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.