minutes. He often wore sunglasses, even on cloudy days. He was behind that shield. He was a private person. He had a few close friends; a tight circle it seemed to me. I would guess that he was a loyal and faithful friend. He was also even keeled, not prone to highs or lows. At least at Manna House he was a quiet steady presence. Not sullen, just usually silent.
            Because he was so quiet, Freddie was not well known among volunteers or guests. His personality did not make him “popular.” He did not seek out attention. He mostly stayed to himself. He was not hostile or even distant. He simply did not play the game of trying to impress people. Perhaps for Freddie words were overrated. And so it was easy to pass him by and not even notice him, except for those sunglasses he almost always wore.
            I joked with him on occasion that he had to wear shades because his future was so bright. I do not know if he caught my obscure cultural reference to the one hit wonder of Timbuk 3 from 1986, but he would chuckle and go on and get his coffee.
            Death has a way of making the future not seem so bright. The shorter days remind me of the shortening of our lives. Age makes me more aware of mortality, as does the loss of those I have known. Death comes more frequently, it seems, in offering hospitality to those on the streets. Twin just a few weeks ago, and now Freddie.

            Against the darkness of death there is an old practice of lighting a candle for the dead. Catholics lit votive candles on All Souls Day in memory of the departed. The word “funeral” was perhaps derived from the Latin “funale” meaning “torch.” Torches and lights at a funeral are to guide the departed soul to their eternal home. I am praying for Freddie and imagining him still wearing his sunglasses in his future, which the Feasts of All Souls and All Saints proclaim, is finally truly bright.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lost Sheep

On Monday a guest asked me, “Do you know where Donald [not his real name] is?”
            “Isn’t he still at the Med?”
            “Nope. Not there. I don’t know where he’s gone.”
            I had to confess that I had not been up to see Donald in several weeks. I knew Donald was in no condition to walk away from the hospital. When he would leave he would need months, if not years, of nursing care. Life gets busy, too busy. I had assumed Donald was still in the hospital.
            The friend shared a rumor. “Some people told me Donald is dead. I know that’s not true. I would’ve heard from his relatives if he was dead.”
            “Why don’t you call those relatives? Maybe you can find out where he is.” The friend made a few phone calls. One of the relatives said they did not know where Donald was. Another said he had been moved to a nursing home and gave the name of the home. I called the nursing home, no Donald there. I promised to let the guest know if I heard anything.
            Today we heard another rumor. Donald was in a nursing home nearby. Right after Manna House closed, Kathleen and I went there to see Donald. Donald was not there.
            I wish I could say this is the first time we have searched for a guest after a guest was hospitalized or imprisoned or went off to who knows where. But the truth is that this happens all too often. Life for people on the streets is often chaotic, relationships are tenuous, the ties that bind have been broken or horribly loosened. 
            On the refrigerator at Manna House is a picture of a guest who disappeared about three years ago. He came to Manna House faithfully for several years. Then we never saw him again. We heard he had been killed. But the city morgue could not match his name to any corpse. Then we heard he was in jail. But no one of that name was there. We checked area hospitals. Nothing. He had vanished into thin air.
            Another guest disappeared in the same way. Rumors of death, jail, and hospitalization were unsubstantiated. Then one day, after nearly nine months had passed, we got a phone call from a minister in South Carolina asking if we knew so-and-so. Indeed we knew him. How he ended up in South Carolina from Memphis was a mystery. How he had my cell phone number was a further mystery. He needed some verification about his identification which we were able to provide.
            Lost guests make me think of the shepherds of Israel and the lost sheep of Israel of whom the prophet Ezekiel spoke. The sheep are lost because the shepherds are unjust; they have oppressed the sheep. Homelessness is created by poverty, neglect, the willingness to regard some people as disposable.
            Ezekiel says, “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34:1-6).
            The work of God, Ezekiel says is to search for the lost sheep. “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice” (Ezekiel 34:16).
            In the parking lot, as I was trying to leave Manna House today, another lost sheep approached me. She was in tears. Her family has completely abandoned her. Her children won’t have anything to do with her. She is isolated. Cut off from human companionship.
            “Pray for me” she said. “And when I’m gone please don’t take my picture down from the wall in the living room. That means a lot to me.”
            I assured her of my prayers, and that her picture hanging in Manna House with so many other guests was not going anywhere.
            “Pray Psalm 23 for me. That’s my favorite” she said. Then she recited through her tears. “The Lord is my shepherd….”

            

Monday, October 5, 2015

Coincidence or Providence?

Coincidence or Providence?

Maybe it is my Christian belief in providence that somehow God acts and speaks through the confluence of certain events. Or maybe I just want to make sense of life (and death), to find some order instead of wallowing in randomness. Twin died on September 27th. St Vincent de Paul died on the same date. Sarah, one of the matriarchs of Manna House, who died two years ago, was born on that date. I seek significance and even solace in such providential coincidences
            While he was alive, Twin frequented the St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission located a few blocks from Manna House. Sarah did too. Every day of the week, the Food Mission offers a meal to about two hundred people. Folks on the streets call it “The Radio Station” because for many years the Food Mission was located in an old radio station just down the street from Sacred Heart Church.
            At Manna House, we have sometimes reflected on the life and work of St. Vincent de Paul. His ministry with the poor and imprisoned provide a guide for our work. I am sure that Twin and Sarah in their insistence on attentive service would have resonated with his words, “It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting masters you will see. …It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”
            I think Sarah forgave me the socks and hygiene, the clothing, the showers, and the coffee that I (and many others) gave to her over the years. I am not so sure about Twin. I think that uncertainty is why I have found it hard to write about him since he died. My memory of him is always going to be complicated, just as my relationship with him was complicated.
            Twin was one of the earliest guests at Manna House. When he initially came to Manna House some ten years ago, he was strong and somewhat of a bully. He sought to intimidate both other guests and volunteers. We had a few conflicts along the way. He was asked to leave at least a couple of times.
            He eventually settled into a more gracious stance. He became particularly noted for his Scrabble playing with volunteers and guests. At the same time, he remained always willing to seek some bending of rules and expectations in his favor. Twin was a survivor and he never quite abandoned his need to hustle and con. Still, he was capable of generosity, and sought in his Islam to grow in faith and love for others. He was always a very private person, revealing little about himself or his history. As his brother told me at the memorial service, “He was hurt bad once and never really trusted again.” Like I said, complicated.
            My last conversation with Twin, he called and asked me to bring some candy up to him at the hospital. As was typical, Twin was quite specific in what he wanted. “Bring me some Werther’s root beer barrels,” he said. It was not the first time he was “terribly sensitive and exacting.” He was not happy that I would not come right away. I was busy. I never got him the candy. He left the hospital, spent a few days at the boardinghouse where he lived, and then went to a different hospital where he died.
            There was another phone call from him between the time he left one hospital and went to another. He left a message. He was mad that I had not answered my phone. I was angry at his anger and did not call him back. I had been down this path with him before, many times. I thought I would hear from him again. I thought he would call in a few days with a new request, and this time I would be able to help him, and we would forget my previous failure.

            He died before that happened. Maybe we both have some unfinished business. For myself, I will ask for the grace of faith of which St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “you will by the light of faith see that the Son of God, who willed to be poor, is represented to us by these poor people.” In that faith I will remember with love Twin, and Sarah. Especially when September 27th rolls around.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Pope Francis, Dorothy Day and Manna House

Delighted that Pope Francis referred to Dorothy Day yesterday in his speech before Congress. She along with Peter Maurin began the Catholic Worker Movement. Manna House serves in the tradition of the Catholic Worker, engaging in the works of mercy and work for justice and peace.
Excerpts from Pope Francis before Congress:
"In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, were inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints."

"A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Jesus is my Optometrist

Jesus is my Optometrist

We were on our way to the Southern College of Optometry. A short walk from Manna House.  We talked as we walked, about glasses and about our lives.
“I got my first pair of glasses when I was in the 4th grade,” I said.
“I got my first glasses when I was in 9th grade. I lost them when I was in 12th grade. I haven’t had glasses since” Mary (not her real name) shared.
“When was that?” I asked.
“1980. Lord, a long time ago.”
The other guest, Harold (also not his real name), said, “I got mine later, when I was an adult. My eyes just haven’t kept up.”
Being the theological type, I mentioned that Jesus thought people should be able to see. He went around healing blind people. I wanted to give some praise to the Southern College of Optometry for the free eye exams so I added, “Seems like the folks helping you all get glasses are like Jesus.”
“Yes sir,” Harold said, “Jesus is my optometrist.”
“That’s a good one,” Mary said laughing, “Jesus is my optometrist too!”
We got to the Southern College and briefly waited before being served.
Mary told me while we sat, “When I get my glasses I won’t bump into things anymore. I really can’t see very well at all. See this bruise on my arm? I got this one yesterday when I ran into a table where I live.”  
Mary was called to come and pick out her frames. Harold waited to be called to get his glasses.
“I picked out some frames that didn’t cost too much. The frames aren’t gonna help me see anyway” he told me.
Then Harold was called. Mary returned.
“I saw them Gucci and Coach frames,” she said. “Why do people spend so much money? Mine are plain and simple. That’s what I like. I’d be afraid to lose my glasses if they cost so much.”
I went with her and paid for the frames. She was right. She had picked inexpensive but sturdy frames.
Shortly after we were done, Harold came out with his new glasses. He had a big smile on his face.
“I can see again! I can see again!”
He was excited like a child on Christmas morning. We went to settle his account, but somehow everything was already settled.
“You’re free to go. It’s all paid,” the cashier told us.
“I guess they covered what my insurance didn’t,” Harold said referring to the Southern College of Optometry. “I was supposed to owe a hundred dollars. Now Manna House don’t have to pay.”
I didn’t argue with the cashier, and off we went.
I asked if he wanted to get a picture of him with his new glasses. He most certainly did. So next time he comes to Manna House I can give him the picture of him standing in front of the Southern College of Optometry with his new glasses.
Mary’s glasses will come in next week. She was anticipating how the glasses will change her life.
“I am most happy because I’ll be able to read my Bible. I’m gonna read and read. And I’ll be able to see far away. I won’t have to squint so much. Lord, it will all be good!”

“Jesus is my optometrist,” Harold had said. Indeed, it will all be good.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Manna House as "Home"

Manna House as “Home”

“I’ve come by here many times, and wondered what this place was.” A man was leaning out of his truck window. He had started talking to me as soon as I got out of my car in front of Manna House. We are closed on Saturday. I was there to take the garbage cans to the back yard after they had been emptied yesterday. When I drove up there was a white truck parked directly in front of Manna House in the center turn lane. I had wondered what was up.
“Do you work here? Are you going in?” he asked.
“We’re a place of hospitality for people on the streets and people in this neighborhood. We’re closed today. Can I help you?”
“I’d really like to have a look inside. My grandparents lived here. My parents lived here for thirty years. I grew up here. This is home.”
The man was about my age. He was almost a shorter version of myself. A little more than a month ago I was in Rochester, Minnesota, where I joined with other family members to help my Mom move from her home of 62 years. It was the home in which I had grown up and had always returned to whenever I “went home.”
“Come on,” I said, “I’d be honored to show you around.”
His name was Philip Humphrey. They had moved out in 1995 and he had not been back inside since. He walked through the house with me. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m actually back inside here. I like what you’ve done with the place.”
We walked into the clothing room. “This was my sister’s room. I slept in the back, for a while in the pantry, then in the back bedroom.”
He wanted to know how long Manna House had been open. Ten years, I told him. We loved this place from the start. It had such a family spirit even when we walked in the first time and it was in such disrepair.
“Our family loved living here. We had our ups and downs. But this was always a solid house, a good home.”
As we walked around he also talked about the area around the house. “The neighborhood really changed. Bellevue Baptist bought up and tore down so many houses for their parking lots. That building across the street used to be a Bausch and Lomb eyewear place. That corner store was a florist. There was a little store across the street. It’s gone. The house next to it was a very fine house.”
I showed him all the rooms in Manna House. He marveled at the bathroom and wondered if the old claw-footed tub had been there when we moved in. Nope.
Then I showed him the backyard.
“My Mom and Dad would love how it’s being used for good. My grandparents would love it too.”
He stood in the backyard and pointed up to the roof, “I put that antennae up there. You see that black wire, that was for my shortwave radio.”
His memories were pouring out of him.
“Parked my first car out front. Another car hit it. Some church-goer forgot to set his brake and his car rolled down the hill and smashed into mine. I brought my first date here.”
He took some pictures. He told me how hot it was in the summer with no air conditioning and how cold it was in the winter with just a few small gas heaters. As he got ready to go he said, “This was home. This is what I think of when I think of home. It will always be home for me. Would you mind if my sister came by some time and had a look?”
“Not at all. She’s welcome anytime, and so are you.”