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.