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.”