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.”