Penitentiary Quiet

“It is penitentiary quiet.”

A guest had noticed that though guests filled the back yard at Manna House, little conversation was going on.

“In prison that’s what we called it when it got so quiet, usually before some trouble happened.”

“I’m hoping for no trouble this morning. I think it is quiet because people are tired,” I responded.

“I’m tired of these streets,” another guest sitting nearby said with a sigh.

“I’m tired of being poor,” said another guest who was listening in.

“You know I’ve never been homeless,” the first guest continued to talk as he sat in his wheelchair. “At Manna House I have a place to be, to belong. You might think not much is going on with people who come here; that nothing is changing. But I’ve seen changes in people coming here. I listen and I hear. Changes are happening.”

We were in the chapel area of the backyard. A simple wooden statue of St. Francis stood nearby. And a large crucifix is attached to the corrugated metal wall; a silver-toned Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross. I wondered for a moment if Francis and Jesus were listening in.

Then trouble started. I heard sharp words between two guests. I walked out of the chapel area as the words escalated into shoving.

I moved toward the two combatants and told them, “Not here. Not this morning. Stop or you both go.”

“We were just playing.”

“Play somewhere else. Not here.”

They sat down together at a picnic table and began to play checkers. No more threatening words. No more shoving. Maybe they were just playing as they shoved. But on occasion I have seen such “play” quickly move into a real fight.

The violence of the streets is hard to leave behind sometimes. Just like in a prison, on the streets there are so many threats and a struggle for scarce resources.  Just like in prison, standing in lines and being treated like a number rather than a person with a name, gets old fast. Just like in prison, the stronger ones on the streets try to impose their will on the weaker. And just like in prison, some places that “serve” people on the streets take in the bullies and put them in charge of keeping order.

I shared a Bible verse with the guests who asked for the Word of the Day, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:15). I had come across this verse in the days following the mass murder in Las Vegas. I had kept pondering what it might mean and thought Manna House guests might have some insight. They did.

“God must not be listening to many prayers in this country these days.”

“I hear that. God wants love in us, not tearing each other down.”

“I’ve been bloodied on the streets. I’ve been bled dry.”

“I hope God can still hear my prayers. I have blood on my hands.”

As we talked, another of the bloodied guests walked by. I had seen her earlier when she first arrived at Manna House. She had come through the gate into the backyard with a blackened eye and bruises on her face. She told me she had been beaten by the man she’s been living with. Every woman from the streets that I have known at Manna House has suffered from assaults by men. For women, homelessness often begins with fleeing from abuse. Patriarchy is yet another form of violence running through our society.

I do not know if God heard our prayers this morning when we opened at Manna House. None of us can claim righteousness. We are all implicated in various degrees in this blood soaked culture.

We prayed,

“Bless each person in this circle.

Blesse those standing outside the circle.

Bless those still on their way.

Bless those who have come with heavy burdens.

Bless those who are weighed down with suffering.

Bless those who have come seeking refuge.

Help us to welcome one another here as you God welcome us.”

And to close our prayer we immediately followed with our familiar call and response prayer:

“Bless our coffee, make it hot.

Bless our sugar, make it sweet.

Bless our creamer, may it take all life’s bitterness away.”

At the end of the prayer, for a few moments, it was penitentiary quiet.

God hear our prayer.