Stay Woke

Cleaning the front yard at Manna House, picking up a few stray coffee cups, I came across the latest issue of “Awake!”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses distribute “Awake!” I do not know how this issue arrived at Manna House. We have had a Jehovah Witness or two occasionally come by to pass out their tracts. Or maybe a guest brought it. Either way, it was now abandoned on a picnic table in the front yard.

I thumbed through it. I am always curious about things religious. The articles (including one trying to debunk evolution) all pointed to a triumph of Christianity. Funny, I thought, how a magazine called “Awake!” was nearly putting me to sleep. Maybe that was also why it had been discarded. But the title stuck with me, “Awake!”

I thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. who once gave a talk, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He said, ““One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

Jesus said something similar to his disciples, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:33-37)

Black Lives Matter has a saying, “Stay Woke.” The hashtag #StayWoke has been a way to urge people to remain vigilant about social issues, especially those related to police violence and white supremacy. It might be another way to update the old school Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype.”

I thought about the morning at Manna House. An hour or so earlier a few men in bright fluorescent orange vests had come down the street. They were picking up trash. Following them were two men in a white Shelby County truck. The two men picking up trash were prisoners supervised by the men in the truck. A guest said, “The chain gang returns.”

A guest before had told me about his pending appointment with his probation officer.

“I’ll be heading there soon. If I don’t go, I get fined or go back to jail. I had a job for today, but I can’t go to work because I have to see my probation officer. It’s a catch 22.”

A Memphis police car went by at one point in the morning. “The occupation force” a guest said.

A Shelby County Sheriff’s car went by at another time. “They’re out serving warrants” a guest said.

A long time guest, who we had not seen for quite a while, had come into the house about half way through the morning. “I’ve been in jail,” he said. “A year of jail. Now I’m looking for work. Probably won’t find any, but I’m looking. Can I get some gloves and a hat?”

There’s a deadly system at work running through these events of the morning. There’s an education to be had if you pay attention and listen to the guests. Things are not as they might seem. William Stringfellow wrote, “In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word. Amidst Babel, speak the truth. Confront noise and verbiage and falsehood of death with the truth and potency of the Word of God.”

“Awake!” “Stay awake.” “Keep awake.” “Stay woke.” “Don’t believe the hype.”


Our Treasured Guests

“I’m most treasured, not ‘most wanted’” a guest said pointing to his photo on the wall at Manna House. Like any home, Manna House has lots of pictures of our “family members,” our guests, up on the walls. The photos span the years we have been open.

Some of the guests in the photos have died. Semaj. Freddie. Elvis. Harmon. Sarah. Abe. They look into the rooms where they once came for coffee and jokes and conversation. We hope they are enjoying heavenly housing. We enjoyed their presence when they were alive. We still treasure their lives as we share stories about them from their time with us.

Some of the guests pictured are also gone. We just do not know where. Maybe they are housed. Maybe in jail or prison. Maybe they moved to another part of town, but are still housing deprived. Maybe they have gone to another city. Or, they might have died. Wherever they are, they enriched us and moved on. They, too, have stories we remember that bring a smile even as we worry about where they are now.

Some of the guests pictured still come to Manna House. Among them some have homes and others do not. June Averyt’s organization, “Outreach, Housing, and Community” can be thanked for getting a number of the guests at Manna House into housing. Housed or not, Manna House remains a gathering place for people in need of some support and some community, a place where they will be welcomed. People come and share their lives, and in that there is the great wealth of human warmth.

Looking at these photos of our guests the other day, I thought of the story of St. Lawrence. He was a deacon in the church when the Roman Empire still conducted sporadic persecutions. The role of deacon in the early church was distinguished by service of the poor. Deacons were appointed to both the service of the table (corporal works of mercy) and to the service of the word (spiritual works of mercy). Lawrence was a deacon in Rome.

An imperial official in the city, the prefect, imagining the church to be rich, ordered Lawrence to bring to him all of the church’s wealth. Lawrence asked for three days to complete the task. During those three days he quickly gave away all that the church had to the poor.

On the third day he returned to the prefect and brought with him a motley crew of poor people, including those who were blind, lame, and I imagine, mentally ill, addicts, prostitutes. Lawrence pointed to these people struggling in poverty and said to the prefect, “Here are the true treasures of the Church.” Then he added, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”

The photos on the wall at Manna House point to the treasure, the richness that are guests bring to us. As Kathleen says, “They bring us their best.” Like Lawrence’s group, they are a motley crew, marked in a variety of ways by what has been denied them: housing, work, health care, friendship, trust, love, hope, basic human compassion and justice. At the same time they are not defined by that denial; rather they persist in their particular personalities. The photos give some hint of those personalities: smiles and frowns, and various poses from arms crossed to arms thrown around each other in a hug.

Lawrence’s act of defiance led directly to his martyrdom. He was tied on top of an iron griddle over a fire. Spectators hoped he would writhe and wriggle in pain, but Lawrence disappointed them by laying there quietly. Finally he said, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Then shortly before he died he said, “I’m cooked.”

I think it likely that Lawrence had his sense of humor deepened by his love for and service to the poor. When you face the deprivation a society places on people deemed “failures” or “losers” and then find those very people are really the winners, you can only laugh. Laugh at the powers and principalities who so harshly judge and exclude based upon material possessions. Laugh at the politicians who pander to people afraid of the poor. Laugh at the stupidity of social policies designed to hurt and punish them even more. Laugh at those who claim to be “Christian” and despise the poor.

“I’m most treasured, not ‘most wanted’.” Indeed, this guest has it right. He is not a criminal because he is poor. He is rather the very treasure to which Jesus pointed to when he said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Lawrence’s heart, his treasure was with the poor. My hope is that at Manna House our hearts are too.

Trying to Enjoy the Cold

“I’ve been trying to enjoy the cold, but it won’t let me,” said a Manna House guest Monday morning. Nighttime temperatures in the low twenties and daytime highs in the low forties are not the worst temperatures that people deprived of housing will experience this winter. But stay outside for a few hours and see how the cold seeps into your bones.

Monday night I helped Kathleen get people signed in for Room in the Inn. Three churches offered free shelter to thirty six people. That’s three churches in a city of at least a thousand churches. About a half mile away the Union Mission was jammed with hundreds more seeking shelter. Other shelters were also full.

After the Room in the Inn churches picked up the fortunate thirty six, five people walked away into the cold night. Unwilling or unable (for a variety of reasons) to go to any of the other shelters, they faced the night’s cold. Even before this, another twenty or so people had left to try their luck with shelters or stay outside.

Shelter, of course, is not housing. Those of us who are housed might not realize that housing is a matter of life and death. If you live on the streets your death rate is nearly twice as high as those who are housed. And the average age of death for those deprived of housing is around 48 compared with nearly 78 for those who are housed. Without a house not only are people directly exposed to the elements such as the cold of winter and the heat and humidity of summer, they are also exposed to direct, individualized abuse and attack.

I have been reading a challenging book by Craig Willse, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States. He writes, the truth is that “Housing insecurity and housing deprivation make people sick and make people die,” and “this insecurity and deprivation roll out along entrenched lines of gender, sexual, and racial difference” (Craig Willse, p. 24).

The majority of those seeking shelter Monday night were African American men. Sixteen women, also mostly African American were also there. Among the African American men was an elderly man, recently released from a mental health facility. He was incoherent, and all of his possessions were in two medium-sized Christmas gift bags. Our society systemically deprives those who struggle with mental illness of housing and then blames the individual, “He’s homeless because he’s mentally ill.”

Willse further observes, “The systemic nature of housing insecurity is masked by the objectifying work of the term ‘the homeless.’ When we speak of ‘the homeless,’ we mobilize a pathological category that directs attention to an individual, as if living without housing is a personal experience rather than a social phenomenon. Instead, we might talk in terms of ‘housing deprivation.’ This phrase expresses that living without housing is systemically produced and must be understood as the active taking away of shelter, as the social making of house-less lives” (Willse, p. 2).

I have been meditating on that statement for several days now. I have been putting it into dialogue with Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah warns that if we do not share our bread with the hungry, house those without homes, clothe those who are naked, and recognize our shared humanity with those oppressed, we will be rejected by God, our humanity will shrivel and die, and our society will fall apart (Isaiah 58).

And, of course Isaiah brings the opposite prophetic promise as well. “If you remove the yoke from among you, the giving of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday sun. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places… Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:10-12).

As a society we have the resources for everyone to be decently housed. Our military budget is larger than the next eight nations COMBINED. Rev. Earle Fisher shares that “yesterday Powerball sold $323,000 worth of tickets PER MINUTE. They made $29.7 BILLION YESTERDAY ALONE.” We have the resources. Isaiah is clear. In a good society, no one is left out in the cold.

Epiphany and Hospitality

When I was a child part of our family Christian celebration included us kids putting on a Christmas “play.” My only sister, Donna, was typecast as Mary. The youngest, Mike, was Jesus. Two of my younger brothers, John and Jim, along with myself were variously Joseph or shepherds or magi. My oldest brother, Steve, provided the music (he played the guitar). I do not remember who came up with the idea to put on such a play, but was a regular occurrence for a few years.

Like so much of Christmas, our play conflated the two different stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, making them into a seamless unified story. First the angels sang, then the shepherds came, and later that same night the magi entered the scene. Through it all Jesus lay in a manger surrounded by Joseph and Mary along with a few barnyard animals. The magi, of course, left their camels outside.

But such conflation does not do justice to either Luke or Matthew’s distinctive stories. Since it is Epiphany, Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth takes center stage. He is the one who has the story of the magi and the star and he does not have Luke’s shepherds and angels singing (angels have other business in Matthew, like warning about impending doom).

My focus is on what this story in Matthew might reveal about the practice of hospitality. First we get a picture of duplicitous hospitality in the figure of King Herod. Herod, like the rest of the Jerusalem elite, fear the story of a new king being born as such a king is a threat to their cozy relationship with the Roman occupiers of Jewish lands. Herod feigns interest in order to try and find out where this new king is located, so that he may later kill him. His evil plan shrouded in the cover of hospitality is thwarted by the dreamy intuitions of the magi (Matthew 2:12).

Second, we can note that Matthew does not have Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem. They apparently already live there, in a house (Matthew 2:1, 11). So when the magi come to pay homage to Jesus it is Mary and Joseph who offer them hospitality, even as the magi offer their gifts.

Third, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph soon need hospitality themselves as Joseph is warned in a dream of the threat to Jesus’ life. They flee to Egypt as political refugees. Herod meanwhile in finding his lie to the magi unmasked flies into a rage. He orders the murder of all male infants under the age of two.

What might this story mean for the practice of hospitality today? Three lessons I see. First, not all that appears to be hospitality is actually hospitable. Some forms of welcome are not centered on the wellbeing of the guests but rather on preserving the power of the persons offering the welcome. Herod offers hospitality to the magi in order to use them, not to help them. Their journey and quest are not respected. Instead Herod seeks to impose his own agenda, by stealth if necessary.

Second, true hospitality is a mutual exchange of gifts. Jesus, Mary and Joseph offer welcome to the magi, and the magi offer their gifts as well. The magi experienced the joy of being in the presence of the one they sought, and the holy family, no doubt, enjoyed the gifts the magi brought. Just as Abraham and Sarah offered hospitality and received the good news of their having a child, so do Jesus, Mary and Joseph offer hospitality and receive the gifts of the magi.

Third, we all are going to need hospitality along the way. We all will have times in our lives in which we have need, when our vulnerabilities will be of such intensity that we necessarily seek help from others. Not long after Jesus, Mary, and Joseph offered hospitality to the magi, they are forced to flee to Egypt, where they had to rely on the hospitality of others. I just learned this week about a Coptic Church in the old city of Cairo, Egypt which by tradition was devoted to the holy family. The story is that it was in this neighborhood that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph came to find refuge. Fr. Eric Hollas writes, “It was in that neighborhood, most likely Jewish, where somebody reached out and offered hospitality to an impoverished and frightened couple and their child.” (See Fr. Eric Hollas, O.S.B., A Monk’s Chronicle: 4 January MMXVI — Epiphany: a Way of Life, There are many times in the Gospels where Jesus’ humanity comes front and center, and this story of his seeking refuge and need hospitality along with Mary and Joseph is certainly one of them. Perhaps Jesus’ own emphasis upon offering hospitality was formed in some way by his experience of being welcomed in Egypt as a child.

Epiphany is a rich feast, with many meanings upon which to reflect. On this Epiphany I am going to reflect on these three.



The Joy of Hospitality

Biblically, joy comes with the presence of God. Nehemiah wrote, “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh 8:10) while in the Psalms we read, for “all who take refuge in you [God] rejoice; let them ever sing for joy” (Psalm 5:11). God, says the Psalms “put more joy in my heart” (Psalm 4:7) and in God’s “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). When God is present, there is joy.

When we opened Manna House this morning, we prayed with our guests on the front porch. We always hold hands for this opening prayer. This morning the hands of the guests that I held were icy cold. I made the prayer short so people with cold hands could get inside quickly and wrap their hands around a hot cup of coffee. About 500 cups of coffee were served through the course of the morning. “Manna House coffee sure hits the spot!” “This coffee is strong. Thank God.”

Kathleen worked with a guest and her husband to get them housing. He had been spending most nights outside while she had stayed at various shelters. Thanks to generous donors, Manna House has the resources to cover a few months’ rent. They moved into their new apartment this afternoon. It is one mile from where she works and on a bus line. Now she will be able to keep her job and take care of her husband. He is hoping to find steady work too.

A guest came out of the shower room to let us know that someone had crapped in one of the showers. I went in to see what needed to be done to clean up. The shower stall with the crap was still occupied. I was surprised. The elderly and frail man in the shower said, “I’m so sorry. I just go. I can’t help it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, “it’s only crap. I’m glad you came to shower.” Given my sense of smell, the clean-up was not that bad. The man left showered and with clean clothes, smelling fresh.

Carolyn and Bergen staffed the clothing room, offering “socks and hygiene” and getting guests set up for showers. Hats, gloves, scarves were also given freely.

Byron shared the story during our time of reflection at the end of the morning at Manna House. Two guests, one a white male, the other a black woman. Both struggle with mental illness. The man usually has an angry scowl on his face and his hair is disheveled. The woman smells of urine. The zipper on the woman’s coat was not working. The man offered to help. He worked diligently and patiently for about ten minutes. He got the zipper fixed. The woman was able to close her coat against the cold.

Read a few stories in the Bible about hospitality and a common theme emerges: joy. Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality to three passing strangers (angels disguised as men). Before long Sarah is laughing at the joke these strangers were telling that she and Abraham will have a child when they return a year hence. Turns out, it is better than a joke. Sarah and Abraham have a child in their old age and experience the joyously surprising way God keeps God’s promises. (See Genesis 18).

A widow and her son are near death from starvation. The widow welcomes Elijah the prophet to share her last meal. Only it is not her last meal. There ends up being enough for her and her son for years to come. And later, when her son takes deathly ill, the prophet heals the son. (See 1 Kings 17). Elisha the prophet is welcomed and he shares the blessings of God’s abundance with a widow who was in poverty. He is welcomed and he heals the only child of the couple that welcomed him. (See 1 Kings 4). In the New Testament, Jesus affirms that in offering hospitality we will welcome him (Matthew 25:31-46), and that those who offer hospitality will enjoy a banquet with God (Luke 14:12-14). Then there is the story of those who welcomed the risen Jesus and shared a meal with him. They find their hearts strangely warmed (and they were not even Methodist) (Luke 24:13-32). In Hebrews we read that in offering hospitality the joy of welcoming angels will be experienced.

The angels came this morning with cold hands, with struggles for housing, with struggles for health, mental and physical. They witnessed to the injustice of the world. They also brought with them the very presence of God. And when one of the angels asked for the “Word of the Day” we found this passage that speaks of God’s just priorities and a joyous day which is to come:

We give you praise, O God of life; both now and evermore we bless your name.

From east to west, and north to south, from sunrise to sunset may your name be praised.

You, O God are the eternal light. Your glory reaches higher than the heavens.

Who is like you, magnificent in holiness? And yet you live so close within.

You raise the poor from their lowliness; you lift the oppressed from the depths.

You give dignity to their lives, a place of honor with all the faithful.

You renew and strengthen all that lives; you make empty hearts content. (Psalm 113)