Manna House, Martin, and Mourning Sheley Thompson

For several weeks I have reflected on and prayed about the confluence of the Martin Luther King holiday (January 15), Sheley Thompson freezing to death on a bench in front of the Memphis City Hall, and Mayor Strickland’s response, “She wasn’t homeless. She had a fit and left her home” (January 17).

I keep a quotation from Dr. King in one of my prayer books at Manna House.

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged.
I choose to identify with the poor.
I choose to give my life for the hungry.
I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity.
I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign.

This is the way I’m going.
If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way.
If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way.
If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because
I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.’”

When I read these words from Reverend Dr. King, I hear echoes of a central scripture passage for those of us who offer hospitality to people in poverty and/or homelessness. Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 states his identification with people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or in jail, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”

Sheley Thompson was one of “the least of these.” So are those who found their way to Manna House during those days of bitter cold and snow. So are those who found their way to Room in the Inn and other shelters during those days. So are those who had unheated apartments or homes because they could not afford their MLGW bill. So are those who went without food or went to soup kitchens because they paid their bill, but then had no money left for food. When 27% of the Memphis population is below the poverty line there are plenty of “least of these” in our city.

I am middle class. I am white. I am male. The only thing I have in common with Sheley Thompson is our humanity.

Sometimes a new volunteer at Manna House will share at the end of the morning, “I was surprised. The guests were just ordinary human beings.” Yes, we have to patiently respond using a line from Brad Watkins, “People on the streets are not from the planet ‘homelessness.’”

Dr. King and Jesus in their different ways remind me of this basic truth. We have a shared humanity. And that shared humanity is the basis for our identification with people different from us in terms of social class, or race, or sexual orientation, or physical or mental health, and for our compassion and work for justice.

Mayor Strickland apparently forgot this basic truth of shared humanity when he said in his response to Sheley Thompson’s death, “She had a fit and left her home.”

Mayor Loeb did the same thing during the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968.

I know the temptation to forget our shared humanity. I feel it just about every day at Manna House. My whiteness, my middle class standing, my having a job as the Academic Dean at a seminary, my straightness, my maleness, can all distance me from our guests.

So, I have to engage in spiritual disciplines to remind myself on a daily basis of this shared humanity. One of those disciplines is listening with respect to our guests.

For this reason, on Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I listened to guests as they talked about Dr. King and the Sanitation Workers Strike and Dr. King’s assassination.

One of them said, “King wasn’t killed until he tried to get into the white man’s wallet. You mess with that and they kill you.”

Another offered, “Those were hard times. I remember the tension, the fear; the sense that something bad could happen at any time. And it did.”

Then a new volunteer, an African American man, joined in the conversation.

“My Dad never stood up for nothing. He was like most folks I knew. They just took what was dealt them and laid low. They were trying to survive. Then when that ‘I am a Man’ sign appeared my Dad went one day to a march. He carried that sign. He stood up. I’ll never forget that. He stood up and so did the whole community. We stood up. We weren’t going back. No way.”

A guest added, “That sign meant dignity. The strike meant dignity.”

Sheley Thompson’s dignity was denied as she died alone in front of the Memphis City Hall two days after the King Holiday. Her dignity was denied again when Mayor Strickland sought to distance himself from her and any responsibility for her death.

Sheley Thompson’s dignity was affirmed when a group gathered in front of the Memphis City Hall last week to remember her, to lift up her name, to call for a recognition of our shared humanity by working harder for places of shelter and housing for people. Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.) organized this gathering. H.O.P.E. is made up of people who have known the sting of the denial of dignity that comes with homelessness. Sheley Thompson’ dignity will also be affirmed when a free woman’s shelter is available in this city.

Poverty, and the deaths that come from poverty, denied her dignity and deny the dignity that Dr. King and the Sanitation Workers fought for in Memphis. Dr. King’s way of dignity, like Jesus’ way of dignity, requires we recognize our shared humanity as the basis for compassion and justice. His way of dignity, like Jesus’ way of dignity calls us to grieve together when a person dies alone, frozen to death on the streets. But more, this way of dignity calls those of us with too much to give up our excessive wealth, and to struggle for the creation of just structures that will inhibit the concentration of wealth and favor the distribution of wealth. That puts me on the hook as much as it does Mayor Strickland for the death of Sheley Thompson.

Prayer at Manna House

Prayer is commonplace at Manna House. I pray when I come early in the morning to start the coffee. I cherish the time alone in the house, listening to the coffee percolate, praying the psalms.

All of us who volunteer to offer hospitality at Manna House pray together before we open. Then we go out onto the porch and volunteers and guests pray together. Before the first cup of coffee is served or the first name for the showers is called, we stand together, hand in hand, and pray. This prayer with the guests is voluntary. Guests initiated this prayer on the porch. They saw volunteers praying and said, “What about us? We want to pray too.” And so it began.

Sometimes prayer also takes place while Manna House is open. A guest will approach me, or another volunteer, and ask for prayers. We might pray for a sick parent, or in thanksgiving for a new job, or to lift spirits, or because a family member or close friend has died.

Prayer also completes the morning at Manna House. After we close and after all the cleaning and preparing for the next day is completed, we reflect together for a few minutes (or longer), and then we pray. We come full circle as we hold hands again and finish the morning with prayer.

All of this shard prayer is short and simple, and most of the time not even particularly pious sounding. We ask God to bless the work of hospitality and give us patience and a sense of humor. On the porch with the guests it is the same. We give thanks for things like a sunny and warmer day after a week of bitter cold, or that the rain has ended, or for the beauty of each person present made in God’s image. And we ask that God be with us, with those who are sick or in prison or are hurting. Our prayer lasts but a few minutes.

We do become a bit more “high church,” however, with our set liturgical end to of this time of prayer. The prayer leader intones, “God bless our coffee.” The congregation responds, “Make it hot!” And this is followed by two more invocations and responses.

“God bless the sugar.” “Make it sweet!”

And, “God bless the creamer.” “May it take all life’s bitterness away.”

Why all this prayer? Why not just open and serve people without cluttering it up with prayer? I am sure people come to prayer for all sorts of different reasons, so I cannot speak for every volunteer or guest. But I know I come to prayer at Manna House because I could not offer hospitality if I did not pray. Without prayer I would forget or neglect or deny what makes my hospitality possible, namely, God’s hospitality to me, to other volunteers, and to our guests.

I came across some wisdom from Thomas Aquinas as I was reflecting on prayer. Aquinas wrote, “We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to God our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2). Prayer is where I set aside time and space to remember and to be renewed by the reality that God is graciously and transformatively hospitable in my life. In prayer I attend to God’s loving work of gracious welcome in my life (and in the lives of others and the creation as a whole). As Aquinas affirms, it is in prayer “that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God and that we may recognize in him the author of our goods” (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2).

Hospitality means making room in my heart for people who I first know as strangers. These strangers come with some need, some vulnerability, and I can only offer healing hospitality if I am also vulnerable. Opening the door to strangers renders me vulnerable, but even more, I have to open my heart, take the risk of compassion, of knowing the suffering and injustice the guests embody as they come. I am strengthened to be open in this way because God is open in this way to me.

Hospitality is risky for our guests too. They have the double vulnerability of need and entering a stranger’s house asking for help. They do not know how they will be received and how they will be treated. No wonder our guests asked us to pray with them; it was a way for our guests to assess our trustworthiness. Would we share our faith, our prayer, and our lives with them? Or would we stand off and offer a kind of distancing charity from above? In our shared prayer, we attend to God who helps us draw near with each other, as God draws near to us and says, “Come in. You are welcome here.”

Heal me!

He’s been coming to Manna House for many years. When he came in on Tuesday I noticed the hospital ID bracelet on his wrist. He told me the doctors thought there was something wrong in his head. Depression. “I don’t trust them,” he said.

He had found his own medication, crack. The words poured out in a frenzied manner as explained that he tried again and again to not use it, but he always went back. He came up to me and said, “Heal me!”

“Heal me!” he insisted.

“I can’t heal you. I’m not Jesus. I’m not a doctor.”

“Heal me.”

He took my arm and raised it up, placing my hand on his head. I envisioned TV preachers, hucksters, fakes.

I remembered my uncle Mose who once reclined in an easy chair as his mother (my grandmother, a woman of deep faith) watched one of those TV preachers. The TV preacher extended his arm, hand on head, and shouted to a man with an ailing back, “Be healed!” The man shouted in response, “I’m healed! I’m healed!”

At that same moment my uncle Mose felt his back tighten up and spasm and he came up out of his chair shouting, “That son-of-a-bitch gave it to me!”

What should I do with this guest demanding that I heal him?

“I cannot heal you. I can pray for you.”

“Then pray. Pray that I be healed and never use crack again.”

So I prayed. “Lord Jesus this man wants to be free from his addiction. Give him the strength to find the help that he needs. Help him to find healing and wholeness. Be in his life. Abide in him. Heal him. Amen.”

The guest smiled and thanked me and became less agitated. He sat down.

I have spent the last few days wondering about prayer, again. And wondering about the power of addiction, again. And wondering again about the insufficiency of places and programs that tell people, “If you’d just give your live to Jesus, you wouldn’t be an addict anymore.”

I know Jesus healed people. I know people who after doctors had told them there was no hope for them were healed, and those people testify that it was God, in prayer, that healed them. But I also know people of deep faith and prayer who have not been healed. They prayed for healing and they were not physically healed. They died.

So I also know healing is more than physical or even psychological well-being. I know healing can be spiritual. I know people who prayed for physical healing who died faithfully accepting their death.

I am left with this guest and his addiction and his mental illness and his suffering on the streets. And I am left with still praying, for him, for healing.

It is still the season of Christmas, a season in which I celebrate with other disciples of Jesus, his coming into the world. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is described as the Light that “shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:5).

Most days I feel like I am in the dark. But maybe this guest asking to be healed is where the Light comes in. Maybe the Light comes in when in hope and in faith and with love he asks for healing.

Deep in me as I prayed, with my hand on his head, standing in the living room of Manna House, surrounded by others,  I felt this possibility, that the Light resides in our shared unquenchable desire for healing, for a loving touch, for salvation.