Advent at Manna House

Advent at Manna House

The light comes in the darkness. Hope sneaks in without warning. Love shows resilience.

A guest shared with me yesterday that she lost her mother and grandmother on the same day many years ago. She was in jail at the time. “They wouldn’t let me out to go to either funeral.” This guest has been on and off the streets for many years. And like most women on the streets she has been through the hell of abuse and rape and being prostituted and struggling with addictions and mental illness and a multitude of physical ailments. Somehow in her the light shines still, in her smile, her cooing over babies when they come to Manna House, her willingness to share the food she often carries with her. I do not know how she has kept and nurtured that light. I just see that she has.

Another long term guest who I had not seen for quite a while returned last week. I hardly recognized him. He walked with a cane. He was hunched over. It seemed like he had suddenly aged some twenty years. Before he had been strong and even occasionally intimidating in his demeanor. Now he was shrunken and melancholic. He shared that he has been in and out of the hospital.
“Heart failure I’m told. The fluid just builds up in me. I’m back on the streets. I can’t live out here this way.”

I gave him some information about a couple of housing programs, including Outreach, Housing, and Community. I wrote him a referral.

Meanwhile, other volunteers got him some comfortable shoes, a very warm coat, some better pants, a hat and some gloves.

“I feel a little better now. Thanks.”

Maybe we shared a little light with him. I hope so.

Sometimes the light comes in the strange humor of Manna House.

A guest had an interesting linguistic slip yesterday when she asked, “Am I too late for hydraulics?” It took me a second, but then I realized she was asking about the socks and hygiene list, now forever renamed in my mind as “socks and hydraulics.”

The clock on the living room wall stopped working. Dead and corroded batteries. I had not realized how important that clock was for our guests until it was removed. During the rest of the morning at least ten guests asked me for the time and also inquired about what happened to the clock. With the help of a few other guests various answers began to be given to the questions about the clock’s demise.

It ran out of time.

Its time was up.

It had no time left.

It was time to get a new clock.

Sometimes the light comes in an unexpected insight into the challenge of our times.

A guest was explaining to a few folks how he had been lied to many times. He was getting quite worked up about how important truth telling is and how confusing lies can be. He finished with a flourish.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. After all these lies, now which lie is the truth?” That question might be an important source of light for all of us in the days ahead.

It is Advent at Manna House. There is scripture to be read. Prayers to be said. Light to be sought and anticipated in the practices of hospitality and resistance. It is a time to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,”

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
.”

What is the Meaning of This?

“Call an ambulance for me now! I’m gonna have a seizure.”

He was up in my face screaming his demand, a guest who once was a regular, but had not been to Manna House for well over a year. I will call him “Mike.” From Mike’s appearance, and because he used to be a regular at Manna House, I knew he had a severe head injury in the past that led to seizures. But at this moment, Mike seemed more agitated and aggressive than an immediate threat to have a seizure.

“I can’t wait. She gave me something. I don’t know what it was. Call now!”

Was he on some bad drugs? Would the drugs cause the seizure? We were already gathered in a circle to pray. I got him to stand with us and made our prayer brief. Then I called 911 and explained the situation. I was told the police would have to come since he was being aggressive. “Fine, I said. A Crisis Intervention Team would be best.” CIT officers are trained to work with people struggling with mental illness.

Nearly thirty minutes passed. Public Enemy’s old line, “911 is a joke” came to mind. The guest shouted, cried, jumped in and out the street, just barely missing being hit by a car several times. He raged at Ashley and at me, yelling, frothing and wild-eyed.

“They took my cell phone! They took my wallet!”

I called 911 again. I was told, “They are on the way.” “Today?” I asked as the operator hung up. Nearly ten minutes later a police car finally pulled up. Still no ambulance in sight. The officer was very good, calm, conversational, and patient. Ashley and a friend of Mike’s who had arrived on the scene had managed to calm him down some. He was no longer screaming, just plaintively begging for help. I wondered for a moment if I had overreacted in describing him as “aggressive.”

A second police car pulled up. This officer was also non-threatening in his approach. Mike got even calmer. A few minutes later an ambulance finally arrived. The medic tried to work with Mike. But with every question and request Mike got more and more agitated again. He was back to aggressive. Eventually Mike vehemently refused medical treatment. He would not get into the ambulance. “You all gonna take my stuff!” he shouted.  And with that he walked up the street, screaming sporadically, gesticulating wildly.

The police, satisfied that he had broken no law, got in their cars and left. The ambulance left shortly thereafter.

I am not really sure what to do with this story. Why share it? As the morning unfolded there were several more incidents, mostly minor, but all involving guests with mental illness. Those episodes I call “minor” because they were so ordinary and not quite so loud or threatening. A toilet stuffed with paper towels; an outburst about clothes; a brief verbal blow up between two guests in the shower room. Typical stuff. Meanwhile, the usual business of the morning continued. Kirk doing haircuts. Guests drinking coffee ably served by Ann. Lots of conversation about sports and politics and religion. Men signing up for Thursday’s shower list. Socks being distributed. Questions about services for people on the street being answered. Sorrows being shared. No jobs. No housing. Sickness.

One new element, Trump’s election, stirred fear and resignation, “The bad can’t get much worse, I guess” said one guest. To which another replied, “O yes it can.”

What is the meaning of this morning? What is the story line that holds all of this together? Maybe there is no story line, no narrative that can make sense of a nation that disdains the poor and those who struggle with mental illness. I had started the day praying Psalm 82. It is a call for justice. The psalmist calls out, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” And the psalmist describes those who are in power, “They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness.” A call for justice. A cry of lament. All the story I can find today.

For All the Saints on the Feast of All Saints

At Manna House I have come to know some saints over the years. In their life times I would guess few of them would have been considered prime candidates for sainthood. Saints are people of faith who were particularly exemplary in their lives, those to whom we turn for inspiration and edification. They are God’s “holy ones” who share with us something of God’s presence and power, something of God’s love and life-giving and liberating Spirit. They incarnate Christ for us in this time and place. None of this should be taken to suggest that they were perfect or without faults and failings (no human is perfect and the desire for perfection is more destructive than helpful). Still, they helped us along the path of faith, they were guides for the journey of discipleship.

Sarah, Abe, and Tyler constitute a holy trinity of founding saints for Manna House. A Native American woman, a white man, and a black man. They each brought to Manna House in its earliest days a spirit of welcome, of humor, and of willingness to forgive. The small group of people who formed Manna House talked with them and we learned from them what people on the streets thought was needed in the neighborhood around Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Just down the street from the church was the St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission, known as “the radio station” because at that time it was in an old radio station building. Just up the street from the church was “Friends for Life” ministering to people with HIV/AIDS, a day labor business, and a shelter. (The day labor place and the shelter are both gone now). To the west was the VA and the Med (now Region One). To the east were many low income apartment buildings (now a massive empty field).

They told us, “We need a place where we won’t be bothered, where we’ll feel welcomed.” “We need a place,” they said, “where we can sit and talk and enjoy a cup of coffee.” They also told us, “We need a place to shower and to get a change of clothes, and maybe a few other things.” So Manna House was born as a sanctuary for people from the streets. It is a place to get coffee (or water) and relax with friends. It is a place for showers, and “socks and hygiene,” and once a week a meal, and once a month a foot clinic. They taught us what was needed.

All three of them had a sense of humor. They easily laughed, at their own foibles, and the silliness that sometimes bubbles up out from the absurdity of homelessness. Sarah, as an amputee, would ask a new volunteer for shoes. Abe would tell stories that had life lessons wrapped around incredible series of unfortunate events. Tyler had a quiet comic sense, ready to smile at some quirk he observed in himself or others.

Sarah would hold court from her wheelchair, sitting in the middle of the house. She knew everybody and everybody knew her. Tyler and Abe were not exactly retiring in their personalities, but both seemed more comfortable from the corners than at the center of a room. Still, they were known quantities in the neighborhood, fixtures in the Claybrook and Cleveland cast of characters. All three could be rascals, mischievous to the point of trouble (ok, even into trouble from time to time). But all three had expansive hearts, ready to share and to help and to support those who came to them in need.

I will never forget Abe jumping in to help me dig a ditch for our new waterline after I had punctured the old line with a misapplied pick axe. He dug with me for hours, on a hot and humid day. I would have never finished without him. Tyler was known for finding treasures in other people’s trash and then sharing them with people in need on the streets. Sarah held people together with her charisma. When she entered a room the placed lighted up.

All three of them are dead now. As I thought of them today, I had to sing,

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;

Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;

Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Mysteries in the Mail

The return address on the white envelope was simply “God bless.” Inside the envelope was a money order made out to “Mama’s House.” The word “tithe” was handwritten on the “memo line” in the left corner. For about the last six months, once a month, this mysterious money order has arrived in the mail. The amounts have varied each time. I have to imagine that the “tithe” is 10% of the income of the person who sends this money order. Whoever has been sending these donations has been remarkably faithful.  My guess is that it is a former guest. For many years now, at least some guests have given Manna House the unofficial name of “Mama’s House.” Most monetary donations arrive via mail, and most of the time we know who they came from (and we send out an acknowledgment of the gift). This one remains a mystery. So, if one of you reading this is responsible for sending this gift, “Thank you!”

 

I got a call from the receptionist at Memphis Theological Seminary where I work. A package had arrived addressed to someone who was neither student nor professor at the seminary. The receptionist thought the package contained shoes. She wondered if perhaps the shoes were for a guest at Manna House since we have recently asked for shoe donations, and so she called me. She told me the name of the person on the package. I did not recognize the name. I consulted with Kathleen. She did not recognize the name either. I went down to see the package. It was a large white envelope. I could feel shoes within but also clothing. I knew immediately where the package had come from: jail.

In the past we have received such packages at Manna House. Someone gets arrested, and their clothing and other personal belongings are taken from them. There is an option apparently to have the belongings sent to an address where they can retrieve them when they get out. Sometimes we recognize the name on the package and sometimes we do not. In this case, the name did not ring a bell. Also, in this case, the person must not have remembered or known the Manna House address but knew that I worked at the seminary. So he had his belongings sent there in his name. Now we will wait for him to arrive at Manna House. Nobody at Manna House this morning recognized his name.

 

Mail arrives at Manna House addressed to guests. Most of the time we recognize the names but not always. We discourage guests from using the Manna House address as our mail service has never been very reliable. And, too, there have been issues with a few guests who used the address and then accused us of stealing their mail. Mostly our request to not use the Manna House address is respected. Still, the mail comes. The number of advertisements and get “rich quick schemes” addressed to guests shows how many companies seek to prey upon the poor. And then there is the guest, who thankfully does not get his mail at Manna House, but who often asks me about some mail that he has received. Inevitably it is some too good to be true offer. Often included is an attempt to get him to share with the sender some personal information. I try to discourage him from responding. He is disappointed each time.

 

I got another letter from a Manna House guest who is in jail. He has been in now well over a year. He writes regularly, asking about Manna House and about how I am doing. He has grieved over the news of guests who have died. He has celebrated the good news I can share about someone getting off of the streets. He asks for prayers and for money on his “book” so he can get needed items from the commissary. He is looking forward to getting out and getting his life back. I owe him a letter now.

 

By the way, our mailing address for Manna House is 248 N. Willett, Memphis, TN 38112.  Manna House itself is located at 1268 Jefferson.

 

 

If Today You Hear God’s Voice

John was the only guest outside waiting at the gate when I arrived to start the coffee. I said, “Good morning.” No response. I asked him, “How’s it going?” No response. Just a blank stare as he passed me while I opened the gate. John is very mentally ill. I guess Manna House offers him some place of refuge. I will never know. He has never spoken anything to me that I could understand.

For the past month, Charles has been asking me to help him return his broken cell phone for another one. For four weeks I have called the “free” cell phone company, been put on hold for twenty minutes, then found out that some additional information was needed to complete the transaction; information that Charles did not have with him. So today I assigned a Memphis Theological Seminary student interning at Manna House to help Charles. Charles finally had all of the information needed. Later the student told me he absolutely despises making those kind of phone calls, trying to get through the automated customer service options, and being put on hold before finally speaking with a real person. But he also said, “I was able to help him by doing something I hate.”

I was taking the list. A new guest gave me his name. He wanted “socks and soap” today and a shower for Thursday, the next time men will shower. I asked him how he was doing. “Not well” he answered. “You can’t know how hard this is out here.” And I knew he was right.

A guest told me he needs to have surgery on his neck. Without the surgery he risks paralysis if he falls and hits the ground a certain way. With the surgery he faces a long and painful recovery and the risk of paralysis the surgery itself carries. “I’m taking my decision to prayer, he said, “I don’t know what to do. I’m hoping God does and tells me.”

 

A guest with big feet needed shoes. We did not have his size. He has been asking for three weeks. A call for donations of larger sized men’s shoes was put out on Facebook. About an hour later a man came into Manna House and said, “I have a donation of shoes to make. All size 11 and larger.” Our shoe closet shelves are now adequately stocked with those big sizes. His donation means that when the guest with big feet comes Thursday, he will get shoes.

I was sitting around talking with some guests. I asked, “How many of you have been to jail or prison?” They all raised their hands. Then the stories started. I sensed a pride among them that they had not let prison break them. None of them said it was easy.

“I’ve mostly done short time, in county jails.”

“I can tell you about Sing Sing. Did you know the phrase ‘being sent up the river’ comes from prisoners being sent up the Hudson River to Sing Sing?” I had not known that.

“I was in that prison where they made that movie, ‘Shawsank Redemption.’ Ohio State Reformatory. I doubt anyone was ever reformed there.”

Guests and hosts gathered at the side of Manna House, holding hands, standing together for a few moments of prayer to start the morning. Except one guest was on the phone. He seemed to be in no hurry to end his conversation. So, I began to sing a version of the old standard, “Jesus on the Mainline.”

“Jesus on the cell phone, tell him what you want!

Jesus on the cell phone, tell him what you want!

Jesus on the cell phone, tell him what you want!

Just call him up and tell him what you want!”

Several guests joined in, smirking, knowing where the song was directed. The guest on the phone, perhaps startled by this unusual way to begin the prayer, looked up. He realized we were singing about him and ended his phone call. Prayer commenced.

There was a commotion in the backyard.  A guest was harassing other guests. He had been told to stop by several volunteers. He continued. I asked him to leave. His response was less than polite or helpful. He continued to argue through several more requests that he leave. Finally, I said to everyone in the backyard, “Since this gentleman will not leave, we are closing early.” It was nearly the end of the day. Still guests were not happy and let the man causing the disturbance know it. He begrudgingly left the yard.

At the end of each morning we gather for reflection and ask, “How did I experience God this morning?” I have asked that question this week with a line from Psalm 95 echoing in my heart, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.”

I am not sure if or what God is speaking through these stories from Manna House. Maybe God is speaking in my heart when my heart does not harden in the face of constant hurt and need and injustice. Maybe God speaks in my heart when my humanity and compassion are deepened.

When Your Life Doesn’t Matter

The conversation was around the sentencing of the man who killed Semaj.  In May of 2014, a security guard shoved Semaj off of a MATA bus. As he fell from the bus he hit the sidewalk face first and fractured his skull. He never regained consciousness and died a few months later. Testimony indicated the security guard escalated the situation by forcibly confronting Semaj who was drunk and being disorderly.

One summer during graduate school, I worked as a security guard. Our “training” lasted a whole six hours; most of which was about how a security officer is not a cop, how to write reports and check in and follow the rules of wherever we might be placed.

None of the training addressed how to deal with conflict or with unruly people or drunks. I would guess the same was true of the guard who confronted Semaj.

We were told we could go on and get weapons training, and with that training we would be paid more. Only two wanted to do so. The rest of us did not want to carry a gun. The two exceptions were also the two who were “wanna be” cops.  Most of us were simply looking for steady work that would pay above minimum wage. Several told me they figured this would be quiet work, just going around a warehouse or factory after hours making sure everything was fine.

After that day of training I was assigned to various places to work as a security guard. My first assignment was to a PGA Golf Tournament. I “guarded” a hospitality tent one day. The next day I “guarded” the TV tower where the play by play guys sat. People generally ignored me, though a few drunks made fun of me and the other security guards as “rent-a-cops.” I know movies like to do the same, mock security guards as incompetent or over-zealous. My fellow guards were neither. Just ordinary folks trying to make a living.

My next assignment lasted the rest of the summer. I became a guard at a state psychiatric unit. The supervisor who assigned me said, “You’re a college boy, so maybe you can talk with the patients.” I was not sure exactly how to take that observation.

Our role at the psychiatric unit was to be “the muscle” who would be called in when a patient became unruly. My only special training for this work was advice from a co-worker, “Watch yourself. These people are crazy. Be safe. That’s what matters.” One night I came to work and learned that one of the guards had his arm broken by a patient a few days earlier on the day shift. I learned that the security firm did not pay for his medical bills.

“He’ll probably lose this job too,” another guard said to me, “He can’t work with a broken arm. They don’t care about us. We don’t matter.”

Semaj had been a regular guest at Manna House for many years. He found work and a place to live and we did not see him much anymore in the year before his death. Still, many of the guests knew him and were outraged that the security guard did not receive a stricter sentence.

“You kill a man and walk away free. That doesn’t happen very often.”

“Semaj was difficult, but he didn’t deserve to die the way he did.”

“I don’t know how someone gets nothing when a man is dead.”

“DA probably didn’t even want to prosecute.”

Then on the way to the gate as we were closing for the morning, one last comment from a departing guest brought together for me Semaj and the security guard.

“If someone kills me ain’t nothing going to happen. Nobody looks out for us. Our lives don’t matter.”

Biblical justice, I teach my Christian Ethics students, respects our dignity as made in God’s image. The lives of those harmed and the lives of those who did the harm are supposed to matter. When we are called to account for our wrongdoing we are led into repentance and reconciliation and the just renewal of community. In this case, Semaj’s life clearly did not matter. And the guard was not called to a just accountability. For Semaj and this security guard there was no biblical justice. And so, as biblical justice also makes clear, there is no peace.

Resilience and Resistance: What Keeps You Going?

For part of Thursday morning at Manna House, I went around and asked guests, “What keeps you going?”

“I just go one day to the next. I’m stubborn that way.”

“Jesus.” (This was said by at least six guests).

“My buddies. They’ve got my back.”

“Lord, I don’t know. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

“This here Maxwell House coffee.”

“The good Lord.” (This was said by eight or more guests).

“Trying to survive.”

“Books I read.”

“The music I’m listening to. The songs I hear.”

“Prayers I say.”

“Coffee and my two feet.”

“The Word of the Day.”

“I’m too angry to give in.”

“H.O.P.E.” (Which stands for Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, a local group of homeless and formerly homeless who advocate for justice for people on the streets).

“This place, Manna House.”

My question came from my own appreciation for the resilience of our guests. They keep going and as Kathleen says, “They bring us their best” in the face of ongoing suffering. The horrors of homelessness might be summed up by a guest who said Monday morning, “I don’t know why they don’t just line us up and shoot us. At least then it would be a quick death instead of this slow death on the streets.”

And he is well aware that homelessness is not the result of mere individual failure.

“Somebody’s making money off of homelessness or there wouldn’t be homelessness.”

Or as an academic puts it, “Housing deprivation is produced to make literal room for the speculative urban consumer economies of neoliberalism…. This is an economy that extracts value from the abandonment of entire populations of people.” (See Craig Willse, “The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States).

So my question. What keeps you going when you know in your soul and in your body that society is organized around making you and keeping you expendable?

The answers the guests gave point to places and powers where they can find resistance to this imposed systemic expendability. Personal traits like stubbornness, anger, and “my own two feet” that refuse to give in to the judgment. Buddies who together refuse to give in to the judgment. Faith that holds to a God who turns judgment away from those on the streets and toward those who put and keep people on the streets. Visions of another world through books and music and the Bible. Places of community where dignity is affirmed, sanctuary is given, the welcome of coffee is available, and justice is sought.

There’s a wisdom in the Manna House guests that feeds their resilience and resistance. The guests at Manna House do not passively accept the suffering imposed upon them. They reject the humiliation and harassment and horrors of homelessness. They find ways to keep going; ways that affirm their worth, their dignity, their humanity. It is, to be sure, a constant struggle. It is not easy to hold onto hope and humanity in the face of powers that want you to despair and be dehumanized.

And so I think of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day saw the struggles of the poor caused by so much injustice and said, “God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.” And Peter Maurin gave the goal consistent with that God, “We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”