Thursday, November 30, 2017

Come All You Who Are Thirsty

I occasionally like to paraphrase Scripture. The word for the day was Isaiah 55:1, “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters for coffee and showers; and you who have no money come, enjoy the free coffee! Come buy showers, clothes, socks, and hygiene items without money and without cost!”
            Or as a very young volunteer shouted from our front porch twelve years ago when we first opened, “Free coffee for sale!”
            This is God’s economy, where there is more than enough for everybody, if we share. It runs completely counter to most, if not all, human economies, where there is not enough for everybody. And since there is not enough for everybody, we must incessantly compete with one another, and hoard against shortages in order to survive.
            It is hard for both guests and volunteers, including myself, to believe in God’s economy, even as we share hospitality premised upon that economy. Manna House could not exist without people sharing their presence and their goods. Without donors who give from their abundance, we could not offer hospitality to the hundred plus people who show up every day that we are open. And although Manna House did not participate in “Giving Tuesday,” we certainly do rely completely upon donations to stay open, and to share freely coffee, showers, and clothing, and on Monday nights, a meal.
            Yet, that freedom in God’s economy, that free giving, is challenged by the gods of not enough. These gods of not enough urge us to prioritize control over compassion, and domination over the dignity of each person.
            I see the worship of the gods of not enough in the current tax bill being proposed by the ruling party in Washington, D.C. I see this worship of the gods of not enough in the fear and even loathing of immigrants and any who are defined as “other”—Muslims, African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, and people in poverty. The gods of not enough encourage a vision of scarcity, of fighting over a shrinking pie. These gods love when we get possessed by possessiveness, and we become more concerned about what is mine, rather than recognizing the divine call to share what we have been given by God—life, and every good gift we have.
            So it was that a guest at Manna House erupted in anger and a volley of foul language accusing two other guests of stealing her cigarettes. Years of not having enough, of being denied the basic necessities of life, of scraping and struggling to survive, burst forth in a cry from the heart of betrayal and loss and grief. There was no consoling of her, no reasoning that could reach her, no words of comfort that could pierce her sense of loss. Not even another guest’s offering to her of some cigarettes could calm her. She finally left, vowing revenge upon those whom she accused of the theft; both of whom denied any role in the matter.
            So it is when as a volunteer I fear being taken advantage of by a guest who comes in asking for a coat or shoes (two of the more desired items these days). So it is when I fear I am being too soft in adding a fifty-second person to the “socks and hygiene” list when we normally are to take only fifty-one.
            So it is when twenty people are arrested at a Memphis business and taken away because of the Trump administration’s crackdown on “illegals”—that is undocumented immigrants. So it is when fake videos of “evil Muslims” are spread by a president who plays upon fears and divisions.
            The gods of not enough are gathering more adherents, and the God of Jesus Christ who urges us to see God in “the least of these” is mocked, denied, crucified.
            I have to hold to the Word of that God, a Word that affirms there is plenty, that God is a God of abundance and not scarcity, of grace and not harsh judgment. Better yet, I have to be held by that Word, transformed, and gifted to see that I am invited, that we are invited, to a feast, free and without charge. “Come all you who are thirsty.”

            

Thursday, November 9, 2017

“The gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:2)

Two weeks ago, I got word that William Hogan, a long time guest at Manna House, and friend of Door of Hope, died of a heart attack. His funeral was this past Saturday. William was a gentle soul who came faithfully to Manna House for coffee, rarely said a word, and whose lightness of being lifted spirits simply by his presence. His death was unexpected, and I will miss seeing him, not only at Manna House, but walking around Midtown, which he constantly did.
                This past Saturday I went with Kathleen to help with Room in the Inn. A video is shown to guests before they leave for the various churches that will host them. The video is a bit dated. As I watched, I suddenly saw Twin, a Manna House guest who died two years ago. My heart hurt. As big of a pain in the ass as he could be, I miss him.
                Seeing Twin so shortly after William’s death made me think about so many of our guests who have died. I miss Gregory’s wit and smile. I miss Donald in the chair in the corner of the Manna House living room arguing about the Dallas Cowboys. I miss Abe’s amiable curmudgeonly comments. I miss Mike B. sitting quietly reading on the front porch waiting for us to open. I miss Sarah, and her one legged and then no legged humor. I miss Eleana, and the way she said to Kathleen, “Hey lady!” I miss Tyler, Toney, Willie, and on and on.
                Death at Manna House is all too frequent. In the twelve years we have been open, well over one hundred guests have died. And those are only the ones we know of; others simply disappear and we are never sure of their fate. William was fifty eight years old when he died. Quite young, but not so young when fifty is the average age of death for homeless persons.
                Meanwhile, for the past several months, I have been working with other Board Members of Outreach, Housing, and Community (OHC) to bring this organization to a close. There’s grief in realizing that an organization that did so much good in helping people to move from the streets into housing has died from lack of resources. And the grief is compounded by knowing June Averyt was the founder and chief inspiration of OHC, and there’s no doubt she would have kept it going. But she died nearly two years ago.  
                All this death conspires with the season and the liturgical calendar to keep death daily before my eyes.  Mortality is in the air as leaves and temperatures start to fall, albeit slowly here in the South, and winter draws near. In the liturgical year, the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd called people of the Christian faith to commemorate of all of those who have died, “the faithfully departed.” And this followed All Saints’ Day, which remembered all the saints, known and unknown. The Church recognizes the need at this time of year to connect us spiritually with the waning light and growing cold by bringing into our hearts those who have died.
                Death is in the air, but so, too, in those feasts of faith, is the Manna House word for the day, “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:2). Paul had a faith deeply shaped by resurrection, by his experience of the risen Christ. Jesus died maligned and damned by the powers that be, much like Manna House guests are crucified by life on the streets. But this horrible reality is not the last word about their lives, God’s gifts and call in their lives are not defeated by death.
                I think this is why, when we have a memorial service at Manna House for a guest who has died, we tell stories, and we sometimes begin with this question, “How was the life of our friend a blessing to us at Manna House and to this neighborhood?”

                Despite the harsh realities of the streets and in the lives of our guests, they persist in being blessings to us and to each other. They resist the powers of death. They show how the gifts and call of God are irrevocable. Or as one guest frequently tells me, stating his resistance, “I’m standing up; not covered up. I’m up at Manna House; not locked up. It is a good day.”

Friday, October 13, 2017

Penitentiary Quiet

Penitentiary Quiet

“It is penitentiary quiet.”
                A guest had noticed that though guests filled the back yard at Manna House, little conversation was going on.
                “In prison that’s what we called it when it got so quiet, usually before some trouble happened.”
                “I’m hoping for no trouble this morning. I think it is quiet because people are tired,” I responded.
                “I’m tired of these streets,” another guest sitting nearby said with a sigh.
                “I’m tired of being poor,” said another guest who was listening in.
                “You know I’ve never been homeless,” the first guest continued to talk as he sat in his wheelchair. “At Manna House I have a place to be, to belong. You might think not much is going on with people who come here; that nothing is changing. But I’ve seen changes in people coming here. I listen and I hear. Changes are happening.”
                We were in the chapel area of the backyard. A simple wooden statue of St. Francis stood nearby. And a large crucifix is attached to the corrugated metal wall; a silver-toned Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross. I wondered for a moment if Francis and Jesus were listening in.
                Then trouble started. I heard sharp words between two guests. I walked out of the chapel area as the words escalated into shoving.
                I moved toward the two combatants and told them, “Not here. Not this morning. Stop or you both go.”
                “We were just playing.”
                “Play somewhere else. Not here.”
                “Ok.”
                They sat down together at a picnic table and began to play checkers. No more threatening words. No more shoving. Maybe they were just playing as they shoved. But on occasion I have seen such “play” quickly move into a real fight.
                The violence of the streets is hard to leave behind sometimes. Just like in a prison, on the streets there are so many threats and a struggle for scarce resources.  Just like in prison, standing in lines and being treated like a number rather than a person with a name, gets old fast. Just like in prison, the stronger ones on the streets try to impose their will on the weaker. And just like in prison, some places that “serve” people on the streets take in the bullies and put them in charge of keeping order.
                I shared a Bible verse with the guests who asked for the Word of the Day, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:15). I had come across this verse in the days following the mass murder in Las Vegas. I had kept pondering what it might mean and thought Manna House guests might have some insight. They did.
                “God must not be listening to many prayers in this country these days.”
                “I hear that. God wants love in us, not tearing each other down.”
                “I’ve been bloodied on the streets. I’ve been bled dry.”
                “I hope God can still hear my prayers. I have blood on my hands.”
                As we talked, another of the bloodied guests walked by. I had seen her earlier when she first arrived at Manna House. She had come through the gate into the backyard with a blackened eye and bruises on her face. She told me she had been beaten by the man she’s been living with. Every woman from the streets that I have known at Manna House has suffered from assaults by men. For women, homelessness often begins with fleeing from abuse. Patriarchy is yet another form of violence running through our society.
                I do not know if God heard our prayers this morning when we opened at Manna House. None of us can claim righteousness. We are all implicated in various degrees in this blood soaked culture.
We prayed,
“Bless each person in this circle.
Blesse those standing outside the circle.
Bless those still on their way.
Bless those who have come with heavy burdens.
Bless those who are weighed down with suffering.
Bless those who have come seeking refuge.
Help us to welcome one another here as you God welcome us.”
And to close our prayer we immediately followed with our familiar call and response prayer:
“Bless our coffee, make it hot.
Bless our sugar, make it sweet.
Bless our creamer, may it take all life’s bitterness away.”
At the end of the prayer, for a few moments, it was penitentiary quiet.

God hear our prayer.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Mysticism of Hospitality

Manna House was quiet when I arrived Tuesday morning to start the coffee. There was not even one guest waiting for me at the gate. I entered the house, plugged in the coffee, and sat down in the kitchen for forty minutes of reading, reflecting, and praying. I have done the same thing for some twelve years now.
            I first read the “Saint of the Day” from Robert Ellsberg’s fine book, “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.” Then I turn to my “Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary” for the daily psalms with scripture and prayers. Somedays this rich feast of saints and psalms leads me to write. On other days, I simply sit in silence, listening to the birds, the passing traffic, the arrival of guests, and letting all of that abide in the Word of God I have just read and prayed over.
            I am convinced that hospitality cannot last without returning faithfully to prayer. There is a mysticism inherent to Christian hospitality. The mysticism is in the vision of guests as Christ. This mystic vision forms the practice of hospitality as sacramental. The guests are outward signs of the invisible reality of the presence of Christ. In the guests, Christ resides, just as much as Christ resides in the Eucharistic bread and wine shared on a Sunday morning. The guests are sacred, and this reality is grounded in Christ’s own institution of this sacrament of hospitality, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46).
            Without prayer I would find it hard to maintain the mystical vision of seeing Christ in our guests. The temptation I struggle with first of all is to lapse into seeing our guests as the larger society sees them: as despicable, disgusting, and dangerous. This temptation casts the guests as beggars to whom I can give any old “charity” because “beggars can’t be choosy.” In this temptation, guests are seen as instance of the larger species called “the poor” who are not to be trusted, who are to be rigorously tested to make sure they are not getting anything for “free,” who are to be forced to jump through myriad bureaucratic hoops to get a few scraps from the master’s table. This is the view of the poor urged these days by Tennessee Governor Haslam and his henchmen. They are happily proposing yet further requirements for the poor to meet in order to receive a few measly dollars of government support.
            But as I point that finger at politicians and others, four fingers also point back at me. I know how easy it is to slip into viewing a guest with suspicion, or wishing that a particular guest would just go away and never come back, or being short tempered with a guest who is consistently demanding. “Christ comes in the stranger’s guise” I learned long ago at the Open Door Community in Atlanta (now in Baltimore). But I can easily lapse into seeing guests as just plain strange.
            Without prayer and the mystic vision of Christ in the guests there is another temptation I easily slip into: trying to save the guests who come. Like the “charity” of the “beggars can’t be choosy” variety, this second temptation is another form of control. In this case, the control I seek is that of the souls of the guests. I seek to remodel guests into my image, rather than respecting that they are already made in the image of God. Hospitality is not about reforming people, it is about sharing together God’s redemptive grace known in love. Father Gregory Boyle puts it this way, “The intentionality of what we do is really not about trying to change folks or save them, but to savor and cherish them.”

            To welcome guests in a way that savors and cherishes them, welcoming them in God’s grace as I am welcomed by them in God’s grace, I need to pray to nourish the mystic vision of the guests as Christ. I need to make the time and the space in which God’s gracious hospitality receives me in my strangeness, my brokenness. In this prayer, I am joined to Christ, welcomed as Christ by God. In prayer I am able to welcome guests knowing, how in them, God has welcomed me.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

God Don't Play Favorites

Nearly ten years ago, I went to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. I saw Nogales, a town divided by a wall erected by the U.S. government. For years the people in Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona moved freely back and forth, going to work, to church, to visit with family, for social events. Then the wall went up. It divided the land, the town, and the people.
            I went to the border with students from Memphis Theological Seminary to learn about immigration. Our class was called, “Faith at the Borders.” In addition to going to Nogales, we went to other towns near the border. And we went to Tucson, Arizona, where a number of groups sought to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by closed borders and a wall. 
            We talked with people on both sides of that wall who were active in issues related to immigration. We saw the poverty on the Mexican side of the wall, and the factories run by U.S. companies that profited from cheap Mexican labor with attempts at unionization blocked by law and by violent force. We learned about how the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) destroyed local economies in Mexico and caused people to head north in search of work.
            We went further into Mexico, away from the wall. We walked in the desert. We followed the path of those who sought a place beyond the wall to cross the border into the United States. We saw the “coyotes” who take people across the border for a price. We saw their weapons and learned of their connection to the drug trade. We spoke with border guards and immigration officials both in Mexico and in the U.S.
            In Tucson, we saw the mass deportation of undocumented people. They had made it into the United States, and lived here for years. But now they were bound in chains, pushed through a perfunctory hearing, and then transported to the border. There they were tossed out on the Mexican side with no resources. I spoke with one man wearing a New York Yankees ball cap. He had been brought to the U.S. when he was a child, four years old. Now he was dumped into Mexico with no family, no connections, no place to go, and not even able to speak Spanish.
            On both sides of the wall we saw people of faith offering hospitality. On the Mexican side of the wall, this hospitality welcomed the people thrown out of the United States. On the U.S. side of the wall, this hospitality welcomed people who survived the desert and the “coyotes” and made it across the border.
            At the time of this class, I was just a few years into the work of hospitality at Manna House. But, then as now, I saw the connections between my experiences on the border and my experiences with our guests from the streets. 
            Both our guests, and the undocumented who come to this country from other lands, are refugees. Both are pushed from their homes by economic and political powers beyond their control. Both are on the move in search of jobs, and safe places to stay. Both are vulnerable to powerful people who will exploit them in their poverty and desperation. Both are hounded by policies enforced by the police or other government agents that focus on the “crime” of being poor. Both thus suffer from a presumed criminality that makes their lives legally tenuous and culturally suspect.
            I thought about these connections as I shared the Word of the Day with our guests at Manna House over the past few days. “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism” (James 4:1).
            The refugees from the streets drew direct conclusions from this passage.
“God don’t play favorites.”
“If you believe in Jesus, you can’t favor some people over other people.”
“Ain’t nobody better than anyone else.”
“There’s something of God in everyone; you gotta respect that.”
But they also drew contrasts between this Word of the Day and their experienced realities.
 “Trump, our commander in grief, doesn’t believe that.”
“That ain’t the way the world works.”
“People see me as homeless and say, ‘You’re not legit.’”
“Must not be very many believers in that glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
              I see our guests at Manna House as faith-filled realists. As people of faith, they know the meaning of this biblical passage is clear. If we are followers of Christ, then we must not play favorites. We must treat everyone with dignity. We must welcome the stranger. But as realists they see this nation for what it is. The rich are favored over the poor. The white are favored over the black and the brown. People without homes or shelter are “not legit,” they are condemned as “illegals.”
            The contrast between faith and reality is where the work of discipleship takes place. Like Jesus, disciples must be agitators, unsatisfied with the way things are, inspired by a vision of the way things ought to be. At Manna House, we first try to live the vision by practicing hospitality. We welcome and affirm the dignity of those pushed around and judged as “not legit.”

            But we are also called to live this vision in a second way. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has eliminated the dividing wall between us (Ephesians 2:14). If we are in Christ, then we cannot practice favoritism. We have to fearlessly advocate for those persons displaced by greed and fear and walls. So we agitate for public policy that tears down the walls that separate us in the name of playing favorites. We agitate for a society that builds up every one as persons made in the image of God. God don’t play favorites.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

I Heard the Voice of the Lord

A guest I had seen once or twice before waited for me in the parking lot. When I got out of my car to cross the street to Manna House, I heard her say with intensity, “God has appointed me to be your special guardian angel today.”
            God’s messengers are always a bit startling, and I was startled. I managed to say “Thank you.”   
            I crossed the street. What did this divine herald of the new day mean? What else might I hear from God this morning?  But before I had any clear answer, the guests waiting for me to open the gate, gave their “Good mornings!” accompanied by a few questions easier to answer.
            “Can I get on the list?”
            “Yes, I’ll be back out to take the list at seven forty-five.”
            “What time is it now?”
            “Six forty-five.”
            I went inside Manna House and plugged in the coffee pots. Three hundred cups would be ready for consumption in little more than an hour.
            Then I sat down to begin my morning prayer. The angel was still on my mind as I prayed Psalm 95: “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord.”
            An angel is a messenger, one who brings the voice of the Lord. I remembered something I was told a long time ago at the Open Door Community, when I first began this journey of hospitality with people on the streets and in prison, “Go to the listening posts. Go to the people who are in pain. Go to where the suffering is palpable. Go to the broken and the brokenhearted. Go and listen.”
            Or as Jesus urged, go to the least of these. “ For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
            The words from my guardian angel coalesced through the rest of the morning with the questions I heard.
            I heard the voice of the Lord say, “When’s that meal you all have here?” Feed the hungry.
            I heard the voice of the Lord say, “When do you start serving coffee?” Give drink to the thirsty.
            I heard the voice of the Lord say, “I’m new to the streets, what’s this place all about?” Invite in the stranger.  
            I heard the voice of the Lord say, “Can I get a hat today so that I won’t get a sunburned head?” Clothe the naked.
            I heard the voice of the Lord say, “Some guys jumped me. They beat me bad, broken shoulder, broken ribs. I’m healing but need your prayers.” Visit the sick.
            I heard the voice of the Lord say, “I’m just out of jail. Can I get a shower?” Visit those in prison.

            The Feast of the Transfiguration is on the horizon. Jesus takes a few of his disciples up a mountain. There they have a vision of him standing with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. And then, "In a resplendent cloud the Holy Spirit appeared. The Father's voice was heard: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him." Some days, Manna House is the place where I hear him most clearly.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Love in Action is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing


            Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, often quoted from Dostoevski’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”
            Dostoevski was analyzing a “love for humanity” that has the high ideal of loving everyone, of serving the poor and “making a difference” in their lives. It is that love for humanity that Dostoevski skewered with his brutal description of “love in dreams.”
            He wrote, “In my dreams, I often make plans for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually face crucifixion if it were suddenly necessary. Yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together. I know from experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs me and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I hate men individually the more I love humanity.”
            Edna St. Vincent Millay put it succinctly, “I love humanity, but I hate people.” It certainly is easier to love in the abstract than to love in the flesh.
            At Manna House, there are guests who are easy to love, and there are guests who make the practice of love harsh and dreadful. I confess that there are guests at Manna House who I find difficult to love. These guests not only try my patience, they try my soul.
            Monday morning a guest insisted that he get on the shower list. I tried to explain that the shower list was already full. This only intensified his demand to get on the list. If looks could kill, I was already dead. And his mutterings about this not being a Christian place, and how he never gets nothing he wants here, only made me wish he would just go away.
            Tuesday morning I met the immediate need of another guest as I replaced his horribly worn out shoes. About fifteen minutes later, a volunteer approached me and asked, “Isn’t there any way we can get shoes for this man?” The volunteer pointed to the guest for whom I had just gotten shoes, who now stood barefoot in the backyard. I told the guest he already had shoes. His response was a hateful stare.  
            Then there are the continually sour guests. They never smile. They never even give the slightest acknowledgement that I have said, “Good morning” as they enter the yard or house. I am not sure what it would take for their unchanging scowl to turn to a smile.
            I also find it difficult to love some guests as I watch them slowly kill themselves with drugs or alcohol. I see the addiction eating away their lives. I learn from them how they have burned bridges with every family member and friend. I know the death that awaits them. Twelve years into this work, I know that my love will likely not end their addiction, just as the love of their family and friends did not.
            I try to get some strength to love the unlovable guests by acknowledging the harsh and dreadful experiences they endure. Guests from the streets arrive at Manna House with their dignity repeatedly assaulted. They are told in words and actions that they are homeless because of their failure, their lack of faith, their lack of willpower. They are thrown out of restaurants, restrooms, or other spaces. They wait in lines for ill prepared food. They have to endure the ministry of well-meaning but misguided people who want to “save” them. They feel the lash of laws aimed against them: no panhandling (despite no jobs), no sleeping on a park bench (despite no free shelter), no public urination (despite no access to public toilets). And sometimes the disparagement comes in physical blows, as people on the streets are easy targets for bullies cruising around looking for victims.   
            But this understanding of the conditions of life on the streets is not enough for me to consistently love the difficult guests. The guests who are easy to love come with smiles and pleasantness despite the horrors of life on the streets. So why love the difficult guests who under the same conditions cannot manage the same sociability? 
            I need something beyond myself and beyond my understanding in order to love those difficult guests. So I turn to God in prayer. In prayer, I encounter God who knows me as difficult and yet who promises to love me despite my faults, failings, and foibles. As Paul wrote, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). In prayer, God’s love informs and reforms me so that I can hope to love others as God loves me.
            God’s gracious love takes an enormous burden from my shoulders. I no longer have to find the resources within myself to love those who I find unlovable. I can love them because God loves me, someone who is also unlovable. God does not love humanity in the abstract; God loves each one of us, including me. In Christian faith, this love is made very concrete, is made incarnate in the life of Jesus. In Jesus’s life, I see God’s love in all of its willingness to enter into and redeem the harsh and dreadful realities of human sin, my sin, and the sin of those I find so hard to love.

            In prayer, Manna House becomes a place in which I am schooled in God’s love. There I am confronted by my own failures in loving. But there too, God does not give up on me, and in that Divine love I will not give up on the individual guests who teach me that “love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.” 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

"What is your gift?"

A guest asked for the Word for the Day when he rode up to Manna House on his bike.  Well, first he asked for the air pump for his tires, then he asked for the Word for the Day.
                I got our Manna House air pump for him and I came back out on the front porch. I got out my Bible and read a passage I had come across in Morning Prayer, “Each one of you has received a special grace, so, like good stewards responsible for all these different graces of God, put yourselves at the service of others” (1 Peter 4:10).
                The new arrival thanked me for the Word and got to work on his tires. The rest of us were sitting around the front porch. The rain that fell off and on all morning kept us out of the backyard. The Word for the Day lingered a bit in the air. I could see a few guests had perked up and listened.  
                 “We all have something from God, something we’re good at,” a guest offered in response to the reading.
                “What is your special grace, what is your gift?” I asked another guest sitting next to me.
                He hesitated and looked down. Then he answered, “I don’t know that I have any gifts.”
                “Surely you do. The Bible says so. God’s grace is with you.”
                So he thought a bit more, and softly said, “I’m a good mechanic.”
                “Shade tree mechanic?”
                “Definitely. I know engines.” He now had a bit of pride on his face.
                Like the guest who thought he had no gift, each guest I asked seemed startled by the question.
One guest said, “I’ve never been asked that question before. Give me a minute.”
                While he thought, a few others started to share answers.
                “I can do dry wall real well.”
                “I’m good at prayer.”
                “I have the gift of gab.”
                “I’m trustworthy.”
                “I can take apart just about anything” said another. And sure enough, all morning that guest had worked on taking apart an old computer he had found in the garbage down the street. Periodically he would tell me about the part he had just excavated.  “This here is the hard drive.”
                I kept at the question. “What is your gift?”
                The guest who had asked for a minute came back to the porch. “I can see the devil when he’s about.”
                “Now that’s a fine gift. Where’s the devil today?”
                “Trump.”
                No one argued his point.
                Then one guest has his gift identified for him. “He’s got the gift of interruption” a guest said pointing to one of our more verbose guests, and the porch erupted with laughter.
                Later, I wondered about the hesitancy of our guests in answering this question, “What is your gift?” I am sure for some of it was simple humility. But the way each guest smiled when they shared their gift and the way they listened carefully as each guest shared their gift, I had a sense that more was going on. Kathleen suggested another possibility as we talked.
                “I’d say most of our guests haven’t been told by others what their gifts are or even recognized as even having a gift. They’re mostly told how they are worthless; that they don’t have any gifts.”
                 I thought about the preaching so prevalent in “missions” for homeless people. There’s a lot of talk about sin and how people are on the streets because they haven’t accepted Jesus. I thought about the derisive descriptions people give for our guests from the streets. Bums. Crackheads. Lazy asses. Scum. Dirtbags. I thought about the way public policies are crafted to address “the homeless” by seeing them as hazards to the well-being of downtown or other areas.

                The faith-filled assertion in First Peter is that we each have a gift, a grace from God, and all of these gifts contribute to the beauty of our lives together. This applies to our guests as much as to anyone. I think I’ll keep asking this question at Manna House, and elsewhere, “What is your gift?”

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

Hospitality requires a certain order and discipline. Guests feel more at ease the more we do our work in predictable and just ways. There is no need to hustle for favors, to compete telling stories of woe, or to try to ingratiate oneself with those of us who are serving. Our boundaries are clear. We serve coffee from 8am to 11:15a.m., and then we make a “last call for coffee.” Guests can have as much coffee (with as much sugar and creamer) as they want until 11:15, then we are done.
For showers, twenty-five men can sign up on men’s shower days, and fifteen women can sign up on women’s shower day. The numbers reflect our capacity for showers on those mornings with our two shower stalls. Guests can sign up for showers the previous day that we are open, and if slots are still available, on the day showers are offered. Often we have to tell people, “The shower list is full.”
Unlike the showers, it is not the physical limitations of our house that led us to the number of men and women who can sign up for “socks and hygiene.” In fact the number who can sign up, “fifty-one,” is intended to make a point about the boundaries we have as we offer hospitality.
            Where does our number fifty-one for socks and hygiene come from? When we first opened Manna House, the number of guests was small. We did not have a grand opening (we are not even sure now when that particular day took place). We opened the door one morning ready to serve coffee and sweet rolls, provide a bathroom for use, and offer some socks, shirts, and hygiene items. Kathleen’s youngest, who at that time was 5, made a sign that said “Free Coffee” and she shared the good news with a loud voice from the front porch to every passerby, “Free coffee for sale!”
            Guests could simply stop by the “clothing room” and be served with socks, a fresh shirt, and travel size hygiene items. That “system” lasted a few months. Then the numbers of guests grew so much that a line began to form. A line is fine if it moves quickly in time. But this line was slow, because of the number of people and because hospitality cannot be rushed. How to address the increased numbers in a way that was hospitable? A guest started us on the way to a solution. “Have people sign up” he said, “and then call their names for ‘socks and hygiene.’”
But how many could we serve each day in a way that was hospitable? Fifty seemed about right given how many we had been serving, the amount of time we were open, and our resources. Fifty seemed a reasonable boundary for “socks and hygiene” just like twenty-five men and fifteen women seemed to be reasonable boundaries for showers, and 11:15a.m. seemed to be a reasonable boundary for coffee serving.
But as we were making this decision about this “socks and hygiene” boundary, our morning prayer presented us with this biblical verse, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
How to remind ourselves that the number fifty (like all the rest) was not to be set in stone, not to be an unrelenting judgment, but rather to be grounded in the graciousness of mercy? Kathleen had the idea, “How about we take fifty-one names instead of fifty?” And ever since then this odd number has continued to remind us to “transcend the rules” when our boundaries would hurt rather than help hospitality.
So some days, more than twenty-five men, or more than fifteen women, take showers. And some days, we even serve more than fifty-one people “socks and hygiene.” And on occasion a guest might get a cup of coffee slightly past 11:15a.m. But most days, the days of “ordinary time,” we serve our guests within the boundaries that help us to do ordinary hospitality.
How do we know when to transcend the rules, when to do some “extraordinary” hospitality? There is not a rule for transcending the rules. Rather it comes down to experience and wisdom in hospitality, joined with the humility to accept God’s mercy; a mercy sometimes offered to us in a guest’s request for a pair of socks past fifty-one, or a shower past twenty-five or fifteen, or a cup of coffee past 11:15a.m.


            

Monday, May 22, 2017

Poverty Stinks

Poverty stinks, literally and metaphorically. Being in poverty and on the streets doubly stinks. A shower and a change of clothes helps with the literal stench. For a day or so, the stench of homelessness and poverty are kept at bay. A shower, followed by putting on freshly laundered clothing, and some deodorant, is a small but significant act of resistance. Still, sleeping in one’s clothes, not having a change of clothes, and not having access to a bathroom, will inevitably lead to the odiferous return of poverty and homelessness.
                I did the laundry today at Manna House. I do not have a very strong sense of smell. It is a helpful characteristic as I sort the clothes from the men who showered. But the pungent smell of human shit penetrated my nostrils as I lifted a pair of jeans out of the dirty clothes bucket. Clearly the man who had been wearing these pants had not made it to a bathroom in time.
                Most likely he shit in his pants because he was denied access to a bathroom in a store or restaurant. I am sure you have seen the signs, “Bathrooms for Customers Only.” Many places go even further and keep their restrooms locked. To enter the restroom you have to ask for the key. If your clothing looks tattered, or you are dirty and disheveled, and you also happen to be Black, your chances of getting that key are severely diminished. One way poverty and homelessness stink is the systemic denial of access to bathrooms. The system stinks.
                Another set of clothes in the laundry bucket gave off a systemic stink. There was a discarded blue paper suit.  You get those when you are discharged from a hospital, or sometimes from jail, and you do not own any clothes.  Last night and this morning was unseasonably cool. A paper suit is not much protection against the cold. I am sure the hot water of the shower was helpful in thawing out the man who was given a paper suit. The clothes we gave him to put on after his shower must have helped as well.
                Slightly over twenty men showered this morning at Manna House. There are already seven women signed up for tomorrow’s showers. Another twenty plus men will sign up for showers on Thursday. They will be different than the men who showered today. Men, like the women, have access to a shower once a week at Manna House.
                Manna House is a small place with two shower stalls. We practice hospitality, which means we do not want to become big. We know that size and efficiency are enemies of hospitality, of personal relationships, of knowing people by their names, and welcoming people with dignity. We encourage others to open houses of hospitality that are also sized for welcome.
                We know that hospitality does not remove the systemic stench of poverty even as it helps a few remove that stench temporarily with a shower and a change of clothes. For the men that showered this morning that was no small thing. But they know and we know this hospitality is not ending poverty or homelessness. Ending poverty and homelessness requires systemic change, change to our economics and to our politics.
                Such change is not on the horizon. I read in this morning’s paper that the President is proposing a budget that will bring severe cuts to a number of programs designed to help people in poverty. Provisions for food, housing, and medical care for people already in poverty will all be cut. The stench of poverty will be made worse by these shitty policies.
                I doubt that the President or his advisors, along with members of Congress have ever smelt the shit left in the pants of a man made homeless by our economic and political system. I also doubt that they have spent the night outside in a thin paper suit. Maybe if they did, they would make policies that reduced instead of increased the stink of poverty. Maybe.
                While we engage in the struggle against policies that stink, we will continue with hospitality. The stench in my nostrils from this morning’s laundry keeps me focused on both hospitality and justice. Both are about reducing the stink.  I think that is what Jeremiah was talking about when he gave a vision of a society justly ordered, of a time in which the stink is gone.
                “They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem. They will be radiant because of the Lord's good gifts--the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil, and the healthy flocks and herds. Their life will be like a watered garden, and all their sorrows will be gone” (Jeremiah 31:12, New Living Translation).

                In such a time, Jeremiah tells us, everyone comes home. The abundant goods of the earth will be shared. And we will flourish from showers that do more than remove stench, they will lead to abundant life.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Ten Rules for Addressing Panhandlers and Panhandling
1. Give or don't give. It is really your choice. But always look the person in the eye who is asking, and say "Hi" and then maybe add, "Sorry I can't help today" OR "Here you go." Always treat the person with respect.
2. If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants to do
3. If you don't give that is ok. Panhandlers expect most people not to give. One said to me, "It's like cold calling in sales. I expect to get turned down most of the time and it doesn't bother me. Just treat me with respect.” (See Rule #1 above).
4. If you feel unsafe or the person is being aggressive or threatening, leave the area and don't give. As one said to me, "There are assholes in every line of life. Don't reward them."
5. Sometimes give more than you are being asked for. So, if someone asks for a dollar give them five... just for fun!
6. Set a limit or a boundary to your giving. Mine is $5 per day. Once I've given out my $5 then I respond to anyone who asks, "I've given out already what I give each day." I consider this my "street tax."
7. There are people out there who aren't homeless who panhandle. They are simply poor. So, again, give if you want, or don't if you don't want to, but treat everyone with respect. (See Rule #1 above).
8. Feeling awkward or uncomfortable when you see a panhandler is ok. It means you have a conscience and some compassion.
9. If you have time, and are so inclined, volunteer with an organization that works with people on the streets offering food, or shelter, or medical care etc. You'll get to know some really interesting people, and they'll get to know you. And you might just see them on the streets from time to time, and you can wave and yell "Hi!"
10. If you really want to help people who are housing deprived, then advocate for housing for all homeless people. Support organizations in your area that practice a "housing first" approach to homelessness. Also resist all efforts to dehumanize, disrespect, and criminalize people who are on the streets with laws like "No panhandling." (See Rule #1 above).

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Liberal Soul Shall Be Made Fat

The talk Thursday morning was about Ben Carson’s view of shelters, and about the impending Health Care bill. The usual banter about the NBA or NFL was muted. Guests raised their fears that things are getting worse. Then a guest shared with me his “Word for the Day.”
                “Do you know this verse?” he asked, “The liberal soul shall be made fat.” Though I’ve lived in the Bible Belt now over twenty years, I had to confess I was not familiar with that verse.
                “Where in the Bible does it say that?”
                “Somewhere in Proverbs.”
                I got out my phone and did a search. Proverbs 11:25 (King James Version of course), “The liberal soul shall be made fat; and that watereth shall be watered also himself.” Or in more contemporary English, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (NIV).
                “So stingy people will become emaciated?” I asked.
                I thought of Scrooge. He’s never portrayed as a fat man. Same for Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.”
Santa Claus on the other hand offers a rotund picture of robust giving.
                For misers there is never enough. The deadly sin of avarice or greed feeds upon fears of not enough.
                The guest shook his head, “Ain’t no telling a rich man that he’s gonna go hungry. He just won’t listen.”
                “God is fat” a guest said.
                I showed my age, “Is that with an ‘f’ or a “phat?’”
                The other old guys around me laughed.
                 We came back to the smug comment Ben Carson made the other day.  As he toured a homeless shelter he was pleased to find it not very hospitable. Carson said, “A comfortable setting… would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’”
                “He ought to stay in a shelter. Then he might shut up.”
                “He’s clueless. He don’t know us. And he don’t care.”
                “He’s got a skinny soul.”
                I have seen the liberal souls of our guests. They share the wisdom of the streets. They’ll tell new people what they need to know in order to survive. They share cigarettes, socks, food, catholes, blankets. They share out of their deep knowledge that they are in this struggle together.
                Carson well represents a soul that is not liberal, not generous. And he represents a president whose soul is avaricious and thus also vicious. Trump has called poor people “morons.” Trump’s proposed budget would slash or abolish programs that have helped people below the poverty line, including affordable housing, banking, weatherizing homes, job training, paying home heating bills, and obtaining legal counsel in civil matters.
                Trump will cut the very resources that in the past month or so have gotten a number of our most regular guests into housing. After years on the streets they now have a place to call “home.” Most have moved into modest apartments, some into rooming houses. When they get their place they proudly come around to Manna House and show us their keys. Trump with his emaciated soul wants to end this. He says it creates “dependency.” This comes from a man whose own wealth was inherited and has been rewarded by a financial system that pampers the wealthiest while punishing the poor.
                At Manna House we try to be the “liberal soul.” So we believe that treating people with respect, welcoming them with hospitality, not only enriches the lives of our guests but our souls as well. Hospitality provides the space for wholeness, for seeing our bonds with each other, our interdependence, for nurturing the desire to seek a life consistent with the respect and welcome shared.
                A former guest came by the other day to thank us, “You all believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You made me feel like a human being again. It made me think, ‘I don’t have to just take this. I can try again.’” He is now housed and working.
                Another guest said, “I feel like for every step forward I take two steps back. Ain’t gonna stop trying though. You haven’t given up on me and I’m not giving up either.”
                The problem with misers is that with their illiberal soul they only see deficiency. They do not believe that there is enough for everybody. Scarcity stalks their souls. Hence all of the worry about being taken advantage of by people in poverty, “welfare cheats,” “foodstamp fraud.” So Trump speaks about “how taxpayers are being shaken down by this outrageously mismanaged government program.
                The Gospel for this Sunday is about the Good Shepherd, a “liberal soul.” Jesus says his life and work is that of a good shepherd. He shares his life generously. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He points out that thieves and bandits threaten the sheep. In doing so he recalls the prophet Ezekiel’s description of avaricious political and economics leaders.
                “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Woe to you shepherds of the nation who only take care                 of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have      not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally’” (Ezekiel             34:2-5).
Ezekiel gives an accurate picture of illiberal and greedy shepherds. Ezekiel then speaks of the divine judgment that leaves the greedy shepherds emaciated and the starving sheep fattened and healthy.
                “’I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.  I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice’” (Ezekiel 34:14-16).
            “They’re just mean,” a guest added to our conversation on this morning. “They hate us. They want us to die. I’m not giving them the pleasure.”

                “Keep living,” I said, “We love you.”