Love and the Specter of Poverty and Death

The rain had just ended. I even saw a double rainbow as I drove toward Manna House. God’s covenant writ large in the sky, the one Noah told about.

                        “God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth” (Genesis 9:12-13). God’s promise of life, of care, of good for human beings.

As I approached Jefferson and Claybrook, there he was, tall, gaunt, a white sheet wrapped around him, a spectral figure standing under the little overhang of the building across from Manna House.  I couldn’t see his face as the sheet went up over his head. Then for a moment I lost sight of him. Where did he go? I wondered, was this the ghost of Jefferson and Claybrook?

As I got ready to cross the street, he reappeared from behind an electrical pole. Sweet relief: a Manna House guest.

“What you doing wearing that sheet? You scared me half to death! You look like a ghost!”

“Keeps the bugs off me at night” he said matter of factly.

We walked across the street in silence. I opened the gate. Other guests began to appear as if out of thin air. Everyone had been taking cover from the rain, but now they could get up on the porch and be ready if the rain resumed.

The spectral guest turned to me, “When’s it all going to end, Pete?”

“What do you mean?”

“When’s it all going to end? The poverty. The homelessness. I’m about out of hope.”

“I don’t know.”

“You all do what you can and you all are lifesavers. But it doesn’t look good from out here.”

“I know.”

The grief he carries, the grief our guests carry, needs to be acknowledged. But beyond acknowledging it, I won’t make false promises about “It’s going to get better.” I’m not hearing poverty and homelessness as major concerns among politicians, voters, or church goers.

At the end of the morning, Sandy came out from cleaning the shower room. She had the shroud of the spectral man. He had come in and showered and left with clean clothes. The shroud had splotches of dirt and was soaking wet. It was discarded; too dirty to launder.

All morning I had thought about my inadequate response to the spectral man’s question: “When’s it all going to end?”

All morning it was like the air had a hangover, a stale reminder of yesterday’s excessive steamy heat.

Where do I go with the suffering of our guests? Where do I go with the injustices and insults that they bear? When’s it all going to end?

I still cannot answer that question, except to say, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that there is a power that endures, and that power I believe will eventually end poverty and homelessness. It is the power of love, God’s love, God’s rainbow covenant of love, and our love for God and each other and the creation. That’s the power that got me up and got me to Manna House and keeps me going back.

Dorothy Day the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement to which Manna House seeks to be faithful, said, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

For Dorothy Day, that love took on very concrete meaning. It is that love that we try to share in the hospitality at Manna House. Dorothy Day wrote, “What we would like to do is change the world—make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words—we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

Looking for the Dead

The rumor was she was dead. Even a location was given: found lying face down at the end of Beale Street. One guest told me and then several others corroborated the story. She’s dead. A Manna House guest, one we have had serious difficulties with over the years.

So the phone call to the morgue with its fancy “Medical Examiner” name had to be made. If she was dead, it was likely no one would claim the body. If she was dead, we would want to do the funeral.

I called, not sure if they would tell me if she was there. A volunteer suggested I introduce myself on the phone as “Doctor Gathje.” I said I think they might even be more open to sharing information if I go with “Reverend Gathje, pastor at Manna House.” After all I do have an internet ordination for just such occasions. “Reverend” might open a door or get me information withheld to mere mortals.

The person who answered was very polite and helpful. I don’t know if “Reverend” made a bit of difference to her. I do know that I heard the faint clicking of a computer keyboard immediately after I introduced myself and offered the name of the possibly dead guest.

“No one with that name is here.”

“Thank you. That’s good news. Thank you. Have a blessed day.”

Not dead. But where might she be? No one had seen her in her usual haunts the past few weeks. Maybe she’s in jail. I checked the Shelby County Kiosk where you can look up those imprisoned. There she was. Her mug shot with her defiant anger was posted along with a list of charges.

“She didn’t go down easily,” I said. Four counts of aggravated assault.

Kathleen tentatively tried to find a redemptive purpose in all of this. “Maybe this time they’ll keep her long enough to get her stabilized with some meds.” Then she realistically added, “But really I don’t have much hope for that or after.”

I thought of Gary Smith’s book, “Radical Compassion: Finding Christ in the Heart of the Poor.” There he tells a story of a fight that breaks out between two people on the streets. One man pulled a knife on the other. Smith writes, “The potential victim then shouted at the knife wielder, in a voice that echoed off the tall buildings and over the 2 A.M. traffic noises, ‘You can’t kill me motherfucker. I’m already dead.’” Smith continues, “Many consider themselves dead because no one ever told them about the beauty of their lives.”

Earlier I had come across Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” Her poem ends with, “Tell me what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

How can persons so abused, so hurt, so damaged, move from being “already dead” to knowing their beauty and that their life is precious?

Not every story has a happy ending. So I am going to sit with this one for a while. The guest is not dead; but she’s in jail and facing serious prison time. Prison is rarely redemptive.

I know that somewhere beneath her struggle with mental illness and the horrors she has experienced on the streets there is a precious beautiful child of God. Or as a guest told me, “She’s a knucklehead, but she needs love too.” God, may love find her.

“For I as in prison and you visited me.”

Two different letters from two different Manna House guests doing time in prison arrived together in my mail today. And that seemed appropriate.

Both just went before the Parole Board. Both were denied parole. Both remain unfailingly hopeful that when they get out things will be different in their lives. Both are grateful for the support they get from Manna House. Both asked to be remembered at prayer when we open at Manna House each day. Both seemed more concerned about how Manna House is doing than about themselves.

“Could I send those books you sent back to you? I’m through with them and so I thought you could put them on the shelf at Manna House.”

“Please lift me up in the morning prayer at Manna House.”

“So how is Manna House and how is everything there going?”

“I got the money for my shoes. I will go home with something on my feet. Thank you for everything you did for me. I couldn’t have did this time without Manna House and God.”

“Tell everyone at the Manna House that I said hello.”

I am thankful for these letters from the incarcerated Christ. You might recall that Jesus identified with those imprisoned when he said, “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:31-40). Christ is crucified daily in our jails and prisons. How we treat prisoners is how we treat Christ. Imagine if all the people who claim the name “Christian” really put into practice Jesus’ identification with those behind bars! It might stop the sick jokes about rape in prison, or it could end the death penalty, or put out of business all of the privatized prisons making money off of human enslavement. It might at least improve the food, the health care, and the educational opportunities for prisoners.

I am thankful that Manna House hospitality can sometimes extend to our guests who end up behind bars. On occasion we visit. But mostly we try to offer what limited support we can with money, and sending books, and letters. We also support other jail ministries like “Grace Place.” And we work for changes in the criminal justice system that would treat the incarcerated Christ with basic human dignity.

Jail or prison is a fairly common experience for those who are housing deprived. A recent national study on “Jail incarceration, homelessness, and mental health” revealed that those deprived of housing make up 15.3% of the U.S. jail population. Homelessness is 7.5 to 11.3 times more common among jail inmates than in the general population. The study found that homelessness and incarceration appear to increase the risk of each other, and those factors are also influenced by mental illness, substance abuse, and “disadvantageous socio-demographic characteristics.” Seen through faith eyes this study reveals that jails and the streets intersect to form the cross of Christ.

Basic to following Jesus is to live the resurrection. Jesus lived the resurrection; that is why he was crucified. Living the resurrection means to live in resistance to the powers of sin and death, the powers that crucify, that imprison, that make people hungry, thirsty, strangers, without shelter. Christ calls from the streets and from prisons and jails, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God, of course, listened to Jesus and overturned his death sentence, raising him from the dead. Do we?