When Your Life Doesn’t Matter

The conversation was around the sentencing of the man who killed Semaj.  In May of 2014, a security guard shoved Semaj off of a MATA bus. As he fell from the bus he hit the sidewalk face first and fractured his skull. He never regained consciousness and died a few months later. Testimony indicated the security guard escalated the situation by forcibly confronting Semaj who was drunk and being disorderly.

One summer during graduate school, I worked as a security guard. Our “training” lasted a whole six hours; most of which was about how a security officer is not a cop, how to write reports and check in and follow the rules of wherever we might be placed.

None of the training addressed how to deal with conflict or with unruly people or drunks. I would guess the same was true of the guard who confronted Semaj.

We were told we could go on and get weapons training, and with that training we would be paid more. Only two wanted to do so. The rest of us did not want to carry a gun. The two exceptions were also the two who were “wanna be” cops.  Most of us were simply looking for steady work that would pay above minimum wage. Several told me they figured this would be quiet work, just going around a warehouse or factory after hours making sure everything was fine.

After that day of training I was assigned to various places to work as a security guard. My first assignment was to a PGA Golf Tournament. I “guarded” a hospitality tent one day. The next day I “guarded” the TV tower where the play by play guys sat. People generally ignored me, though a few drunks made fun of me and the other security guards as “rent-a-cops.” I know movies like to do the same, mock security guards as incompetent or over-zealous. My fellow guards were neither. Just ordinary folks trying to make a living.

My next assignment lasted the rest of the summer. I became a guard at a state psychiatric unit. The supervisor who assigned me said, “You’re a college boy, so maybe you can talk with the patients.” I was not sure exactly how to take that observation.

Our role at the psychiatric unit was to be “the muscle” who would be called in when a patient became unruly. My only special training for this work was advice from a co-worker, “Watch yourself. These people are crazy. Be safe. That’s what matters.” One night I came to work and learned that one of the guards had his arm broken by a patient a few days earlier on the day shift. I learned that the security firm did not pay for his medical bills.

“He’ll probably lose this job too,” another guard said to me, “He can’t work with a broken arm. They don’t care about us. We don’t matter.”

Semaj had been a regular guest at Manna House for many years. He found work and a place to live and we did not see him much anymore in the year before his death. Still, many of the guests knew him and were outraged that the security guard did not receive a stricter sentence.

“You kill a man and walk away free. That doesn’t happen very often.”

“Semaj was difficult, but he didn’t deserve to die the way he did.”

“I don’t know how someone gets nothing when a man is dead.”

“DA probably didn’t even want to prosecute.”

Then on the way to the gate as we were closing for the morning, one last comment from a departing guest brought together for me Semaj and the security guard.

“If someone kills me ain’t nothing going to happen. Nobody looks out for us. Our lives don’t matter.”

Biblical justice, I teach my Christian Ethics students, respects our dignity as made in God’s image. The lives of those harmed and the lives of those who did the harm are supposed to matter. When we are called to account for our wrongdoing we are led into repentance and reconciliation and the just renewal of community. In this case, Semaj’s life clearly did not matter. And the guard was not called to a just accountability. For Semaj and this security guard there was no biblical justice. And so, as biblical justice also makes clear, there is no peace.

Resilience and Resistance: What Keeps You Going?

For part of Thursday morning at Manna House, I went around and asked guests, “What keeps you going?”

“I just go one day to the next. I’m stubborn that way.”

“Jesus.” (This was said by at least six guests).

“My buddies. They’ve got my back.”

“Lord, I don’t know. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

“This here Maxwell House coffee.”

“The good Lord.” (This was said by eight or more guests).

“Trying to survive.”

“Books I read.”

“The music I’m listening to. The songs I hear.”

“Prayers I say.”

“Coffee and my two feet.”

“The Word of the Day.”

“I’m too angry to give in.”

“H.O.P.E.” (Which stands for Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, a local group of homeless and formerly homeless who advocate for justice for people on the streets).

“This place, Manna House.”

My question came from my own appreciation for the resilience of our guests. They keep going and as Kathleen says, “They bring us their best” in the face of ongoing suffering. The horrors of homelessness might be summed up by a guest who said Monday morning, “I don’t know why they don’t just line us up and shoot us. At least then it would be a quick death instead of this slow death on the streets.”

And he is well aware that homelessness is not the result of mere individual failure.

“Somebody’s making money off of homelessness or there wouldn’t be homelessness.”

Or as an academic puts it, “Housing deprivation is produced to make literal room for the speculative urban consumer economies of neoliberalism…. This is an economy that extracts value from the abandonment of entire populations of people.” (See Craig Willse, “The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States).

So my question. What keeps you going when you know in your soul and in your body that society is organized around making you and keeping you expendable?

The answers the guests gave point to places and powers where they can find resistance to this imposed systemic expendability. Personal traits like stubbornness, anger, and “my own two feet” that refuse to give in to the judgment. Buddies who together refuse to give in to the judgment. Faith that holds to a God who turns judgment away from those on the streets and toward those who put and keep people on the streets. Visions of another world through books and music and the Bible. Places of community where dignity is affirmed, sanctuary is given, the welcome of coffee is available, and justice is sought.

There’s a wisdom in the Manna House guests that feeds their resilience and resistance. The guests at Manna House do not passively accept the suffering imposed upon them. They reject the humiliation and harassment and horrors of homelessness. They find ways to keep going; ways that affirm their worth, their dignity, their humanity. It is, to be sure, a constant struggle. It is not easy to hold onto hope and humanity in the face of powers that want you to despair and be dehumanized.

And so I think of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day saw the struggles of the poor caused by so much injustice and said, “God meant things to be much easier than we have made them.” And Peter Maurin gave the goal consistent with that God, “We want to build a society where it is easier for people to be good.”

A Diffuse Rainbow

Sometimes God’s signs take a while to discern. As I had come to Manna House this morning I saw to the south a diffuse rainbow; the colors smeared across the sky instead of with clearly defined lines.

One of the early arriving guests waiting for me to open the gate said, “It isn’t much of a rainbow, is it? But today isn’t much of a day.”

Another was more hopeful, “This is the day the Lord has made” he said.

Could both be true? No doubt, the rainbow was not as clear as the sign given to Noah. There the rainbow clearly meant the flood was over, not just then but for all time. “The waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15). Yet this morning there was a diffuse rainbow. And how could I forget Louisiana, among other catastrophic floods? Not all flesh but pretty bad nonetheless. Did this morning’s rainbow, though diffuse, have enough color and clarity to remind me that God is hanging around?

Toward the end of the morning a volunteer came to me, “A guest wants to see you. His Momma died. He wants you to pray with him.”

I went to the backyard. A man sat at one of the picnic tables. He head was down and his shoulders heaved as he wept. I recognized him from Monday’s showers. He had on the shoes we had given him. In the last year or so he has become a regular guest, living on the streets. Another volunteer was already with him, hand on his shoulder. Still another came and she put her hand on his other shoulder. I approached him and did the same and we prayed.

“God in grief you seem so absent. May our friend here feel your loving embrace. You are our Mother, ever mindful of us, ever gentle, ever loving, come and give comfort. Stand with him in his sorrow. Welcome his Momma into your presence.”

After a while we talked. The funeral will be in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has no family left now that his Momma is gone. He only has the isolation of the streets. He has no money. If he could get to Minnesota he could stay with a friend of his Momma’s; the one who called him and told him the news. Not being able to go to the funeral only compounded his grief.

“Manna House will get you there” I said, “We can get you a bus ticket.” Just that morning a regular donor had come and had been even more generous than usual.

“Come back Monday when you know the arrangements and we will work it out to get you a bus ticket.”

Another guest came over to offer condolences. He talked about losing his mother. More, he offered this guest bent over in sorrow a place to stay until he would go to the funeral. “Come with me. I got a place now and you can live there for a while. I don’t want you to be alone with this.” They left together. It was time for Manna House to close. The skies had grown dark again and a light rain began to fall.

Grief in losing one’s Momma and being poor and homeless and thousands of miles away from her in her illness and now her death, and the graciousness of prayer, of another guest’s offer for a place to stay, a diffuse rainbow.


We held hands. Eighty or so people. Black and white. Male and female. Straight and LBGTQ. Housed and homeless. We held hands in the circle of prayer that begins each morning at Manna House.

“God be with the family and friends of the two African American men killed in the last 48 hours by the police.”

Heads were bowed. Several gave their “Amen.”

“Can I get a witness?” I asked, “How many of you have been stopped or harassed by the police? Raise your hand.”

Every guest raised their hands. So did several volunteers.

“God keep our guests safe on the streets.” And then our usual blessing for coffee and the sugar proceeded and the blessing for the creamer took on additional poignant meaning, “God bless the creamer. May it take all life’s bitterness away.”
After the prayer a few guests came up to me, one by one, all African American.

“You know it happens all the time.”

“I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been stopped.”

“They just ride you and ride you.”

“I try to stay low; out of sight.”

“Doesn’t matter what you do, they on you.”

I thought of a friend of mine, a black mother, the wife of a minister. She told the story of how yesterday she and her son (he’s not yet even a teenager) were riding their bikes in their neighborhood. The police stopped them. Questioned them. As she said, “I hate being stereotyped by cops in my own neighborhood.” And today she said, “Trying to find the words to explain to my son.”

Where’s the Gospel in this? Where’s the good news that can be shared? Where’s Jesus?

In “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” Kelly Brown Douglass writes, “What we know for sure is that God was not a part of the crucifying mob. Thus on the night when Trayvon [and Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille and the hundred plus other African Americans killed by the cops this year] was slain, God was where life was crying out to be free from the crucifying death of stand-your-ground-culture.”

And this brings me back to Manna House.

Twenty five men, mostly African American, all without housing, showered at Manna House this morning. They all got fresh clean clothes. Many got shoes to replace the ones worn out from walking the streets, looking for work, looking for food, looking for a place to stay.

Another fifty-one or so got “socks and hygiene” a few items to be able to wash up elsewhere plus a fresh t-shirt.

All of these people and more enjoyed the backyard of Manna House where the shade provided some relief from the heat, coffee was served, haircuts were given, and conversation or sleep came easy.

This place is a sanctuary.

And this also means the police are not allowed to freely come onto the property. Our guests know this and are thankful. We have turned police away on a dozen or more occasions.

As a sanctuary, what we seek to do is rather simple: be a place for resurrection instead of crucifixion, be a place for life instead of death, be a place of welcome rather than rejection. And we’ll keep doing this as we also join with others to change the systems that make such place of sanctuary necessary.

Bearing With Grief

The morning was heavy with heat, humidity, and the grief of this past week.

“It’s worse in the summer than in the winter,” a guest said. Memphis in early August is oppressive. The clothing of the men who came to shower was so soiled that most of it had to be thrown away. No amount of washing would take away the stains and stench from the sweat and grime of life on the streets.

“I’m not doing well,” a guest said with sadness. “These days are hard.”

A few of us talked in the backyard. We were trying to figure out where a guest might be who had been in the hospital.

“He’s not in jail,” I said, “I checked.”

“They must have moved him to a long term care home.”

“What was wrong with him?”

“Something about his heart. And he had a lot of shortness of breath.”

Then we moved on to a guest who had seizures and fell a few days ago cracking open his head.

“He just keeled over. He dropped off some steps he was sitting on. One minute he was talking and the next he was just lying there.”

“He’s at the Med. He’s not doing well. Kathleen and I went up to see him.”

The mood was somber. The news of these two guests weighed heavily.

Two volunteers shared in the grief of a young man lost to suicide. They had known him through years of relationship with his family and through church and school. His funeral had been on Monday.

I also learned earlier in the week that Motella, a woman who had been on the streets for many years and then was taken in by June Averyt, had died a few weeks back. Her death had come suddenly after a brief illness. Maybe Motella needed to join June in her heavenly home, since June had died at the end of April.

Another volunteer had her own grief to bear. Her son’s funeral was Tuesday. Still she was here on this Thursday morning, serving in her sorrow.

And in her serving, perhaps there was an opening, a way to bear the grief of this week, by receiving the gifts that come in the midst of this fragile community of hospitality.

Fullview Baptist Church showed up with their first Thursday of the month sack lunches. Every guest got a lunch.

Joseph showed up with two bags of the most delicious egg rolls in the city of Memphis as he does most every Thursday. Guests and volunteers alike enjoyed this treat.

Students from the Southern College of Optometry came every day this week and served with steady enthusiasm.

Toward the end of the morning a guest came in who has been difficult at times. He can be a bit prickly. He handed me a box. “Here. This is for Manna House and for that baby you and Kathleen are caring for.”

Inside the box was a small stuffed bear and some magazines.
“The bear is for the baby. The magazines are for anyone who wants them. I want to help like you help me.”

As I left Manna House a little while later and locked the front gate I saw a man walking with two orthopedic boots on his feet. He had a cane and was also carrying a box.

I asked him where he was going.

“South Memphis.”

“That’s a long way to walk. Can you catch a bus?”

“Will you take me to a bus stop?”

“Sure. Get in my car.”

He directed me to a bus stop about a half mile away. Just as he was going to get out of the car he said, “You remember me?”

“You look familiar.”

He told me his name.

“I remember you now.”

“I’m not homeless anymore, well not really, since I’m staying with a friend. But I’m off the streets. You know that Manna House is a life saver.”

The heat and the humidity and the grief still hung in the air. But something else was present too. The gifts hospitality brings, from guests, from students and churches, from those regular volunteers who come so faithfully. The grief was not gone. But it was bearable.