Bread and Redemption

The knock on the front door at Manna House came just before 8am. Was it a late arriving volunteer? A guest who was growing impatient? I opened the door. Two men, one white, one black, stood there in their MLGW uniforms. I could see their truck parked on the street. The black man introduced himself, while his white co-worker stood silently holding four loaves of bread. I asked, “How can I help you?”

“Would you take this food? We’ve got meat and cheese and bread.” He put forth one large tray covered with tinfoil and a small sack carrying chicken salad in store containers.

I was inclined to say “no.” Normally we do not accept food donations. The St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission is just a couple of blocks away and they serve a meal every day starting at 9:30am. No need to duplicate what they do. And unless the donation is enough for the 120 or so people who come each morning to Manna House, it is not practical to distribute without creating tensions. This little amount of bread and fixings would not be nearly enough to serve everyone.

The man standing there with the tray added, “My son died. This is left-over from my son’s funeral repast.”

Suddenly there was something more here at stake than the amount of food being offered.

“I’m very sorry about your son,” I said. “Thank you. We will serve this food in his honor.”

We shook hands and the two men turned and left.

A quick consultation led to the decision to wait until later in the morning to serve this offering. That way we would have time to prepare the sandwiches and also have enough to serve those still in the house. Thankfully, we had a group of nursing students from the University of Memphis with us this morning, so we had plenty of help to do those extra jobs.

Around 10am the sandwiches were distributed, fresh bread, plenty of fixings. For the guests who remained the sandwiches were a delight. Somehow we had enough that even a few of us volunteers enjoyed a sandwich.

Later in the day I returned to the Gospel for today in the lectionary.

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, ‘Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread.”

As was often the case, the disciples were wrong. Jesus reminded them of the time he fed five thousand with just five loaves, and four thousand with seven loaves, and both times there were abundant leftovers. And then he asked them, “Do you still not understand?” (See Mark 8:14-21).

I wondered about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. What leaven could they possibly have in common? What is Jesus warning his disciples about and warning me about if I’m trying to be a disciple?

I had to dig into some commentaries. There were, of course, a variety of interpretations. The one that hit home was their leaven being a refusal to trust in Jesus and his way of life as the bread of life. Those who trust in the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod have their lives rise on a calculation of control and power, which often includes the conviction that there is not enough, that there is scarcity.

Jesus’ way of life rises on a different leaven, on a commitment to compassion and justice. It is the leaven of abundance and generosity.

Jesus’ leaven brought two men to the front door of Manna House with a simple offer of compassionate sharing.

The leaven of the Pharisees and Herod was ready to turn them away. But the bread was marked with suffering and grief, the redemption of Jesus was in there. And the Bread of Life saved me from turning them away.

Apocalyptic Angela

She had not been to Manna House in months. I could not remember her name. She came into the quiet of a slow Tuesday morning loudly going on about the anti-Christ and an accompanying gleeful anticipation of, as she put it over and over again, “The fall of the fall of Babylon.” Finally, a guest irritated by the commotion asked, “Who is that?”

Her name, we learned from Ashley, was “Angela.”

Angela, that is, “angel, messenger of God.” Suddenly John’s vision recorded in the Book of Revelation rushed into the living room of Manna House.

“After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with the angel’s splendor. The angel called out with a mighty voice,

‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.

For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her

luxury.’” (Revelation 18:1-3)

“Babylon is going down, and I couldn’t be happier,” Angela said, “It deserves nothing but destruction.”

“Is Trump the anti-Christ?” a guest asked.

“His first name does have six letters,” I responded, knowing this way of seeking connection between biblical text and contemporary character. “But does anyone know his middle name? His last name only has five letters.”

We were aiming for 666, but with “Trump” we were at least one digit short. And none of us knew his middle name. I looked it up later. His middle name is “John.” No easy figuring here like with Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6). No doubt someone will come up with a way to figure that Trump translates into 666. But this was missing Angela’s point and the seriousness of the next question.

“Is this really the end?” another guest asked, “Things out here look bad.”

Angela responded, “Babylon is falling, the falling of Babylon will be great. Great will be Babylon’s fall.”

It is an interesting fact that neither Luther nor Calvin thought highly of the Book of Revelation. Luther thought it should be excluded from the Scripture. He wrote, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” Calvin wrote commentaries on all of the books of the Bible, except Revelation. Revelation makes scant appearances in the lectionary, the ordered readings of mainline churches.

Angela’s cry was a reminder: Revelation is dangerous. Apocalypse rejects the reigning order. There is no compromise possible. We are to give our all to a different vision of human life, where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” … and where, there flows the river of life with nearby trees producing abundant fruit and leaves that “are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 21:4, 22:2-3).

Revelation is a book favored by those with little or no investment in the present order, like Angela coming in from the streets. It is favored in store front churches that have long names like “Apostolic and Spirit Anointed Church of the Holy People of God,” and by wild-eyed street preachers carrying banners and handing out tracts about the end times.

Such social locations for Revelation sometimes leads to a disdainful dismissal by sophisticated liberal Christians. Revelation gets safely placed within “apocalyptic literature” that dealt with the Roman Empire, a passing moment in Church history before a more rational Christianity emerged reconciled to the existing order. Equally trivializing is the reduction of Revelation to a divine bus schedule in which those who do not know the proper turn of events will be “left behind.”

Angela’s announcement came from a deeper place, of wound and hurt and disgust known on the streets of Babylon. “This will not last. This is not God’s way,” as she said.

I wondered as Angela wandered down the street, where do I put my hope?

Revelation repeats several times, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (Rev 14:12, see also 13:10, 1:9, 2:2, 2:10, 3:10-11) along with this call, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins” (Rev 18:4). Patient persistence in faithful resistance. And as another angel(a) put it not that long ago at Christmastime, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30, 2:10, Matthew 1:20).

Christmas at Manna House

Christmas is a birth story tied into not having a home. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, because there was no room at the inn. Jesus’ parents had traveled there because of the demands of an imperial census. Empires need to know how many people there are under their control so that they can more effectively tax them.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is born at home, but the holy family had to quickly flee after his birth to avoid the slaughter of the innocents ordered by King Herod. Herod wants no threat to his reign, which was carefully crafted to keep the Roman Empire happy. Prophecies of the birth of a coming king had unnerved him. So the holy family fled into exile in Egypt.

Birth stories and not having a home, something our guests at Manna House can easily relate to. So, this past week I talked with guests about their births.

“Where were you born” I asked, and, “Did the angels sing when you were born?”

The first question was easily answered. The second provoked many memories, some painful, some joyous, some a mixture of both.

“I was born here in Memphis. My Mom was fifteen. I don’t know if the angels sang or not. It wasn’t easy for Mom. I try not to think about it much.”

“I was born in Arkansas. My Daddy was murdered when I was one. Our house burned down when I was two. My Momma saved me. She ran into the house and wrapped a quilt around me. I was burned pretty bad. I don’t know if the angels sang when I was born, but they were there that day, making sure I didn’t die.”

“I was born in Frayser. Did the angels sing? I guess so. I was told my parents were happy when I was born. My Dad worked at Firestone. He made good money. When it closed it got all different.”

“I was born in Memphis. Grew up right here. Been here my whole life. I don’t know about angels singing but my parents loved me while they were still alive. I lost them both when I was still a kid.”

“When I was born the angels sang, because God loved me then and now. But I was given up for adoption. Sometimes I feel like I have no family. I won’t be home for Christmas. I’ll be in a shelter.”

Jesus’ birth story perhaps means a little more to those who are close to the edge. They have yearned as much as anyone for love and for home and for acceptance. They know life is fragile and so is love.

We talked some about how the angels sang when Jesus was born, but he did not have an easy life.

“That’s the way life is; hard.”

“He was like us even when we are not much like him, you know, about sin.”

“I never thought much about how we’re like him. Mostly I’ve been told he’s above us, being the Lord and all.”

“’Fear not’ the angel said. Good advice for Mary and Joseph and for Jesus and for us, especially now.”

“You know what God was trying to say in Jesus? I’m with you and won’t ever let you go, so don’t let others go. That’s it.”

Merry Christmas from Manna House.

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.