“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.