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).

Christmas and Cross in Contention

Christmas Day was Friday. Saturday was the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Today, Monday, was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which remembers Herod’s slaughter of children under the age of two in his attempt to kill the baby Jesus. Jesus and his family fled to Egypt, refugees seeking shelter in a foreign land.

The Church’s liturgical calendar is not very subtle in its point: the powers that be quickly threaten Christmas, the coming of Christ. The domination system acts quickly to suppress movements for liberation. Or as Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross [be prepared for the Roman method of execution] and follow me.” (Mark 8:34).

Christmas and Cross were in contention this morning at Manna House.

Christmas: We opened Manna House an hour early so guests could come right in from the rain as soon as they arrived.

Cross: The domination system produces homelessness spitting expendable people out into the streets. Housing is just another commodity in the free market. Homelessness means having no shelter from a storm. Homelessness means being soaking wet and cold when it rains. And this morning it was raining, hard. Even those who had enjoyed some shelter also arrived drenched. They had been turned out at daybreak, as is usual shelter practice. Their dry night became a wet morning as soon as they stepped outside.

Christmas: Hot coffee was served all morning to anyone who came through the doors seeking shelter from the rain. Dry socks were given out to any who asked. Dry shirts were also available.

Cross: A guest told me as he waited in the coffee line, “I got evicted on Christmas Eve. I’ve been on the streets ever since. Some neighbor complained about me. I still don’t know what I did.”

Another Cross: A guest came in with a split lip and a visible lump on his head. “I got jumped. They took everything I had, which wasn’t much. I told them, ‘Don’t leave me in pieces.’ And I’m still in one piece.”

Christmas and Cross: A guest needed some medical attention. He had cut his finger severely a few days previously. He needed some new bandages and antibacterial ointment. Volunteers in the clothing room patched him up.

Cross: Some of the guests who struggle with mental illness seemed worse today. They were very agitated and edgy. People who had been doing well are descending back into chaotic suffering and the system does not care. Check that, the system will care to arrest a mentally ill person who acts out badly.

Christmas almost Crossed: Guests on the shower list looked forward to getting a hot shower and a dry set of clothes. Then the hot water heater stopped working. No hot water. A few bravely went in to take cold showers and put on the warm dry clothes as quickly as they could. Then, as Kathleen described it, “A Christmas Miracle” happened. The hot water heater started working again. All those on the shower list except the first three got hot showers.

Christmas: We had a lot of cookies to share with guests. Chocolate chip were clearly the favorite with oatmeal raisin a close second.

Cross: We closed at 11:30a.m. as usual.

Christmas: The rain had stopped an hour earlier.

Biblical Fairness

“It’s not fair!” The cry came out as I volunteered at Room in the Inn helping get guests on the list for shelter for the night. A guest was not happy about the method by which the limited number of shelter spaces would be allocated to a large number of people hoping for shelter. There were forty nine people seeking shelter. There were twenty four shelter spaces available. Not everybody seeking shelter through Room in the Inn would get shelter this night. More churches are needed to offer shelter. And also needed is more commitment by people to the justice of housing for everyone, housing as a human right.

But for now, the problem. How to distribute the limited good of shelter in the face of abundant need? This guest who complained had the solution, drawn from the capitalist culture which cast him into the streets. “I was here two hours early and I waited. I earned a spot. Those who came later, who were lazy, should not have an equal chance.” Ah, meritocracy! Goods are distributed according to hard work, effort, competition. Goods are rewards for winning the war of all against all. It is survival of the fittest.

Room in the Inn worships a different God. In the distribution of goods the needs of the most vulnerable have priority. Women and children are the most vulnerable on the streets, so they are put on the list for shelter first. On this night that meant twelve shelter spaces went to women.

How to avoid meritocracy in distributing the twelve remaining spaces? Another biblical response: distribution by lottery. (see Acts of the Apostles 1:26, Luke 1:9, Numbers 26:52-56, 1 Samuel 10:20-24, 1 Chronicles 24:5-19, Nehemiah 11:1 and Proverbs 18:18). Such biblical distribution sometimes serves the purpose of revealing God’s will, but more commonly it an exercise in humility in the face of a difficult decision. Lottery distribution recognizes when there is equal need and when a meritocracy distribution would harm the weak while also increasing the arrogance of the strong.

Maybe this is behind “the great reversal” theme present throughout the Old and New Testaments as well. God frees the Israelite slaves from the Pharaoh and his government. In the New Testament, Mary sings “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).  And Jesus proclaims, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Mt 20:16). In perhaps the greatest reversal, Jesus rises from the dead, overturning the death sentence imposed by both the Roman Empire and the power of sin. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the gracious of God who freely loves us not based upon our merit but upon our being joined to Christ.

But the culture of meritocracy is strong and so are the judgments that come with it. To go with a biblical view of justice challenges meritocracy. The biblical view of justice overturns fairness defined as reward to those who are already dominant.

Another guest came up to me after I had a little discussion with the one who cried foul about the lottery allocation of shelter space. “He doesn’t get it,” this guest said, “we’re all in this together.” Another added, “Sometimes I go; sometimes I don’t. It’s in God’s hands. I just wish more churches would get on board. And besides, no one should be rewarded for getting here two hours early. That’s against the rules.”

Waiting in Emptiness

Through the kitchen window at Manna House, I see a man walking down the street. He pulls behind himself a tattered nylon rolling suitcase. It is crammed with his possessions. He had greeted me when I had arrived to open the gate ten minutes earlier. I was there early to start the coffee.

“Are you open?”

“Not until eight.”

“What time is it now?”

“Six forty-five.”

“I’ll be back.”

As I see him going away from Manna House, I remember a question Ed Loring of the Open Door Community in Atlanta asked many years ago. We spent twenty four hours on the streets with guests from the Open Door acting as our hosts. Ed had asked, “Where do you go when you’ve got nowhere to go?” I wonder, where is this man going? Will he come back?

Sometimes I have to simply sit with the emptiness I feel, and that I hear about and so often see in our guests. And in these days, emptiness seems prevalent. The landscape has turned stark. The daylight is shortened. There is a chill in the air. I look outside from the kitchen window at Manna House and see a lone shriveled leaf clinging to the end of slender tree branch.

When I get to Manna House at this hour to start the coffee, I have about forty five minutes to sit in the kitchen. I take the time to quietly wait, to listen to the coffee percolating, to read, write, and pray. These days of Advent are a particularly good time to sit with emptiness and to let it feed expectation.

I read of the “Saint of the Day” from Robert Ellsberg’s “All Saints.” Today was the feast of Walter Ciszek. He was a Jesuit priest who spent twenty three years in Soviet prisons. He had been swept up by Soviet troops at the end of World War II after entering Russia several years earlier to serve as a priest.

During his long years of imprisonment, which included many years in Siberia, he maintained a daily discipline of prayer. He also served as priest to other prisoners. He came to realize in this time of emptiness, “There was but a single vision, God, who was all in all; there was but one will that directed all things, God’s will. I had only to see it, to discern it in every circumstance in which I found myself, and let myself be ruled by it. God is in all things, sustains all things, directs all things. … I was freed thereby from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.”

I turned to Psalm 130, praying with expectant emptiness, reflecting on Fr. Ciszek, on the man going down the street, on my own life.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord,

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.

I saw at the end of the day the man who had left so early. He had returned. He got coffee and some fresh socks. He learned about Manna House. Then he was off again to somewhere. He may come back Thursday. I will have to wait and see.

Joy and Bitterness

Joy and Bitterness

On a cold morning a cup of hot coffee goes down pretty easy. The line for coffee went through the living room and dining room back to the old fireplace at Manna House. There, Mike sat at a table serving coffee, greeting guests as he handed each a hot cup of coffee. 
Men and women patiently waited their turn. And then they briefly waited again to get creamer and sugar as those before them poured in the amount they wanted in their coffee before stirring with a spoon until they had just the right consistency. 
This morning’s coffee line never let up for the first hour. People were coming back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. Clyde and Lucy made sure there was always enough creamer and sugar on the tables.
Meanwhile Kathleen called people for showers and for “socks and hygiene.” Those serving in the clothing room sought that delicate balance between warm welcome and keeping the momentum needed to serve everyone in a timely manner. It was not long before laundry was piling up from those who had showered and Jenny began her work in the laundry room.
Then the donations started coming in. The first Thursday of the month donation of sack lunches arrived. A wonderful donation of red string backpacks filled with goodies like gloves, socks, deodorant and more followed! Manna House tries to live up to its name and does not hoard the “manna” that comes as a gift from God (and good people). So Edie and Lilly joined with Ashley and others to get all of this “manna” distributed to our guests. Soon the rooms were filled with people enjoying snacks and other gifts. Christmas joy had arrived early. 
But the bitterness of life on the streets always lurks about. A guest began to tell me about his encounter with a police officer outside of the Rite Aid store on Union Avenue. The guest said he was just sitting outside the store not bothering anyone when this cop drove up.
“He yelled at me, ‘Hey nigger, what you doing? You can’t be here.’” 
“He said that?” I asked.
“Yes he did. And I said, ‘You can’t call me that and I ain’t doing nothing. Then he came at me and tried to handcuff me. I kicked at him, but he got me cuffed. A person from the store who was standing there said to the cop, ‘I got your badge and car number. I heard what you said and I see what you’re doing. I’m watching you.’”
“What did the cop say?”
“He said, ‘Watch all you want. I don’t care.’” 
The guest spent the night in the county jail at 201 Poplar. The next morning he went to court.
“I told the judge what happened, what the cop said. The judge threw out the charges. And then he told the cop he was in the wrong.”
“That’s unbelievable,” I said.
“Yup. And you know where I learned I didn’t have to take that from a cop?”
“Where?” I asked.
“Right here at Manna House and from H.O.P.E’s ‘Know Your Rights’ booklet.” 
The joy was back.