Advent at Manna House

Advent at Manna House

The light comes in the darkness. Hope sneaks in without warning. Love shows resilience.

A guest shared with me yesterday that she lost her mother and grandmother on the same day many years ago. She was in jail at the time. “They wouldn’t let me out to go to either funeral.” This guest has been on and off the streets for many years. And like most women on the streets she has been through the hell of abuse and rape and being prostituted and struggling with addictions and mental illness and a multitude of physical ailments. Somehow in her the light shines still, in her smile, her cooing over babies when they come to Manna House, her willingness to share the food she often carries with her. I do not know how she has kept and nurtured that light. I just see that she has.

Another long term guest who I had not seen for quite a while returned last week. I hardly recognized him. He walked with a cane. He was hunched over. It seemed like he had suddenly aged some twenty years. Before he had been strong and even occasionally intimidating in his demeanor. Now he was shrunken and melancholic. He shared that he has been in and out of the hospital.
“Heart failure I’m told. The fluid just builds up in me. I’m back on the streets. I can’t live out here this way.”

I gave him some information about a couple of housing programs, including Outreach, Housing, and Community. I wrote him a referral.

Meanwhile, other volunteers got him some comfortable shoes, a very warm coat, some better pants, a hat and some gloves.

“I feel a little better now. Thanks.”

Maybe we shared a little light with him. I hope so.

Sometimes the light comes in the strange humor of Manna House.

A guest had an interesting linguistic slip yesterday when she asked, “Am I too late for hydraulics?” It took me a second, but then I realized she was asking about the socks and hygiene list, now forever renamed in my mind as “socks and hydraulics.”

The clock on the living room wall stopped working. Dead and corroded batteries. I had not realized how important that clock was for our guests until it was removed. During the rest of the morning at least ten guests asked me for the time and also inquired about what happened to the clock. With the help of a few other guests various answers began to be given to the questions about the clock’s demise.

It ran out of time.

Its time was up.

It had no time left.

It was time to get a new clock.

Sometimes the light comes in an unexpected insight into the challenge of our times.

A guest was explaining to a few folks how he had been lied to many times. He was getting quite worked up about how important truth telling is and how confusing lies can be. He finished with a flourish.

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. After all these lies, now which lie is the truth?” That question might be an important source of light for all of us in the days ahead.

It is Advent at Manna House. There is scripture to be read. Prayers to be said. Light to be sought and anticipated in the practices of hospitality and resistance. It is a time to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,”

There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

What is the Meaning of This?

“Call an ambulance for me now! I’m gonna have a seizure.”

He was up in my face screaming his demand, a guest who once was a regular, but had not been to Manna House for well over a year. I will call him “Mike.” From Mike’s appearance, and because he used to be a regular at Manna House, I knew he had a severe head injury in the past that led to seizures. But at this moment, Mike seemed more agitated and aggressive than an immediate threat to have a seizure.

“I can’t wait. She gave me something. I don’t know what it was. Call now!”

Was he on some bad drugs? Would the drugs cause the seizure? We were already gathered in a circle to pray. I got him to stand with us and made our prayer brief. Then I called 911 and explained the situation. I was told the police would have to come since he was being aggressive. “Fine, I said. A Crisis Intervention Team would be best.” CIT officers are trained to work with people struggling with mental illness.

Nearly thirty minutes passed. Public Enemy’s old line, “911 is a joke” came to mind. The guest shouted, cried, jumped in and out the street, just barely missing being hit by a car several times. He raged at Ashley and at me, yelling, frothing and wild-eyed.

“They took my cell phone! They took my wallet!”

I called 911 again. I was told, “They are on the way.” “Today?” I asked as the operator hung up. Nearly ten minutes later a police car finally pulled up. Still no ambulance in sight. The officer was very good, calm, conversational, and patient. Ashley and a friend of Mike’s who had arrived on the scene had managed to calm him down some. He was no longer screaming, just plaintively begging for help. I wondered for a moment if I had overreacted in describing him as “aggressive.”

A second police car pulled up. This officer was also non-threatening in his approach. Mike got even calmer. A few minutes later an ambulance finally arrived. The medic tried to work with Mike. But with every question and request Mike got more and more agitated again. He was back to aggressive. Eventually Mike vehemently refused medical treatment. He would not get into the ambulance. “You all gonna take my stuff!” he shouted.  And with that he walked up the street, screaming sporadically, gesticulating wildly.

The police, satisfied that he had broken no law, got in their cars and left. The ambulance left shortly thereafter.

I am not really sure what to do with this story. Why share it? As the morning unfolded there were several more incidents, mostly minor, but all involving guests with mental illness. Those episodes I call “minor” because they were so ordinary and not quite so loud or threatening. A toilet stuffed with paper towels; an outburst about clothes; a brief verbal blow up between two guests in the shower room. Typical stuff. Meanwhile, the usual business of the morning continued. Kirk doing haircuts. Guests drinking coffee ably served by Ann. Lots of conversation about sports and politics and religion. Men signing up for Thursday’s shower list. Socks being distributed. Questions about services for people on the street being answered. Sorrows being shared. No jobs. No housing. Sickness.

One new element, Trump’s election, stirred fear and resignation, “The bad can’t get much worse, I guess” said one guest. To which another replied, “O yes it can.”

What is the meaning of this morning? What is the story line that holds all of this together? Maybe there is no story line, no narrative that can make sense of a nation that disdains the poor and those who struggle with mental illness. I had started the day praying Psalm 82. It is a call for justice. The psalmist calls out, “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” And the psalmist describes those who are in power, “They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness.” A call for justice. A cry of lament. All the story I can find today.

For All the Saints on the Feast of All Saints

At Manna House I have come to know some saints over the years. In their life times I would guess few of them would have been considered prime candidates for sainthood. Saints are people of faith who were particularly exemplary in their lives, those to whom we turn for inspiration and edification. They are God’s “holy ones” who share with us something of God’s presence and power, something of God’s love and life-giving and liberating Spirit. They incarnate Christ for us in this time and place. None of this should be taken to suggest that they were perfect or without faults and failings (no human is perfect and the desire for perfection is more destructive than helpful). Still, they helped us along the path of faith, they were guides for the journey of discipleship.

Sarah, Abe, and Tyler constitute a holy trinity of founding saints for Manna House. A Native American woman, a white man, and a black man. They each brought to Manna House in its earliest days a spirit of welcome, of humor, and of willingness to forgive. The small group of people who formed Manna House talked with them and we learned from them what people on the streets thought was needed in the neighborhood around Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Just down the street from the church was the St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission, known as “the radio station” because at that time it was in an old radio station building. Just up the street from the church was “Friends for Life” ministering to people with HIV/AIDS, a day labor business, and a shelter. (The day labor place and the shelter are both gone now). To the west was the VA and the Med (now Region One). To the east were many low income apartment buildings (now a massive empty field).

They told us, “We need a place where we won’t be bothered, where we’ll feel welcomed.” “We need a place,” they said, “where we can sit and talk and enjoy a cup of coffee.” They also told us, “We need a place to shower and to get a change of clothes, and maybe a few other things.” So Manna House was born as a sanctuary for people from the streets. It is a place to get coffee (or water) and relax with friends. It is a place for showers, and “socks and hygiene,” and once a week a meal, and once a month a foot clinic. They taught us what was needed.

All three of them had a sense of humor. They easily laughed, at their own foibles, and the silliness that sometimes bubbles up out from the absurdity of homelessness. Sarah, as an amputee, would ask a new volunteer for shoes. Abe would tell stories that had life lessons wrapped around incredible series of unfortunate events. Tyler had a quiet comic sense, ready to smile at some quirk he observed in himself or others.

Sarah would hold court from her wheelchair, sitting in the middle of the house. She knew everybody and everybody knew her. Tyler and Abe were not exactly retiring in their personalities, but both seemed more comfortable from the corners than at the center of a room. Still, they were known quantities in the neighborhood, fixtures in the Claybrook and Cleveland cast of characters. All three could be rascals, mischievous to the point of trouble (ok, even into trouble from time to time). But all three had expansive hearts, ready to share and to help and to support those who came to them in need.

I will never forget Abe jumping in to help me dig a ditch for our new waterline after I had punctured the old line with a misapplied pick axe. He dug with me for hours, on a hot and humid day. I would have never finished without him. Tyler was known for finding treasures in other people’s trash and then sharing them with people in need on the streets. Sarah held people together with her charisma. When she entered a room the placed lighted up.

All three of them are dead now. As I thought of them today, I had to sing,

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;

Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;

Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia, Alleluia!