Remembering Robin Vargas

Robin regularly came to Manna House, mostly for coffee. Like a number of our guests, she had a job. She worked at Jack Pirtles. She made just enough to usually have a place to live. Then she tired of Memphis and moved to another city. She might have become one of the many guests who I get to know, and then disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

So I was glad when we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago. We became “friends” and I got glimpses into her life away from Memphis. Occasionally we exchanged messages. She wondered how a guest she knew was doing, or she asked, “Whatever happened to….?” She seemed to be doing ok. Life was still hard, but bearable. The move had changed the scenery, but not the grind required to keep a job and a place to live.

Then one day she shared a survey that asked, “What country song was written about your life?” The answer was, “Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell.” Why this song? Because “Robin you never give up, no matter how dark your days get. You’ve seen failure, but you’ve never been one to give in or back down in the face of fear. ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’ is a beautiful tribute to your spirit and a reminder that you are always stronger than you believe.”

Robin lived that song. Her son died about two years ago. Then about a year later she was diagnosed with cancer.

“Things go from bad to worse
You think it can’t get worse than that
And then they do.”

On February 10th of this year Robin posted, “Hi. I just wanted to say goodbye to all my friends and family. I’m suffering from stage 4 lung cancer, can’t barely breath so it won’t be long. Just want you to know I love you all. And if you smoke, please, please, quit. God bless you. Going to hospice. They said the way I’m breathing it won’t be long.”

She died 9 days later.

From what I knew of Robin’s life, nothing ever seemed to come easy for her. But she had an unconquerable spirit. “Good morning, God bless,” she wrote on Facebook posts. In her note about going to hospice, there is no self-pity. In the midst of her own ills, she shows concern for others, “Just want you to know, I love you all. And if you smoke, please, please, quit.”

Much like the country song Robin identified with, she had a realism that held onto hope rather than giving in to despair.

“If you’re goin’ through hell keep on going,
Don’t slow down if you’re scared don’t show it,
You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.

I’ve been deep down in that darkness,
I’ve been down to my last match…

But the good news is there’s angels everywhere out on the street
Holdin’ out a hand to pull you back up on your feet…

Another guest at Manna House remembered Robin as one of those “angels everywhere out on the street.” She wrote, “She was one of the dearest people that I met during my years on the street… She will be very missed.” Indeed she will.

Pay Attention

Two blue jays and a cardinal perched on the small tree outside the kitchen window. I could see them as I sat in the kitchen at Manna House. I was there early, in the hour before we open, to make sure the coffee was percolating. The brilliant red of the cardinal and deep blue of the blue jays stood in sharp contrast to the morning greyness. The birds were pecking at something on the tree branch that seemed bare except for a few lingering brown leaves. Clearly they could see something I could not.

The daily Bible readings in the lectionary this week have included the first creation story from Genesis. God’s vibrant presence in the creation comes throughout the story. Each day God brings something new into existence, land and water and trees and all sorts of living things, and the refrain follows, “And God saw that it was good.”

How often do I even pay attention to God’s beautiful creation and all of its contrasting colors?

The blue jays flew off. The cardinal stubbornly stayed the course for a minute longer, then it was gone too.

The rain and clouds that have lasted for days were not giving way to any hint of sunshine. Still, the light of day started to illuminate the yellow brick of the church visible down the block. The passing car lights made the rain soaked streets shine. And a guest walked up the sidewalk towards Manna House wearing a bright orange reflective vest, staunch in his resistance to the drab morning.

Psalm 104 presented itself.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.”

When Manna House opened at 8 am, I went with the other volunteers to join the guests on the front porch for our opening prayer. We held hands and offered our simple prayer of thanksgiving for the day. We also asked God to be with those who are hurting. And, inevitably one guest asked again for God’s help as she goes to yet another doctor’s appointment. Standing together in a circle of sorts, we wear different shades of different colors. We are a colorful group. And our clothing is also all sorts of colors, especially these days with the knit love caps topping a lot of heads warding off the morning chill.

We do not pray long. There is a warm house to enter and coffee to get to and showers to be taken and other needs to be attended to. Hospitality responds to basic human needs, especially the need to be welcomed, to be treated with dignity and respect, to pay attention.

“All creatures look to you
to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”

As I enter the house behind those who have lined up for coffee, the first two names for the showers are being called. Morning greetings are shared among guests and volunteers. A few guests quickly take to the couches, hoping to catch some sleep.

If I pay attention, I can see God’s creative love in each person in the house. God’s colorful creating continues.

“When You send forth your spirit, they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth.”

Cold and Chill Bless the Lord!

“I can’t feel my feet,” a guest says to me as he stands on the front porch of Manna House. He is wearing worn out running shoes with mesh uppers. The cold has settled in for a few days on the edge of the polar vortex. Memphis has temperatures in the low twenties, and wind that is cutting.

Another guest tells me, “My hands are numb.” He has on thin cloth gloves. A few other early arriving guests appear out of nowhere as I unlock the gate and the front door. They are all bundled in various ways against the cold, but one sums up the state they are in, “My bones are frozen.”

It is early. The darkness of the night has not given way to the light of the morning. I have arrived to get the house ready for hospitality before we open at 8am. There’s laundry to be folded. The supplies for serving coffee need to be set up. And I would really like some time to read and pray and write before opening. I relish the quiet time in the house alone. It is sacred time.

But when I go past the few gathering guests and open the door to Manna House, I can feel the contrast between the warmth inside and the freezing cold outside. When I cross the threshold, the image of “The Christ of the Breadline” flashes in my mind. Christ is behind me waiting, freezing on the front porch.

I say to myself, “Christ is going to have to wait a few minutes.” I have a few things I have to get done before I can open the house for hospitality. But I make the list shorter and ten minutes later I open the front door and invite in the Christ of the front porch. By then eight people have gathered and they all hurry in thankful for the warmth.

One man heads for a couch and a few minutes later he is asleep. Another sits down and gets a book out of his backpack and begins to read. A few others gather around the table in the front room and talk about nothing in particular. It will be another hour or so before we will be “open” and start the showers and serve hot coffee.

I take a chair at the door of the kitchen and open my prayer book. I am searching for a prayer I know from the Morning Office. I want to pray into the reality of the cold. The prayer comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 3), where three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are tossed into a blazing furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they won’t worship idols. In that furnace, “heated to seven times its usual fire,” the three young men sing God’s praises. Maybe in all that heat they really appreciated the cold.

“Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord,
Praise and exalt God above all forever.
Cold and chill, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.
Frost and chill, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.”

The prayer makes me wonder how to pray in the midst of a cold that threatens the lives of our guests. Then again, is it the cold that is threatening, or is it the coldness of our culture that deems some expendable, some not “worthy” of shelter, of housing? Maybe we “bless the Lord” in the midst of cold by offering hospitality to those out in the cold? Better still, maybe we “bless the Lord” by becoming the kind of community where we can all enjoy the cold because we have warm places to be with each other, no one is left outside, no one is left behind. Maybe we “bless the Lord” when we recognize each other and the whole of God’s creation as the very presence of God.

Ordinary Time

The flurry of donations and volunteers has subsided. Christmas and the New Year are past; so is Martin Luther King Day. We have settled in for the long haul months of cold, rain (snow?) from now until at least the end of March.

The Church’s liturgical calendar calls this season until Lent comes, “Ordinary time.” The Sunday readings let go of Christmas themes and return to stories of Jesus’ daily teaching and healing, and his challenge to the way things are with his vision of God’s Kingdom, the way things ought to be.

The liturgical color for vestments during this time is green, a symbol for growth and hope. This symbol stands resolute in this time of struggle. I look at our culture, our politics, and our economy. “Making America Great Again” is taking us backwards to a time of even more overt racism, hatred and fear of people seeking asylum, and the shredding of even the limited and fragile safety nets for people in poverty. For my belief in growth and hope to not be Pollyannaish, I must seriously reckon with despair.

As I sat in the kitchen on a recent morning, listening to the coffee percolate, I could hear someone on the front porch, coughing. The cough was persist. I know that in this time of year colds, and flu, and for some guests, bronchitis and pneumonia, will come more easily. Immune systems already weak are further stressed by the cold.  People on the streets in ordinary time go back to being villainized or ignored. The Christmas turkeys are all gone.

Guests come into the warmth of Manna House, and in the midst of conversation and names being called for showers and socks and hygiene, they fall asleep on the couches and chairs. The cold weather saps energy, and some walk the night unable to sleep because of the cold. In ordinary time there is no affordable housing, and few shelter spaces, and even fewer (only Room in the Inn), that are free.

On Monday of this week, even Manna House had no heat. Our furnace went out again. While we waited for the repair man the house was warmed by a few space heaters, and a lot of bodies. Together they put a dent into the twenty degree weather, raising the house temperature to about forty.
“It’s better than outside,” one hopeful guest offered.

Ordinary time.

A few minutes later a guest made a request for something we do not offer, so I said “no.”

“That’s my first rejection of the day,” he said, “I was waiting for it.”

Ordinary time.

One of our very mentally ill guests told me, “I really like your jokes. I’ve been laughing since last week about the guy who walked into a bar with jumper cables around his neck and the bartender said, ‘You can come in, but you’d better not start anything.’”

Ordinary time.

I had come across a Bible verse earlier that I shared with guests as “The Word of the Day.” It sounded familiar, like it was from a song. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–3:23). When I shared the Bible passage one guest started to sing,

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

God is present. God hangs in there in ordinary time. The singing guest did not know the rest of the song, so we looked up the remaining verses.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.

Great is Thy faithfulness. Not a bad song for ordinary time.

A guest came in from the cold as the last verse was read.

“Good morning,” I said and then asked, “How you doing?”

“Ain’t locked up. Ain’t covered up. Doing fine.”

Ordinary time.

 

Singing in the Womb

“Good morning. We’re going to do a short prayer and then open. Join in if you want to.” Every morning at Manna House, that is how we begin. Guests and volunteers are invited to join hands with each other and pray.

But this morning is not most mornings. This is the season of Advent. We are in a time out of the ordinary, a time of expectation. We are in a time when we are invited to enter into the darkness of the womb. Mary invited the very Word of God into her womb, and we are invited into the womb of God to be expectant with Mary, to respond to the promise of new birth.

Sojourners Magazine recently shared a prayer from Shannon Casey who wrote in Embracing Darkness This Advent Season, “In the darkness of the womb, the future is waiting to be born. And yes, sometimes we’ll feel terrible, but this Advent, may we have ears to hear the midwife as she compassionately reminds us to breathe.”

How do we hear the midwife and compassionately breathe together? Maybe it can happen in song. To sing together we have to listen to each other and breathe together, we have to find harmony together. So for this Advent, for our prayer together on the front porch at Manna House, we are invited to sing together, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

There is something powerful about pulling this “church song” out of church and placing it into our lives at Manna House. Each one of us on the front porch at Manna House are in various ways broken, hurting, and in need of being reborn. We each carry our sins, our faults, our histories of wrongdoing and failings. We are all human beings, vulnerable, in need of love and welcome and respect. Some of us have housing, some do not. Some have some degree of wealth, others struggle with different levels of poverty. For all of us, for Manna House to be a place of hospitality, we have to extend some trust to each other. We each stand in expectation and hope of a better life, of wholeness.And so we sing together “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and listen and breathe together the words of this song that alternates between the darkness of the womb and the light of new birth.

We are captive, we mourn in lonely exile, until the Son of God appears.

We are under Satan’s tyranny, in the depths of hell, but then comes victory over the grave.

We experience “the gloomy clouds of night” and “death’s dark shadows,” but then comes the Light.

We are not at home here on this earth. We are alienated from God and each other, but then comes the key of David to open the door, and we are all welcomed into God’s home, into the Beloved Community.

Singing on the front porch we are a motley choir. A bit off key now and then. A bit forgetful of a word or two of the song. A bit hesitant even to sing. But somehow the song envelopes each of us and we gain a glimpse of another time and space where homelessness ends, where racism and classism and homophobia and sexism cease, where people are just people together.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel

Advent Journey

Early winter in Memphis. I watch leaves let go of trees. The backyard of Manna House is almost completely covered by the fallen leaves.  I see winter’s approaching starkness in the bare branches overhead. And I find my faith in Light and Resurrection tested. In my morning prayer, I read apocalyptic visions that will culminate in a Son born among the least. Yet I know that Son will be immediately threatened by a murderous ruler. This is a time of advent journey.

In this advent journey, I feel the cold of the mornings. I hold the hands of guests during our opening prayer on the front porch. Their icy flesh hints of death. It is a harsh reminder of what it means to have no warm place to stay for the night. Even if they found shelter, that momentary warmth is gone by the time we open at 8.a.m. Shelters usually ask people to get up and get outside by 6 or 7 a.m.

In this advent journey, the line forms quickly and quietly as our guests enter the light and warmth of Manna House. They seek coffee to warm their bodies. They seek welcome to warm their souls. We are going through more hot coffee more quickly each morning. It takes about twenty minutes for the first one hundred cup coffee pot to be emptied. Some guests have taken to filling small thermoses so even after we close they will have some hot coffee. They try to carry the light and warmth of the house with them.

Along this advent journey, my faith is tested, both in God and in humanity. The Christ who arrives at Manna House suffers from our sins, and he is announced by an angel from on low, “There’s a man in the front yard who needs an ambulance.”

I go outside and see a man seated on a chair near the front gate. Another guest had brought a chair down to the gate for the man to sit on. The man is shaking slightly as he sits. He is old and black, and though I recognize him, I cannot remember his name.

He reminds me of his name, and says, “I was just discharged from the Med about an hour ago. They left this in my arm.”

He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an IV port, still taped to his arm. Then he hands me his discharge papers. Dizziness and high blood pressure and dehydration conspired to put him into the emergency room. People in a hurry apparently conspired to leave the IV port in him. The temptation is to rush, for all of us. It is how we lose the Light and end up in darkness.

A guest insists I call an ambulance. Another urges the man to get a lawyer and sue.

“No need to do that,” I respond about the ambulance. “I’ll take him back to the Med.” We have enough volunteers (thankfully) so I have the leisure to leave Manna House for a while.

I get my car from across the street. A few guests gently deposit the man in the front seat. I reach across to click his seat belt into place. Off we go on our Advent journey.

The Med (or should I say its new fancy name, “Region One”?) is about three quarters of a mile from Manna House. We talk along the way.

“I was headed to Catholic Charities,” he says, “I’m working with them to get a place. Do you know Dick Hackett there? He’s going to help me.”

“Sure I know of Dick Hackett. He was the mayor of Memphis.”

“When he was mayor, my Momma cleaned his house, so I figure he owes me.”

We arrive at the hospital. I help him out of the car. He takes my arm so I can steady him while he walks. We take very slow steps as we head arm in arm to the Emergency Room. The nurse on duty at the front desk listens to his story. She does not apologize or offer any explanation about why the IV port was left in his arm. She does come around immediately and go to work.

“There, all done,” she says, as she swiftly and cleanly pulls out the IV port.

We walk slowly back to my car, arm in arm. I drive him to Catholic Charities. He methodically makes his way up the steps, holding the railing, and enters the building. I wonder how his meeting with Dick Hackett will go. It is still Advent.

Bowels and Mercies

Last Monday a very tattered and incomplete New Testament surfaced from the back pocket of a pair of pants going into the laundry at Manna House. On Tuesday, when I was asked for the Word of the Day, I happened to open this worn New Testament (King James Version) to Philippians 2:1-3, 5.

“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. … Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

The question came quickly from a guest.

“What does ‘bowels and mercies’ mean? What do bowels have to do with mercy?”

“Maybe we need to look at another translation,” another guest suggested.

Google quickly gave some other translation options, “tenderness and compassion,” “kindness and compassion,” “affection and sympathy.”

But still we were mystified by “bowels.”

“Maybe it means being moved deep within to be merciful” a guest offered, “Like feeling something in your gut.”

“That makes sense,” I said, and I promised that I would ask our New Testament professor at Memphis Theological Seminary for help with finding the original Greek word translated “bowels.”

Dr. Mitzi Minor responded to my inquiry.

She told me “the Greek word translated as compassion/affection/kindness is quite literally the word for ‘bowels’ in Greek. So, the KJV is literally correct. But it’s a poor translation for us because we don’t usually know that for ancient Greeks the bowels were considered the ‘seat’ of compassion in the body. Sort of like a ‘feeling in my gut.’ And a lot like we use ‘heart’ to indicate ‘love. Imagine 1000 years from now when ‘heart’ is no longer used that way, and someone then trying to make sense of someone now writing ‘I love you from the bottom of my heart.’ They’d think, ‘What does the bottom of the heart muscle have to do with love?’ and likely end up translating the line I love you deeply.’ That’s what’s going on in Phil 2:1. I’d prefer to translate that phrase, ‘If there is any compassion and mercy’ (though I’m also not sure that people really understand ‘mercy’ well either, but I really don’t like sympathy for that word).”

I asked her if this the same Greek word or related to “splagchnizomai” because I had once heard a similar explanation for a description of Jesus’ being moved to compassion in Matthew 20:34,

Yes, she added, that’s the verb form of the noun that is the word in Philippians 2:1.

Given this explanation for “bowels and mercies,” I thought about how the passage on bowels had come from a New Testament in the back pocket of pants worn by someone who would often be denied access to a restroom. Business owners have to be moved in their bowels to open bathrooms to others whose bowels are moving instead of restricting bathrooms to “customers only.”

And I also thought about how this passage is connected with Jesus being a model for compassion. I am encouraged to be moved like Jesus was moved, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

If only I could feel deeply moved by the love of God known in Jesus’ life and teaching, then maybe my bowels of compassion would move too.

I look around and see the results of a severe case of compassion constipation. Fears of “difference,” of “not enough,” of “foreigners,” drive a restrictive politics and economics, bound up by trying to control and dominate “the other.”

This old New Testament text, in its strange translation, points to another way. A way in which somewhere deep within, perhaps where God resides in each of us, a compassion movement can begin. It urges a different way, where we graciously loosen up and take on the compassion of Christ. Moved by Christ’s love we can see each other as sisters and brothers, as sharing in the same humanity. Love can move us, deeply in our guts, to have mercy.

Is God Dead?

“Who is your favorite dead person?”

I thought this might be a provocative question to get guests thinking about who they would like to remember on the Feast of All Saints. In the Christian calendar, All Saints Day commemorates all the saints of the church, both known and unknown, who have attained heaven. It is an ancient feast, having its origins in remembrances of the martyrs and its official establishment goes back to 837 when Pope Gregory IV ordered its general observance. Closely following All Saints is the Feast of All Souls, commemorating all of the faithfully departed.

As the days get shorter and the nights get colder and the trees begin to lose their leaves, death seems more in the air. And these days, the power of death is thickly present in our society: bomb threats sent to political leaders, a murderous attack on worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, two African Americans gunned down by a white supremacist at a grocery store with story after story of whites harassing African Americans, a president ordering soldiers to the border to confront a “caravan” of asylum seekers, while at the same time he stokes more and more racist fears and enmity toward any political opponent. And, too, on the very Feast of All Saints, yet another execution in the State of Tennessee.

Remembering the dead in this time of death might seem a strange way to resist death. But the dead are not remembered to dwell on death. We are to remember the dead to be renewed in the hope of redemption, of new life, of fullness of life, all solidly grounded in the Source of Life, God, who is Love.

And so the guests at Manna House shared answers to my question. Though I admit my question elicited more puzzlement than responses at first until I refined it. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?” In response, guests offered their sacred memories of loved ones who still live in their hearts, and whom they hope to see again.

The first few guests I talked with had memories accompanied by the uncomplicated grief and love of a loved one lost.

“My Grandmomma. She raised me. If I have any sense at all that comes from her.”

“I had a friend. We ran together in high school. He died young. I still miss him.”

“My mother. She loved me, without hesitation or judgment. And she kept on me to be better.”

“Daddio and Ten Four, they both looked after me and I looked after them.”

But then came a memory that was very painful. A guest teared up as he said, “My daughter. She died of an overdose when she was twenty three. I’ll never get over that.” He shared with me her name and we prayed together.

The journey through death, went deeper when a guest gave me an answer that stopped me in my tracks. “Who is the most important person in your life who has died? Who do you miss the most?”

“God,” the guests said, “He’s dead to me.”

I could tell he did not want to say anything more. In this moment, in his suffering, I simply stood there in silence before saying, “You are loved” and then I walked away.

I thought later of an exchange that happened between Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. As the story goes, Sojourner Truth was in the audience at Faneuil Hall in Boston back in 1847 when Frederick Douglass, despairing that slavery would ever end suggested that God had abandoned African Americans. Truth stood up and asked, “Frederick, is God dead?” The question is inscribed on her tombstone. In the face of the powers of death, the power of slavery, Sojourner Truth asserted her faith in a God who is Love, who is Liberating, and Life-Giving.

The Feast of All Saints and its companion feast of All Souls both reflect the most important feast in Christian life, Easter. Jesus’ resurrection is God’s life-giving, liberating, and loving overturning of the power of death, and those powers that impose death. I wonder if while Jesus was on the cross if he did not share with this Manna House guest the deep despair of feeling God’s death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus said as he died.

This death of Jesus touches upon and connects with the death of each person who suffers and dies at the hands of the powers of death. Jesus was, after all, executed by the most brutal form of capital punishment the Romans used. Jesus’ death connects with the death of each homeless person, each person in poverty, each person killed in justice struggles. Jesus’ death question connects with the Manna House guest who in his suffering feels God’s death. And, yes, Jesus’ death also connects with each one of us who face the question, “Will I love and give of myself in love? Will I reject the power of death that makes me afraid of the stranger, of the other, of losing face, of not winning the rat race?”

Jesus got his answer in the resurrection, God’s emphatic overturning of his death sentence, and God’s loving promise to overturn every death sentence. Love is what liberates us from fear of death because love is what liberates us from death.

The Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls echo Easter, when God spoke into the ear of Jesus as he lay in the tomb, and raised him with the words, “You are loved.”

“Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

“Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

 

“Do you know how I can get my check started again?” a Manna House guest asked as folks gathered in the front yard of Manna House drinking coffee.  “My check stopped when I was in jail.”

I was curious about why he was drawing a check.

“Disability” he said, “I have a brain injury. I get seizures. I can’t work.”

Other guests started to offer advice. One said, “They’ll make you prove that disability again, even though you proved it before.”

This elicited some hard realism from another guest. “They’ll turn you down at least a few times before you’ll get approved. Seems like standard practice.”

The guest was discouraged. “I don’t know if I have it in me to get through all that again. I had a social worker help me the first time.”

This led to more advice, about who could be asked, what organizations might help. But again the realism, “Seems like they just don’t want you to get help.”

Then a word came from a guest who had been standing by silently, taking it all in, “Whatever you do, remember, the people at the Social Security Office didn’t make the rules. Your battle is with the system, not with the people there.”

At that, our resident Bible scholar, looked up, turned a few pages of his Bible, and read, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” And he added, “Ephesians, 6:12, King James Bible.”

“Well, ain’t that the truth?” a guest added his version of “Amen.”

“How,” I asked, “Do you go about rejecting the system but loving the people complicit in the system?”

I had been to a MLGW office with Manna House guests before. The long lines, the multiple layers of regulations and requirements to get power turned back on, the presence of an armed guard, the long lists of rules posted on the walls as we sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs, all were typical of places where the poor go to plead their cases for justice or for mercy. The Social Security Office on Cleveland, the “pit” at 201 Poplar, General Sessions courtrooms, jail visitation areas, emergency room waiting areas—they all have a mean spirit, just as they tend to be organized to be inhospitable.

A guest offered this wisdom born of years of confronting the principalities and the powers. “You can’t get caught up in the place. Stay loving with the people. They have it hard too.”

Manna House guests regularly experience and look deep into the reality of evil structured in the way things are. As a guest said to me one morning, “I’m told I’m nobody so often in so many places and in so many ways. They try to take my somebody away.”

But he concluded, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

When I heard that I thought of Kathleen who often says, “Our guests bring us their best.” Their best comes with a strong realism regarding how things are messed up, but an even stronger sense of hope. This is not a facile optimism, but the kind of hope grounded in faith tested by suffering and injustice, and unwilling to yield to the powers and principalities. This is the faith and the love I experience each time our guests come to Manna House, because we certainly do not meet all of their needs, and we certainly have days when our edges are a bit rough.

The witness of the guests at Manna House helps me to buck up and to not give in to the “luxury of despair” that tempts the privileged. They teach me how to live in hopeful and loving resistance to the principalities and powers, seeking justice, as Sharon Welch writes in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, “without the assurances of eventual victory and without the ego- and group-building dynamics of self-righteousness and demonizing.”

Or, to put it more succinctly, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”

“Go to the poor. You will find God.”

The rain has come every morning this week. Mostly gentle, occasionally intense, the rain moved us from the backyard to the front porch and inside the house. Elbows ran a bit closer together, and chairs were a bit harder to find.  Some might call it “cozy” while others may say it was “crowded.”  Either way, being inside at Manna House is a precursor to the winter months which will be here sooner than we think.

Due to the rain, our guests arrived in various stages of being soaked. Not everyone who comes to Manna House is suffering from homelessness. Some manage to maintain a precarious grasp on housing. The housed were more likely to arrive sporting an umbrella. Those on the streets sometimes had umbrellas, too, though they were typically missing a rib so the canopy sagged and provided less protection. Some had donned flimsy ponchos, the kind you can get for a buck or two at a convenience store. Those lowest on the rain gear “food chain” had resorted to plastic bags for rain protection. The bag would cover their torso as they popped a hole in the bag for their heads, and two more holes for their arms.

Housed or homeless, everyone’s shoes were wet, and so were their socks. Dry and clean socks were a more precious gift than usual. And those on the shower list were happy to discard their wet clothes for fresh and dry clothing.

I was reminded by the rain of how we all need a place to stay; a place to protect us from the elements. We humans are fragile creatures. We lack fur to keep us warm. We do not carry our resting place with us like turtles. Water does not just roll off of us like a duck’s back. We need places out of the rain and cold, or out of the heat and the humidity. A shared and basic human need is for shelter. Even more, we really need a home, especially a home where we can feel secure and welcomed and loved.

I also thought about how Jesus identified with those who have no homes, when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). In context, he was laying out the cost of discipleship to someone who had too easily proclaimed, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus calls us comfortable ones to take the risk of going where he goes, to go where people are suffering. There our hearts can be opened and we can find the compassion and desire for justice born of shared vulnerability. I know I am tempted to think I can ward off my human fragility by acquiring more and more and pretending I do not need help. Jesus calls me to compassion born of a broken heart.

This morning was the feast of St. Vincent de Paul. He said, “Go to the poor, you will find God.” In saying this he did not romanticize the poor, nor did he deny the horrors of poverty. Instead he saw how serving those in poverty could open hearts to see our shared humanity, our need for each other; the recognition of mutual vulnerability that calls us into seeking life together. In the person soaked by the rain, covered by a plastic bag, God invites me into what saves all of us, namely, love. As St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”