Easter is Not Easy

“Hey Jim, I’ll get my two cups of coffee.” Where he came up with “Jim,” I do not know. He took to calling me “Jim” from his first day at Manna House. I have chalked it up to his mental illness. He is very agitated and often loud. He never makes sense for more than a minute or two (and that is on a good day).

About three weeks ago he became verbally abusive and physically threatened another volunteer at the More on the Monday meal at Manna House. He was asked to be away for a while. He seemed to understand why. Last Thursday we allowed him to come back on a kind of probation. He is welcome for two cups of coffee and then he has to leave. So he checked with me when he arrived.

Another guest has imposed a kind of probation on herself. She always arrives right after we close. As we sit down for our time of reflection together as volunteers, her face appears at the front door window. Then she knocks.

“I just need a pair of socks” is her request as I open the door. When she is given the socks she will inevitably make another ask, sometimes for shoes, sometimes for a shirt, sometimes for a hat, sometimes for some hygiene items. She will not come when we are open because she cannot be in a crowd of people. She does not do well with others around.

It is Holy Week, a time when disciples of Jesus remember his betrayal, trial, torture, and execution, and also, thankfully, his resurrection on Easter Sunday. A few of us talked at Manna House today. Why it is that churches offer big meals for people on the streets for Thanksgiving and around Christmas, but not at Easter?

“Easter doesn’t seem like as big of a celebration.”

“Even the sales and business promotions seem half-hearted.”

“Maybe it is hard to celebrate somebody being tortured and put to death.”

“There’s not one big day; it is a whole week. I think our attention span is too short.”

“There’s not a cute baby or people dressed up like Pilgrims and Indians having a meal. There is a guy on a cross.”

Explaining God’s love in becoming a baby is a lot easier and more appealing than explaining God’s love in becoming a guy on a cross. I know there are many different ways of understanding the cross. Theologians have made a living writing books on the cross and “atonement.” The complicated discussions sometimes can be helpful.

But what I find fundamental in the cross is that in Jesus, God joins with those whose suffering and death are planned and carried out by the powers that be. The sin of the world crucifies Jesus and the same sin crucifies the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized.

So today I saw the cross in the guest who calls me “Jim” and the guest who comes for socks when we are closed. There are others at Manna House like them who also bear the cross. They are the guests who linger in the house on slow days because they have no other place to go. They are the guests who are “strange.” They are on the margins of the marginalized.

The cross was a method of torture and execution. Our society’s approach to these guests who are “strange” follows that method. Their pain, their illness, is left unaddressed, and so they slowly die on the streets.

I find myself in a difficult relation with the cross. When the Passion is read on Good Friday, it is often in “dialogue” form. Those of us in the congregation become the crowd that yells, “Crucify him!” I do not like being in that role. But insofar as I am part of a society that relegates people with mental illness to the streets, the role is accurate. Insofar as I am a sinner, the role is accurate.

At Manna House I try to claim a slightly different role: that of Simon of Cyrene. Remember him? He was the man forced into helping Jesus carry his cross. He lightened Jesus’ load a little bit but the execution went forward. I hope Jesus appreciated the effort, as small as it was.

But then again, my complicity in the cross is not the last word. God’s love takes me further. God in the resurrection overturns that execution, overturns the powers that be, overturns my death-dealing sin, and crosses out my complicity to call me to a new life.

It is Holy Week. It is a time for me to be honest about sin, to be repentant, and to recognize that resurrection requires resistance to sin in myself and in the powers that be. To get to Easter requires joining in the cross of Christ, dying to the sin that brings the cross and rising in renewal to the long haul struggle for justice, for God’s way of life.

Justice for the man who calls me “Jim” and for the woman whose face appears late at the Manna House door, requires not only coffee and socks along the way of the cross, but also something more. Justice requires living the resurrection, living a revolution of the heart (as Dorothy Day said) where the different politics and different economics Jesus lived and taught and died for can take hold. Easter sure is not easy, but it sure is life-giving.

Shortly after we opened a guest came up to me with a big smile on his face.

“I’ve got a way for Trump to get his wall built and for the Mexican government to pay for it.”

“Really? How so?”

“It needs to be four walls.”

“Why four walls?”

“It will be a wall around him.”

It was St. Patrick’s Day. A few guests wore green. One guest was completely in green. A guest asked me, “Do you know any Irish songs?” So I sang “Molly Malone.” I learned this song back in college. I had taken a voice class (long story) and my grade depended upon me performing this song in one of the college concert halls in front of students and music professors. The trauma inscribed the song in my memory forever. By the end of the song several other guests had joined in with the chorus. “Danny Boy” was then requested. We did not do so well on that one.

A guest told me he had been sick the past few weeks.

“With what?”

“I thought it was walking pneumonia. So I went to the doctor. He told me its cancer.”

“What kind?”

“I find out next week. Lymph nodes maybe, lungs maybe. I’m hurting.”

“Prayers. Prayers, and keep us informed.”

“I will.”

I sat down with a guest at the table in the house. Someone had left some religious pamphlets there with a Bible reading for each day. We started in reading about Jesus telling Peter to go fish again. Peter objected that they had fished all night and had not caught a thing. Jesus said go fish. Then they caught so many fish the boats almost sank from the weight. “Holy mackerel” said Peter! This was our newly revised abridged version (Luke 5:1-11).

The guest then asked, “What’s that passage about living water?”

“I think that’s in John’s Gospel.” I looked around and found a story about water. A lame man waited to get into the pool at Bethsaida. The version we had at hand read, “There lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water. Whosoever then first at the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had” (John 5:3-4).

We had to start singing,

“Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s gonna trouble the water.”

Meanwhile people were coming out of the showers. A freshly showered guest, I think in a red sweatshirt, exclaimed, “I feel like a new man!”

“Who’s that yonder dressed in red?
Wade in the water
Must be the children that Moses led
And God’s gonna trouble the water.”

“But where’s that living water passage?” the guest insisted as the song subsided.

“I think it’s in the Samaritan woman at the well story.” I had to turn back one chapter from the healing of the lame man. “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give shall be a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).

“That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the water I wanted to hear about. That’s the water we need.”

“Couldn’t agree more. We’re pretty parched these days.”

A Rainy Day

Guests washed up today like driftwood. Wet. Soaking wet. Ebbing and flowing in and out of the house. Some came expecting a hot shower and a change of clothes. The hot water heater decided this was the day it would not work. No one complained. We all still had some hope that our plumber could come quickly and fix the problem.

But our hope was disappointed. The plumber did come, but the problem could not be fixed immediately. So plan B. We decided that the men on the shower list would be called in to get clean dry clothes. They would have a chance to wash up and change clothes in the shower room. One guest braved the cold water. He had to. His dirty and pungent clothes went directly into the trash.

The final guest of the morning was so long in the shower room that I went in to see why. I saw why. He was struggling to get his clothes on over feet twisted and gnarled and partially amputated by years of bad shoes and disease. I had never seen this man before. More than half of those who came in for what we called a “dry shower” none of us had ever seen before. Driftwood, pushed up onto shore from the constant stream of misery our society is so adept at creating.

At reflection, a volunteer offered that she heard many of the guests today sharing their sorrows, with her and with other guests. The wet faces may have been from the rain or from tears. Hard to tell. Death. Separation. Job loss. Injuries from accidents at work. Lost housing. Jail time. Struggles with addiction. Family ties broken. The rain, the unending rain. No place dry and warm to stay.

A fight with violent words and physical threats started with an accusation. “You took my phone!” A heated denial followed. The fight was between a male and female guest. They stood just outside the front yard of Manna House. Around and around they went. They moved into the middle of the street and across the street. Yelling, cursing, and raising fists. A guest watching from the porch turned to me at one point and said about the woman’s plaintive cries, “That’s years and years of frustration right there. Layers and layers of hurt.” Another guest called the police. They arrived long after the angry couple had gone up the street, still shouting at each other.

Some days Manna House feeds the souls of guests and volunteers alike. Some days Manna House brings a dark night of the soul. Where is God in all this suffering? Where is God in a society where people are sentenced to the slow death of poverty and the streets? I read an essay yesterday written by a theologian who battled depression for many years. He gave a theological definition of depression: “When your need for God is as great as your feeling of God’s absence” (Stephen H. Webb, “God of the Depressed,” First Things, 2-19-2016). I have seen that kind of agony in our guests and standing near them I feel something like it as well.

I am strangely thankful in this time for the cross, for a faith that puts at its center a Savior who is honest enough to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is not a day to rush to Easter Sunday. This is a day to sit with Lent and Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It is a day to sit with those who are crucified by the sin of the world, by the powers that be, and by their own weaknesses and failings. It is a day to sit with the truth Gary Smith shared in “Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor,” when he wrote, “If I am called to anything … as a Christian, I am called to stride into—not run from—the untidiness and fear and brokenness and shame that is around me, that country of humaneness in which we all live.”

This is the Fast I Choose

Someone was sleeping under a pink blanket in the entryway of the building across the street from Manna House. The light above the entryway might make this a less dangerous place to sleep. A sleeper is perhaps less likely to be attacked in the light. I walked by the sleeper as I made my way to Manna House. She did not stir.

Shortly after I started the coffee for the morning, I noticed the sleeper was now on the front porch, waiting for Manna House to open. She still had her pink blanket, and it was still wrapped around her against the morning chill. This morning was not cold, in the mid-fifties. But spend a night on the streets in fifty degree weather and try to sleep on a thin piece of cardboard with one blanket. The chill will not leave until much later in the day, or maybe a bit earlier with three or four cups of hot coffee.

The sleeper is a new guest at Manna House. She signed up for a shower yesterday and will get one later this morning. It is women’s shower day.

She’s one of a number of new guests showing up at Manna House over the past few weeks. Our economy is constantly creating more people deprived of housing, more people to sleep on the streets or in shelters.

When regular volunteers from the past return for a visit to Manna House they often observe, “I know so few of the guests anymore.” And then the questions begin, “Where is so and so?” What happened to her?” “Do you know where he is?”

Most of the answers are hard. “Dead.” “Prison.” “Hit by a car and still in the hospital.” “We don’t know.” On occasion I can thankfully say, “Housed.”

The questions come from the continual new stream of people on the streets. The answers come from how deadly the streets remain and how few get into housing.

Who is responsible for this deadly reality? Who is responsible for homelessness? Some will blame those who end up homeless. “They make bad choices.” But that response begins to fall apart with a single question, “Do you know any people who made bad choices who are not homeless?” Homelessness does not happen to everyone who makes bad choices. There is something bigger than bad choices causing homelessness. And it falls further apart with a few follow up questions. “Do you know any people who made a choice to get mentally ill?” “Do you know any people who made a choice to get a crippling illness or injury?” “Do you know any people who made a choice to be born into poverty?”

The hard truth is that homelessness (and its parent, poverty) are systemic, built right into our economic and political system. If anyone makes choices that cause homelessness it is those of us who are not homeless. We choose to keep supporting a system that profits from poverty and homelessness.

How does the system keep wages low and working conditions bad? The system threatens unemployment if you try to organize for better wages and working conditions. “Keep that up and you’ll be fired. You’ll be poor and homeless.” The system keeps up the competition between workers through the fear of poverty and homelessness. The system promises to “Make American Great Again” or “Make American Whole Again” and does not promise to fundamentally alter the imbalance of power between workers and the corporations and businesses that control their labor. The system dismisses changing the imbalance of power as “socialism” or “unrealistic” and threatens economic ruin (more poverty) if that imbalance is balanced. The system uses the threat of poverty and homelessness as sticks to keep people in line. The system offers the carrot of the promise that if you conform to the system you can stay out of poverty and homelessness. The system profits from poverty and homelessness and so keeps both going.

The woman asleep under the pink blanket this morning is the inevitable result of a system that puts profits before people and greed before graciousness. It is a system that in Memphis can find $15 million for maintenance for the FedEx Forum, but not a dime for a mere shelter, much less housing. It is a system in every state that finds money for more police and prisons but not housing for persons. It is a system in which nationally housing and health care are not human rights, but unfettered pursuit of wealth is constitutionally and culturally guaranteed.

I read some Isaiah the other day (chapter 58). He had words for people in an equally corrupt system, words that get read at the start of the Christian season of Lent (which we are still in). “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” Any other fasting, Isaiah urges, is just pious crap.

At the same time, Isaiah held out a vision for the kind of society possible when we choose the true fast from injustice and for justice, when we choose an economics and politics for the well-being of every person instead of a select few, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing 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 be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” And on such restored streets, there will no longer be a woman sleeping under a pink blanket in the morning cold. It is our choice.

“Heaven in Ordinary”

“Someone’s gonna die out here,” he said with an intensity that forced me to listen. “We’re treated like animals, really worse. If you treated a dog this way, you’d be arrested.”

I had just come up to Manna House to open the gate before going inside to start the coffee. There was one guest and he had a few things to tell me.

“This ain’t living. It’s dying slow. You might as well ask me to dig my own grave. I’ve got nothing but my self-respect, and they keep trying to take that away from me.”

I’ve known this guest for at least six years. He’s usually quiet, but some mornings he gets quite agitated. This was one of those mornings. Maybe it was the impending storm. Maybe he’d just had enough. I could only listen. Everything he said was true. He ended with a question.

“Will there be coffee today?”

I remembered that he had not been at Manna House since last Tuesday when our power had gone out and we could not open. So, no hot coffee. No hot showers. No warm house in which people could thaw from the night’s chill.

“We should have power,” I said as I unlocked the front door. “We did Thursday, and yesterday.” But as soon as I stepped into the front room I tried the switch to make sure. The lights came on. I turned back to the guest on the porch and said, “We’ll definitely have hot coffee.”

“At least something good is going to happen today” he replied with a slight smile.

The rain started shortly thereafter. Guests waited on the porch until we opened at eight o’clock. The crowd was a little smaller than usual. People with places to stay, mostly stayed put. So the gathering, almost without exception, was of the most desperate. “Where do you go when you have nowhere to go?” This morning “Manna House” was the answer to that question. Those who had arrived tended to stay. Most expressed the hope that the rain might let up enough at some point for them to get to another safe harbor. There was the hum of conversation and occasional laughter.

Late in the morning a guest asked me for the “Word for the Day.” I shared from Psalm 29,

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.”

“I could use a bit less of those mighty waters,” the guest said.

His response made me think of how the psalms (and mornings at Manna House) often alternate between lament and praise, between confessional complaint and confident thanksgiving. Sometimes it seems like there is a battle going on between despair and hope. “Someone’s gonna die out here.” “At least something good is going to happen today.”

During my morning prayer, in addition to Psalm 29, I read about George Herbert in Robert Ellsberg’s, “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.” Herbert was an obscure Anglican priest in a rural parish. But after his death, the poems he had written became widely shared. He wrote one about prayer. He described how in prayer we come into the presence of,

“A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well drest.”

“Heaven in ordinary.” God’s presence in the guests. Hot coffee and a place out of the rain. Manna House this morning.