Mysteries in the Mail

The return address on the white envelope was simply “God bless.” Inside the envelope was a money order made out to “Mama’s House.” The word “tithe” was handwritten on the “memo line” in the left corner. For about the last six months, once a month, this mysterious money order has arrived in the mail. The amounts have varied each time. I have to imagine that the “tithe” is 10% of the income of the person who sends this money order. Whoever has been sending these donations has been remarkably faithful.  My guess is that it is a former guest. For many years now, at least some guests have given Manna House the unofficial name of “Mama’s House.” Most monetary donations arrive via mail, and most of the time we know who they came from (and we send out an acknowledgment of the gift). This one remains a mystery. So, if one of you reading this is responsible for sending this gift, “Thank you!”


I got a call from the receptionist at Memphis Theological Seminary where I work. A package had arrived addressed to someone who was neither student nor professor at the seminary. The receptionist thought the package contained shoes. She wondered if perhaps the shoes were for a guest at Manna House since we have recently asked for shoe donations, and so she called me. She told me the name of the person on the package. I did not recognize the name. I consulted with Kathleen. She did not recognize the name either. I went down to see the package. It was a large white envelope. I could feel shoes within but also clothing. I knew immediately where the package had come from: jail.

In the past we have received such packages at Manna House. Someone gets arrested, and their clothing and other personal belongings are taken from them. There is an option apparently to have the belongings sent to an address where they can retrieve them when they get out. Sometimes we recognize the name on the package and sometimes we do not. In this case, the name did not ring a bell. Also, in this case, the person must not have remembered or known the Manna House address but knew that I worked at the seminary. So he had his belongings sent there in his name. Now we will wait for him to arrive at Manna House. Nobody at Manna House this morning recognized his name.


Mail arrives at Manna House addressed to guests. Most of the time we recognize the names but not always. We discourage guests from using the Manna House address as our mail service has never been very reliable. And, too, there have been issues with a few guests who used the address and then accused us of stealing their mail. Mostly our request to not use the Manna House address is respected. Still, the mail comes. The number of advertisements and get “rich quick schemes” addressed to guests shows how many companies seek to prey upon the poor. And then there is the guest, who thankfully does not get his mail at Manna House, but who often asks me about some mail that he has received. Inevitably it is some too good to be true offer. Often included is an attempt to get him to share with the sender some personal information. I try to discourage him from responding. He is disappointed each time.


I got another letter from a Manna House guest who is in jail. He has been in now well over a year. He writes regularly, asking about Manna House and about how I am doing. He has grieved over the news of guests who have died. He has celebrated the good news I can share about someone getting off of the streets. He asks for prayers and for money on his “book” so he can get needed items from the commissary. He is looking forward to getting out and getting his life back. I owe him a letter now.


By the way, our mailing address for Manna House is 248 N. Willett, Memphis, TN 38112.  Manna House itself is located at 1268 Jefferson.



If Today You Hear God’s Voice

John was the only guest outside waiting at the gate when I arrived to start the coffee. I said, “Good morning.” No response. I asked him, “How’s it going?” No response. Just a blank stare as he passed me while I opened the gate. John is very mentally ill. I guess Manna House offers him some place of refuge. I will never know. He has never spoken anything to me that I could understand.

For the past month, Charles has been asking me to help him return his broken cell phone for another one. For four weeks I have called the “free” cell phone company, been put on hold for twenty minutes, then found out that some additional information was needed to complete the transaction; information that Charles did not have with him. So today I assigned a Memphis Theological Seminary student interning at Manna House to help Charles. Charles finally had all of the information needed. Later the student told me he absolutely despises making those kind of phone calls, trying to get through the automated customer service options, and being put on hold before finally speaking with a real person. But he also said, “I was able to help him by doing something I hate.”

I was taking the list. A new guest gave me his name. He wanted “socks and soap” today and a shower for Thursday, the next time men will shower. I asked him how he was doing. “Not well” he answered. “You can’t know how hard this is out here.” And I knew he was right.

A guest told me he needs to have surgery on his neck. Without the surgery he risks paralysis if he falls and hits the ground a certain way. With the surgery he faces a long and painful recovery and the risk of paralysis the surgery itself carries. “I’m taking my decision to prayer, he said, “I don’t know what to do. I’m hoping God does and tells me.”


A guest with big feet needed shoes. We did not have his size. He has been asking for three weeks. A call for donations of larger sized men’s shoes was put out on Facebook. About an hour later a man came into Manna House and said, “I have a donation of shoes to make. All size 11 and larger.” Our shoe closet shelves are now adequately stocked with those big sizes. His donation means that when the guest with big feet comes Thursday, he will get shoes.

I was sitting around talking with some guests. I asked, “How many of you have been to jail or prison?” They all raised their hands. Then the stories started. I sensed a pride among them that they had not let prison break them. None of them said it was easy.

“I’ve mostly done short time, in county jails.”

“I can tell you about Sing Sing. Did you know the phrase ‘being sent up the river’ comes from prisoners being sent up the Hudson River to Sing Sing?” I had not known that.

“I was in that prison where they made that movie, ‘Shawsank Redemption.’ Ohio State Reformatory. I doubt anyone was ever reformed there.”

Guests and hosts gathered at the side of Manna House, holding hands, standing together for a few moments of prayer to start the morning. Except one guest was on the phone. He seemed to be in no hurry to end his conversation. So, I began to sing a version of the old standard, “Jesus on the Mainline.”

“Jesus on the cell phone, tell him what you want!

Jesus on the cell phone, tell him what you want!

Jesus on the cell phone, tell him what you want!

Just call him up and tell him what you want!”

Several guests joined in, smirking, knowing where the song was directed. The guest on the phone, perhaps startled by this unusual way to begin the prayer, looked up. He realized we were singing about him and ended his phone call. Prayer commenced.

There was a commotion in the backyard.  A guest was harassing other guests. He had been told to stop by several volunteers. He continued. I asked him to leave. His response was less than polite or helpful. He continued to argue through several more requests that he leave. Finally, I said to everyone in the backyard, “Since this gentleman will not leave, we are closing early.” It was nearly the end of the day. Still guests were not happy and let the man causing the disturbance know it. He begrudgingly left the yard.

At the end of each morning we gather for reflection and ask, “How did I experience God this morning?” I have asked that question this week with a line from Psalm 95 echoing in my heart, “If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart.”

I am not sure if or what God is speaking through these stories from Manna House. Maybe God is speaking in my heart when my heart does not harden in the face of constant hurt and need and injustice. Maybe God speaks in my heart when my humanity and compassion are deepened.