Healing Waters

I came across an old letter yesterday while sorting through papers on my desk at home. This past August, my good friend Louise Wolf Novak had sent what she called a “healing waters” donation for Manna House. She had included her donation in one of her typically wonderful letters, full of family news and questions, along with various ruminations that emerged from her compassionate and thoughtful faith. At the time, she was in the midst of treatment for cancer. Kathleen and I had visited her and her husband Tom earlier in the summer, and we had introduced Nevaeh to them.

In her letter, Louise shared how a friend of hers had written to her of his trip to Lourdes in France. Like so many others, Louise’s friend had gone in faithful desperation, hoping that by bathing in the healing waters of Lourdes, he might be healed as so many others have before. He wrote Louise that he was healed.

Louise wrote to me, “It almost made me think I should pack up and head to Lourdes!” But she continued in her letter, “Tom said something about it being ‘reserved for those who could afford the trip,’ which I had to agree with. I had to agree that healing can’t be restricted like that. So without elaborating, I’m sending a donation to Manna House for its Healing Waters.”

Louise died a week ago Sunday, on February 12, 2017. She continued in her August letter, “I hope I’m not required to go to Lourdes for healing. Any pilgrimage I make will be small. But it is a good opportunity to acknowledge the blessing of warm water at Manna House… Perhaps I’ll make a pilgrimage to Manna House.”

Re-reading Louise’ letter now, I am left wondering about healing. I know the waters at Manna House heal. More than one guest has come out of the shower room testifying, “I’m alive again!” But I also know how many of our guests have died over the years. Death comes in many ways, seizures, heart attacks, hit by a car, falling off a wall, overdose. And we have two volunteers these days also facing serious battles with cancer.

Louise had a deep faith that did not depend upon miracles or special trips to far away places. Her faith and her healing were not restricted in those ways. Instead, as she showed over and over again in her life, her faith depended upon gracious relationships, loving family and friends and loving strangers. That was the unrestricted “healing water” she faithfully shared in her life. This is the healing water referred to in Psalm 23 (so often prayed at funerals), “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Death seeks to dry up those waters. Death seeks to create a drought of love in our lives. Death tempts us to think it is stronger than the loving healing waters of relationships in which we live and move and experience God’s presence. Louise never gave up on that healing water. Even in the midst of her wrestling with death, she shared her faith in the “healing waters” by sharing to make sure those waters would continue to flow at Manna House.

Tomorrow, as we always do on Monday mornings, we will offer the healing waters of showers at Manna House. And when I hear the water in showers flowing, I will remember Louise for the way she shared “healing waters.” My prayer will be that the healing that comes with love will touch us all, our guests, our volunteers, and especially in this time, Louise, her husband Tom, and their children.


From the beginning of Manna House we have sought to provide sanctuary for those who come for rest, for showers, for clothes, for coffee, for conversation. We welcome our guests, recognizing their sacred dignity. They bring to us the very presence of Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). Some may even be angels in disguise. (Genesis 18, Hebrews 13:1-2).

To offer sanctuary means we provide a place where our guests are welcomed and treated with respect. It also means we do our best to make sure our guests will not be harassed by drug dealers or by the police or by anyone else who might seek to violate the hospitality we offer.

In our early years we had a number of incidents in which we politely but firmly told police that they were not welcome to come in and look around Manna House to see who was there. The police were astounded that we held our ground. We simply stated that unless they had a warrant they could not come in. Apparently they had free reign at other “homeless service providers” and could not understand why we were different. Biblical sanctuary guided us, the stranger is to be welcomed and protected as part of hospitality.

At one point our insistence on sanctuary led a few officers to try intimidating our guests and us. One officer told us to “watch our backs.” Another parked across the street, facing Manna House, keeping us all under surveillance. We offered the officer coffee (which he refused) and then, our patience wearing thin after weeks of this harassment, we organized a call in to the Mayor’s office. The surveillance stopped. Then there was the incident in which two volunteers were arrested for videoing officers harassing a guest down the street from Manna House. Perhaps the embarrassment for these wrongful arrests finally led to the end of the harassment.

In addition to safety from harassment, sanctuary also means that we never ask any of our guests for identification. We welcome whoever comes seeking sanctuary. So, our insistence on being a sanctuary has always meant that we welcome undocumented people. Many of our guests are without documentation. They have no government ID, no driver’s license. Some of these guests are what you might call “internal refugees.” They are the flotsam of our society, discarded, drifting, hoping for welcome, for work, for a place to live. Other guests are “external refugees.” These undocumented guests come from other countries. They arrive in the U.S. seeking safety, hoping for refuge from intolerable economic and/or political situations. Whether internal or external refugees, they are welcome at Manna House.

These days there is a demonic spirit loose in the U.S. This demonic spirit deems undocumented people from other countries expendable, imprisonable and deportable. This demonic spirit separates families, takes sick people out of hospitals and imprisons them, puts children in shackles, and warehouses people in inhumane conditions so private corporations can make money from their misery. It is a spirit generated by fear and and hatred. It is anti-Christ in its rejection of welcoming the stranger.

Manna House, in offering sanctuary, will continue to stand for a different spirit, a Holy Spirit. We will seek to be faithful to the Spirit that spoke in Jesus who said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).



Bread and Redemption

The knock on the front door at Manna House came just before 8am. Was it a late arriving volunteer? A guest who was growing impatient? I opened the door. Two men, one white, one black, stood there in their MLGW uniforms. I could see their truck parked on the street. The black man introduced himself, while his white co-worker stood silently holding four loaves of bread. I asked, “How can I help you?”

“Would you take this food? We’ve got meat and cheese and bread.” He put forth one large tray covered with tinfoil and a small sack carrying chicken salad in store containers.

I was inclined to say “no.” Normally we do not accept food donations. The St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission is just a couple of blocks away and they serve a meal every day starting at 9:30am. No need to duplicate what they do. And unless the donation is enough for the 120 or so people who come each morning to Manna House, it is not practical to distribute without creating tensions. This little amount of bread and fixings would not be nearly enough to serve everyone.

The man standing there with the tray added, “My son died. This is left-over from my son’s funeral repast.”

Suddenly there was something more here at stake than the amount of food being offered.

“I’m very sorry about your son,” I said. “Thank you. We will serve this food in his honor.”

We shook hands and the two men turned and left.

A quick consultation led to the decision to wait until later in the morning to serve this offering. That way we would have time to prepare the sandwiches and also have enough to serve those still in the house. Thankfully, we had a group of nursing students from the University of Memphis with us this morning, so we had plenty of help to do those extra jobs.

Around 10am the sandwiches were distributed, fresh bread, plenty of fixings. For the guests who remained the sandwiches were a delight. Somehow we had enough that even a few of us volunteers enjoyed a sandwich.

Later in the day I returned to the Gospel for today in the lectionary.

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, ‘Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread.”

As was often the case, the disciples were wrong. Jesus reminded them of the time he fed five thousand with just five loaves, and four thousand with seven loaves, and both times there were abundant leftovers. And then he asked them, “Do you still not understand?” (See Mark 8:14-21).

I wondered about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. What leaven could they possibly have in common? What is Jesus warning his disciples about and warning me about if I’m trying to be a disciple?

I had to dig into some commentaries. There were, of course, a variety of interpretations. The one that hit home was their leaven being a refusal to trust in Jesus and his way of life as the bread of life. Those who trust in the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod have their lives rise on a calculation of control and power, which often includes the conviction that there is not enough, that there is scarcity.

Jesus’ way of life rises on a different leaven, on a commitment to compassion and justice. It is the leaven of abundance and generosity.

Jesus’ leaven brought two men to the front door of Manna House with a simple offer of compassionate sharing.

The leaven of the Pharisees and Herod was ready to turn them away. But the bread was marked with suffering and grief, the redemption of Jesus was in there. And the Bread of Life saved me from turning them away.