Refugees from Class War


“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting; God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isaiah 5:7-8).

This morning as I walked through the living room of Manna House, Bert stopped me and said, “We are refugees, refugees from class war.” The house was packed with people, as was the front yard. A steady wind intensified the morning cold. Guests from the streets wrapped their hands around their recently filled coffee cups, trying to get warmth back into frozen fingers. Last week a guest told me, “We’re refugees from Mississippi.” Another guest responded, “I’m a refugee from Arkansas.”

Later in the morning, still thinking about refugees, I asked a guest where he was from. “Eritrea,” he said, “I couldn’t live there anymore.” According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrea government’s human rights record is one of the worst in the world. Over the years we have had refugees from Mexico and Vietnam, and perhaps other countries. Still most of the refugees at Manna House are “internal refugees” from right here in the U.S.A.

Neither Bert nor the other guests I talked with begrudged admitting refugees from Syria. They just wanted to make clear they knew the suffering of refugees. They, too, had to move because life was no longer tenable where they were. Sometimes it was job loss. Sometimes violence or the threat of violence. They, too, faced suspicion and even hatred and harassment as they sought to find a new place to live. They, too, know what it is like to be unwanted. They, too, have experienced relying upon the hospitality of others in order to survive.

In the past week, as the debate about letting Syrian refugees enter the U.S. has raged, some who oppose letting them in have claimed the U.S. should first take care of the homeless, especially homeless veterans. I have my doubts that those making that claim have actually ever really cared about people on the streets or veterans. I think that way because it was mostly Republican leadership rejecting admitting the Syrian refugees, and their record on providing services to people experiencing homelessness, including homeless veterans, is not exactly laudable. They also lead the charge for cutting any “welfare” programs, including social security.

Bert, I think, got it right. He and others who come to Manna House are refugees from class war. The prophet Isaiah, saw class war as waged by the wealthy upon the poor as a rejection of God. Wealth which God intended to be distributed justly ended up in the hands of a few. In this class war, Manna House is a refugee center. Shelters are refugee camps. Class war (and so often joined with race war) drives people out of homes and into the streets. And then once in the streets, the powers that be see “the homeless” as a threat. So laws are passed against “aggressive panhandling,” and “urban camping” or “climbing a park structure” (the charge for sleeping on a park bench).

How to respond to refugees? Prophets like Isaiah knew the God of the Exodus. This God stood first with slaves, and then with refugees from slavery, and finally reminded them once they had their own land, “You shall neither wrong strangers, nor oppress them: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 21:23). And then Jesus took it a step further. He urged his disciples to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcome to the stranger, and visit those sick or imprisoned. Remember, he said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

I am grateful Bert made the connection this morning between Manna House and refugees, and between refugees here and those coming from Syria. The clear commitment biblically is to welcome refugees, wherever they come from. And why? Not only does God say so, but God stands in the midst of those refugees and identifies with them. God promises to be present when refugees are welcomed. That is a mighty joyous promise to stand on.


We received word today that Abe died two days ago. Abe now joins Sarah and Tyler in what I imagine to be a rather lively heavenly banquet. They all had lived on the streets and regularly attended Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Through church, Kathleen came to know each of them, and she introduced me to them as well.

We drew upon the wisdom of Abe, Sarah, and Tyler when we joined with a few others to begin discussions about opening a place of hospitality. Abe, Sarah, and Tyler were all clear that the need was for a place of sanctuary, a place for coffee, conversation, and showers and a change of clothes. The need was for a place where people would be treated with respect, feel welcome, and be able to enjoy each other’s company. Abe, Sarah, and Tyler in their gracious relationship with us formed a kind of holy trinity to inspire us to open Manna House.

One of my fondest memories of Abe was the help he gave with installing a new water line for Manna House. To have enough water pressure for the showers we needed a bigger water line going into the house. To save money we decided to dig out the old waterline instead of hiring professional plumbers to do so.  How complicated can it be to just dig?

So, I started digging. Manna House was open that morning and a few guests joined in digging as well. The digging was not that hard. But the trick was to not hit the waterline while digging. I managed to barely nick the pipe with my pick ax. A geyser of water sprayed high into the air and the little trench filled quickly. We shut off the water and called the plumber. He was ready to install the new pipe but we still needed to get the old pipe out and get the trench deeper.

Abe and one other guest, Eddie, committed to staying with the job. We dug for the rest of the morning and into the early evening to complete the work. It was exhausting. Abe kept up our spirits with a few jokes and continual good-natured ribbing of me for hitting the waterline.

Abe had an easygoing demeanor. He was quick to smile and to greet everyone. For a number of years he earned a little extra money sweeping the steps and keeping the area around Sacred Heart Church clean. I would see him with his broom and dustpan when I would go by on my way to Manna House. There was a gentleness to Abe, a kind of gentleman’s manner that he carried even when his clothes were a bit tattered and threadbare.

I liked talking with Abe. He was well read and intellectually sharp, with a good dose of cynicism.

But for all the times I talked with him, I did not get to know him very well. He was guarded about his own history, sharing little about his family or his past. Maybe that had something to do with his struggles with alcohol. Abe battled alcoholism. He was in and out of treatment programs. He would have long periods of sobriety and then slide back into his addiction. Those slides were painful to see.

Abe was a veteran and relied upon the V.A. for medical care. Through various agencies he was eventually placed in housing. For the past two years he was off the streets. Since where he lived was not very near to Manna House, we did not see him much.

Yesterday we started to hear the rumor that Abe had died. When an old friend from Sacred Heart who knew Abe well stopped by Manna House toward the end of the morning, we knew even before he told us that Abe had died. May he rest in peace. Thank you Abe for your wisdom and your spirit of welcome.

Hospitality is Dangerous

She was dancing in the living room of Manna House. It was Christmas a few years back. We had music and she took the floor. As she rhythmically moved about, a knife fell from somewhere in her clothing and clattered upon the floor. In a graceful move she bent low, scooped it up and put it back in her clothing and kept dancing.

I would guess that if we had metal detectors at Manna House we would uncover knifes or similar weapons each day among the clothing and belongings of our guests. The streets can be dangerous. Some of our guests carry knifes for protection. Our simple rule is that they not be displayed or pulled out in a threatening manner.

Yet, on some rare occasions, a knife has been pulled, or a brick has been picked up, or a stick brandished about as a fight has broken out. Usually a fight just involves fists or “fighting words.” But the potential is always there for worse.

How do we respond to fights? We break up fights by getting between the assailants. We ask all the parties involved to leave. In a worst case scenario, which has happened just a few times, we have closed Manna House for the day.

Violence at Manna House is very rare; so rare we rarely think about how offering hospitality to strangers can be dangerous. Of course by now, most of our guests are no longer strangers. We know them by name and they know us by name. And they are just as concerned as we are to keep Manna House a sanctuary from the violence of the streets. We work consistently along with our guests to urge politeness, to not use denigrating or dehumanizing words, to treat everyone with respect. All this goes a long way toward keeping Manna House peaceful.

The threat of violence has also come as we have practiced hospitality in the form of the occasional police officer who wanted to throw his weight around. About a year ago, two volunteers were arrested for videoing police officers harassing homeless persons near Manna House. Several years back, I was told by a police officer to “watch my back” when I refused to allow him and his fellow officers access to Manna House. The official violence of the state comes down hard on our guests from time to time.

Given these realities, we would be naïve to think we can offer hospitality with no danger to ourselves. In “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition,” Christine Pohl writes, “In a fallen, disordered world, strangers may be needy, but they occasionally take advantage, bring unanticipated trouble, or intend harm.” And when the Christian people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in France offered hospitality to Jews during World War II they knew they risked their lives in defying the Nazi regime. Disciples of Jesus practicing hospitality should be realistic about sin, about the brokenness in the world, in themselves and in the persons they will serve.

But Christian realism accepts the reality of sin without allowing sin the final word. The final word is not sin but redemption. Redemption means living into the hope that love is stronger than sin, stronger than violence, stronger even than death. Redemption means offering hospitality in a sinful world. Redemption practices the risk of hospitality so that strangers can experience welcoming love consistent with their being children of God. As Paul wrote, “Welcome one another in Christ as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).

Redemption cannot happen without risk and neither can hospitality. Ask Jesus who both urged hospitality when he said “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46) and also realistically told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).