“What is your gift?”

A guest asked for the Word for the Day when he rode up to Manna House on his bike. Well, first he asked for the air pump for his tires, then he asked for the Word for the Day.

I got our Manna House air pump for him and I came back out on the front porch. I got out my Bible and read a passage I had come across in Morning Prayer, “Each one of you has received a special grace, so, like good stewards responsible for all these different graces of God, put yourselves at the service of others” (1 Peter 4:10).

The new arrival thanked me for the Word and got to work on his tires. The rest of us were sitting around the front porch. The rain that fell off and on all morning kept us out of the backyard. The Word for the Day lingered a bit in the air. I could see a few guests had perked up and listened.

“We all have something from God, something we’re good at,” a guest offered in response to the reading.

“What is your special grace, what is your gift?” I asked another guest sitting next to me.

He hesitated and looked down. Then he answered, “I don’t know that I have any gifts.”

“Surely you do. The Bible says so. God’s grace is with you.”

So he thought a bit more, and softly said, “I’m a good mechanic.”

“Shade tree mechanic?”

“Definitely. I know engines.” He now had a bit of pride on his face.

Like the guest who thought he had no gift, each guest I asked seemed startled by the question.

One guest said, “I’ve never been asked that question before. Give me a minute.”

While he thought, a few others started to share answers.

“I can do dry wall real well.”

“I’m good at prayer.”

“I have the gift of gab.”

“I’m trustworthy.”

“I can take apart just about anything” said another. And sure enough, all morning that guest had worked on taking apart an old computer he had found in the garbage down the street. Periodically he would tell me about the part he had just excavated.  “This here is the hard drive.”

I kept at the question. “What is your gift?”

The guest who had asked for a minute came back to the porch. “I can see the devil when he’s about.”

“Now that’s a fine gift. Where’s the devil today?”


No one argued his point.

Then one guest has his gift identified for him. “He’s got the gift of interruption” a guest said pointing to one of our more verbose guests, and the porch erupted with laughter.

Later, I wondered about the hesitancy of our guests in answering this question, “What is your gift?” I am sure for some of it was simple humility. But the way each guest smiled when they shared their gift and the way they listened carefully as each guest shared their gift, I had a sense that more was going on. Kathleen suggested another possibility as we talked.

“I’d say most of our guests haven’t been told by others what their gifts are or even recognized as even having a gift. They’re mostly told how they are worthless; that they don’t have any gifts.”

I thought about the preaching so prevalent in “missions” for homeless people. There’s a lot of talk about sin and how people are on the streets because they haven’t accepted Jesus. I thought about the derisive descriptions people give for our guests from the streets. Bums. Crackheads. Lazy asses. Scum. Dirtbags. I thought about the way public policies are crafted to address “the homeless” by seeing them as hazards to the well-being of downtown or other areas.

The faith-filled assertion in First Peter is that we each have a gift, a grace from God, and all of these gifts contribute to the beauty of our lives together. This applies to our guests as much as to anyone. I think I’ll keep asking this question at Manna House, and elsewhere, “What is your gift?”

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

Hospitality requires a certain order and discipline. Guests feel more at ease the more we do our work of hospitality in predictable and just ways. There is no need to hustle for favors, to compete telling stories of woe, or to try to ingratiate oneself with those of us who are serving. Our boundaries are clear. We serve coffee from 8am to 11:15a.m., and then we make a “last call for coffee.” Guests can have as much coffee (with as much sugar and creamer) as they want until 11:15, then we are done.

For showers, twenty-five men can sign up on men’s shower days, and fifteen women can sign up on women’s shower day. The numbers reflect our capacity for showers on those mornings with our two shower stalls. Guests can sign up for showers the previous day that we are open, and if slots are still available, on the day showers are offered. Often we have to tell people, “The shower list is full.”

Unlike the showers, it is not the physical limitations of our house that led us to the number of men and women who can sign up for “socks and hygiene.” In fact the number who can sign up, “fifty-one,” is intended to make a point about the boundaries we have as we offer hospitality.

Where does our number fifty-one for socks and hygiene come from? When we first opened Manna House, the number of guests was small. We did not have a grand opening (we are not even sure now when that particular day took place). We opened the door one morning ready to serve coffee and sweet rolls, provide a bathroom for use, and offer some socks, shirts, and hygiene items. Kathleen’s youngest, who at that time was 5, made a sign that said “Free Coffee” and she shared the good news with a loud voice from the front porch to every passerby, “Free coffee for sale!”

Guests could simply stop by the “clothing room” and be served with socks, a fresh shirt, and travel size hygiene items. That “system” lasted a few months. Then the numbers of guests grew so much that a line began to form. A line is fine if it moves quickly in time. But this line was slow, because of the number of people and because hospitality cannot be rushed. How to address the increased numbers in a way that was hospitable? A guest started us on the way to a solution. “Have people sign up” he said, “and then call their names for ‘socks and hygiene.’”

But how many could we serve each day in a way that was hospitable? Fifty seemed about right given how many we had been serving, the amount of time we were open, and our resources. Fifty seemed a reasonable boundary for “socks and hygiene” just like twenty-five men and fifteen women seemed to be reasonable boundaries for showers, and 11:15a.m. seemed to be a reasonable boundary for coffee serving.

But as we were making this decision about this “socks and hygiene” boundary, our morning prayer presented us with this biblical verse, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

How to remind ourselves that the number fifty (like all the rest) was not to be set in stone, not to be an unrelenting judgment, but rather to be grounded in the graciousness of mercy? Kathleen had the idea, “How about we take fifty-one names instead of fifty?” And ever since then this odd number has continued to remind us to “transcend the rules” when our boundaries would hurt rather than help hospitality.

So some days, more than twenty-five men, or more than fifteen women, take showers. And some days, we even serve more than fifty-one people “socks and hygiene.” And on occasion a guest might get a cup of coffee slightly past 11:15a.m. But most days, the days of “ordinary time,” we serve our guests within the boundaries that help us to do ordinary hospitality.

How do we know when to transcend the rules, when to do some “extraordinary” hospitality? There is not a rule for transcending the rules. Rather it comes down to experience and wisdom in hospitality, joined with the humility to accept God’s mercy; a mercy sometimes offered to us in a guest’s request for a pair of socks past fifty-one, or a shower past twenty-five or fifteen, or a cup of coffee past 11:15a.m.