“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.