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.”

Monday, April 24, 2017

This is How They Crucify

I was reading the New Testament aloud on the front porch. The text sounds different when I read it into this space with Manna House guests listening.
            “Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).
            “Who are the rulers of this age?” a guest who was listening asked.
            Another standing by jumped in quickly to answer, “Trump, the wealthiest, the powerful politicians.”
            “Those rulers, they still crucifying every day,” yet another added, “Getting worse every day.”
            Conversations that begin like this have a tendency to jump around from biblical text to biblical text. I wondered where we might land.
            “What about the beast in Revelation?” the standing guest wanted to know. “Sounds to me like a ruler of this age. Go to that book.”
            So I went to Revelation 13, “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. “
            Porch commentary commenced again. A guest asked, “That’s the 666 beast, right?”
            I thought about all the speculation that has been done over the centuries of Christianity regarding this beast.
            One of the guests who loves this kind of apocalyptic stuff urged me on. “Find where it talks about 666.”
            I jumped down a few verses, “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (Revelation 13:18).
            Then I jumped back up again, “they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’ The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven” (Revelation 13:4-6)
            “I guess Trump’s only got 42 months” a guest laughed, “He can’t last. Bible says so.”
            I kept going and read, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10).
            Just then a guest walked up the steps of the porch, handed me a penny, and kept on walking into the house.
            “We got real worship now. Preacher just got a tithe!”
            “Widow’s mite! Widow’s mite” shouted another guest, referencing the story in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was watching rich people putting their gifts into the Temple treasury, and “he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-3).
            “Are we supposed to give until we got nothing?” a guest asked me after I told that story.
            “Do you think Jesus was happy that the Temple Treasury was taking the last money of a poor person?” I answered his question with a question.
            “Doesn’t seem like Jesus would be” he came back. “Beast wants us to think Jesus would.”

            Another guest brought us full circle. “Remember those ‘rulers of this age?’ This is how they crucify.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Some Day the Rising is Gonna Come

I had not seen him at Manna House for several weeks. His symptoms of mental illness had been worsening before he disappeared. This morning he arrived wearing the telltale signs of a stay in the country jail, 201 Poplar. On his feet were jail issue brown flip-flops. His clothing consisted of loose fitting greyish-white sweatpants and a white t-shirt. His socks matched the sweatpants. They had once been white but were now grey from the dust and dirt of the streets. He did not carry any other belongings.
                Most noticeable were the tremors in his arms and hands. Coffee spilled from the sides of his shaking cup. The tremors were likely from antipsychotic drugs administrated while he was in jail. A guest saw the tremors and said to me, “Chemical control. Bet he was heavily sedated in jail.”
                I felt like I was watching a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—an old movie that gave a horrific look at the inside of a state mental hospital. Nurse Ratched must work at 201 Poplar. A little research reveals that “Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number -- nearly 500,000 -- mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons" (“The New Asylums," FRONTLINE, May 10, 2005).
                The National Alliance for the Mental Ill (NAMI) reports that, “An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.” Additionally, “Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have ‘a recent history’ of a mental health condition.”
                Another guest had arrived at Manna House after a stay in jail. He came to me looking for a place where he might get treatment for his mental illness.
                “I have severe depression. I’ve known it for years. I’ve gone the route of trying to ignore it, or trying to cover it up by drugs and drinking. I need help. I heard about this place. Can you look them up and give me a phone number?”
                I looked it up. I gave him the number. A few days later I saw him again at Manna House and I asked him, “Did you call that place?”
                “I did. They don’t have any room for me.”
                “What’s next?”
                “Same old, same old, I guess.”
                On any given morning at Manna House somewhere around thirty or forty percent of our guests exhibit symptoms of mental illness noticeable to even our untrained eyes. I say “untrained eyes” because none of us are psychologists or psychiatrists. We are just ordinary people trying to offer some hospitality, a place where people can feel welcome and be safe and be treated with respect.
                The hospitality we offer at Manna House insists on the human dignity of each guest, including our guests with mental illness. Mental illness continues to carry a kind of moral stigma, as if persons with mental illness are somehow morally at fault for their illness. And, of course, homelessness carries a moral stigma too. “Homeless persons” our culture says “are dirty, dangerous, disgusting, different, and damn lazy.” Add in that many of our guests with mental illness who are homeless are also Black, and you get a triple stigma. No wonder prison becomes the preferred societal way of treating people who are housing deprived, Black, and mentally ill.
                Hospitality rejects that stigmatizing and instead affirms the sacred dignity of each person, made in the image of God. We not only believe, we also know that our guests with mental illness are not defined by their illness. They are persons with good days and bad, gifts and liabilities, and they bring the very presence of God into Manna House.

                Another guest comes from across the street. I can not only see him coming, I can also hear him coming. He speaks with a loud voice, gesticulating wildly, speaking into the air, looking upward as he walks. When he comes upon onto the front porch he gets up close to my face. His eyes are intense. I feel like he is staring into my soul. He is a tall man and he towers over me. “Pete” he says with eyes that now take on a conspiratorial wink, “Jesus rose from the dead. They’re a lot of dead people out there” and he points to the streets, “But some day the rising is gonna come.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Old Wounds

I asked a guest the other day, “Why are you so quiet?” He’s usually quite outgoing and engaged, but this morning he sat on a bench seemingly in a different world.
            “I’m holding my tears in” he said. Then he explained, “I fractured this arm a few years ago. On cold days like this one it aches. My old broken bone hurts.”
            “Those hurts from the past never really go away, do they?” I said.
            “Nope. Not in the body. Not in the heart.”
            We reminisced a bit about old wounds that never go away.
            “You see this scar on my finger?” I offered, “I nearly cut this off in a mower.”
            “It still tingle?” the guest asked and then continued, “I about smashed this finger between two I-beams when I was working construction. That sucker still don’t feel right.”
            As I age, I am more aware of the old wounds I carry in my body. Those who come to Manna House as guests seem to carry more than their fair share of old bodily wounds. I think of one guest who each day slowly and methodically walks up our ramp (he avoids the stairs), leaning heavily on a walking stick. Another guest always takes the stairs, but he shouldn’t. He’s fallen there a few times. His legs and hips are stiff from the ravages of time and accidents. And we have several guests who just are not right in the head, and almost always I find out they had some severe head injury in their past. 
            Beyond these old physical wounds (and sometimes connected with them), I have yet to meet a guest (or a volunteer for that matter) who does not ache from some old spiritual wound, a broken heart, a fractured soul. We all have those memories by the time we get to a certain age—memories of loved ones lost to death, memories of a crucial relationship ended, memories of betrayal. We get cracked open, laid bare in our souls, and we are left wondering if life is worth living.
            Most of our guests at Manna House carry old wounds that come from even deeper cuts. Orphaned at an early age and passed from foster home to foster home before ending up on the streets. Tossed out by family for being gay or transgendered. Mental illness left untreated, or treated only sporadically because of poverty. The memories of the wounds of poverty: hunger, constantly being evicted and moving from one place to another, never really having a home or a neighborhood to call one’s own, battles with vermin, violence and violence threatened, poor schooling. And once on the streets the wounds of constant harassment, physical violence, rape, addictions, abuse, imprisonment, always looking for work but never finding steady employment, standing in lines, bad food, hearing the judging yells from passing cars. These are wounds that cut deep in the soul.
            Just like old physical wounds flare up from time to time, so, too, do old spiritual wounds. Cold damp weather makes my bones or joints ache. Those old spiritual wounds open up less predictably. Sometimes I catch a whiff of cigarette smoke and the hole left by my Dad’s death opens up. I hear a song and I feel the hurt of a relationship that ended. I reach out to make a phone call and catch myself remembering the ache from the loss of a friend who died.   
            Feeling old wounds present me with a choice about how to live. Psalm 56 tells me, “O God, You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” God takes in our tears from our old wounds and draws us to compassion. For what is God but the Promise of love being stronger than death; of life continuing beyond this earthly time?
                I can become embittered by those old wounds. I can rage against the past and how it distorts the present. I can seek to avoid any suffering in the future by closing myself off from the risk of love and relationship. Or in this faith in a loving God, I can find in these old wounds the seeds for a continual growth in compassion. This latter choice, to respond to the wounds in our lives by seeing in them my connection with God and my solidarity with the wounds in others, leads me in faith to reach out in compassion. This is how God is most life-giving.
            A few days ago Kathleen told me about one morning two weeks ago when a faithful donor came in with some clothes as part of her generous donation. The donor started to explain that the clothes were from her husband. He had died last fall. She explained that she is finally getting around to saying goodbye to his clothes. A volunteer, who had lost her husband two years ago, came out of the clothing room into the living room.
            “I heard what you said. I didn’t mean to listen in, but as one widow to another I just wanted to give you a hug.”

            They embraced in tears. The old wounds watered compassion.  

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Healing Waters

I came across an old letter yesterday while sorting through papers on my desk at home. This past August, my good friend Louise Wolf Novak had sent what she called a “healing waters” donation for Manna House. She had included her donation in one of her typically wonderful letters, full of family news and questions, along with various ruminations that emerged from her compassionate and thoughtful faith. At the time, she was in the midst of treatment for cancer. Kathleen and I had visited her and her husband Tom earlier in the summer, and we had introduced Nevaeh to them.
In her letter, Louise shared how a friend of hers had written to her of his trip to Lourdes in France. Like so many others, Louise’s friend had gone in faithful desperation, hoping that by bathing in the healing waters of Lourdes, he might be healed as so many others have before. He wrote Louise that he was healed.
Louise wrote to me, “It almost made me think I should pack up and head to Lourdes!” But she continued in her letter, “Tom said something about it being ‘reserved for those who could afford the trip,’ which I had to agree with. I had to agree that healing can’t be restricted like that. So without elaborating, I’m sending a donation to Manna House for its Healing Waters.”
Louise died a week ago Sunday, on February 12, 2017. She continued in her August letter, “I hope I’m not required to go to Lourdes for healing. Any pilgrimage I make will be small. But it is a good opportunity to acknowledge the blessing of warm water at Manna House… Perhaps I’ll make a pilgrimage to Manna House.”
Re-reading Louise’ letter now, I am left wondering about healing. I know the waters at Manna House heal. More than one guest has come out of the shower room testifying, “I’m alive again!” But I also know how many of our guests have died over the years. Death comes in many ways, seizures, heart attacks, hit by a car, falling off a wall, overdose. And we have two volunteers these days also facing serious battles with cancer.
Louise had a deep faith that did not depend upon miracles or special trips to far away places. Her faith and her healing were not restricted in those ways. Instead, as she showed over and over again in her life, her faith depended upon gracious relationships, loving family and friends and loving strangers. That was the unrestricted “healing water” she faithfully shared in her life. This is the healing water referred to in Psalm 23 (so often prayed at funerals), “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
Death seeks to dry up those waters. Death seeks to create a drought of love in our lives. Death tempts us to think it is stronger than the loving healing waters of relationships in which we live and move and experience God’s presence. Louise never gave up on that healing water. Even in the midst of her wrestling with death, she shared her faith in the “healing waters” by sharing to make sure those waters would continue to flow at Manna House.

Tomorrow, as we always do on Monday mornings, we will offer the healing waters of showers at Manna House. And when I hear the water in showers flowing, I will remember Louise for the way she shared “healing waters.” My prayer will be that the healing that comes with love will touch us all, our guests, our volunteers, and especially in this time, Louise, her husband Tom, and their children.