An Uptick in Sticks

“What you got there?” I asked a guest walking into the back yard at Manna House.

“My walking stick.”

“With nails sticking out from it?”

“I walk in some rough places.”

“You can’t bring that in here.”

“Why not?”

“Sticks break bones. This is a place of peace and sanctuary.”

“Oh, ok.”

That was one of the sticks I noticed as it was being carried in. I saw another in a guest’s backpack. Similar conversation followed. I saw another stick placed behind a guest’s chair, not so carefully hidden. I asked him to take it out of the yard.

Over the years various guests have sought to bring their “walking sticks” into Manna House. The number seems to go up as the temperature rises. It is pretty hard to hide a stick when we are indoors during the winter. But as we move to the back yard with warmer temperatures, guests tend to want to bring their sticks with them.

We are not having it.

So when I was asked for the “word of the day” this morning I shared from Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” A discussion ensued.

“This is a hard saying,” I said as I shared the verse.

“Why do you think so?” a guest challenged me.

“It is a hard world and it’s hard to do good when others are doing evil to you.”

“That’s the truth,” said another guest, “These streets are dangerous.”

“Why do you think people carry sticks?” I asked.

“A good way to overcome some evil,” a guest said as he turned the passage on its head.

“You know, ‘speak softly and carry a big stick,’” another guest contributed a bit of American tradition. Thanks President Teddy Roosevelt.

“I’m going to try and take this word to heart,” one more guest chimed in, “I’m not doing so well with my anger.”

Yesterday I read Dr. David Gushee’s tribute to Rev. Dr. James Cone. Gushee remembered from a class he took from Dr. Cone at Union seminary. There was a discussion about violence. Cone, Gushee wrote, “essentially said the following: ‘In situations of oppression, violence is a daily reality. It is often invisible to the oppressor but certainly not to those who are being trampled upon. In such situations a response must be made. Whether or not that response is or should be violent is a matter for discussion. But let no one suggest that it is the oppressed who is introducing violence into that situation.’”

It is helpful for me to remember that the violence of the streets is not primarily evident in whether or not some guests carry sticks. Certainly that is troublesome, and sticks are incompatible with Manna House remaining a place of hospitality.

But the very reason we try to create a space of hospitality at Manna House is because the violence of the streets is first of all coming from the deadly damage homelessness does to human dignity and human health. We need to offer hospitality because the structural violence of homelessness does deadly harm to people. The structural violence of homelessness prevents our guests from meeting their basic human needs for housing, healthcare, healthy food, and all of those things that all of us need for human dignity.

So for now, I am sure we will continue to see some sticks show up in the hands of guests at Manna House. And, I am sure, we will continue to ask guests to leave their sticks outside the gate. But even more, we will continue to work for a world in which good overcomes evil, including structural evil, a world without an uptick in sticks.

“Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me” (Psalm 27:10).

She is somebody’s child. Walking in the rain. Clothes soaked and dirty. She is somebody’s child.

He crosses Union Ave; shouts at the sky with arm raised and fist clenched. He is somebody’s child.

Leg’s crossed, she smokes at the bus stop. Her head is down low, almost touching her knees. The weight of a life gone south. She is someone’s child lost long ago.

He moves crablike as he sits in a wheelchair while his legs churn as he moves across Poplar. Still wearing his hospital gown; still somebody’s child.

She sleeps in the doorway of an abandoned store. A flattened cardboard box is her bed. Her head is covered with an old blanket. Somebody’s child.

A woman passes on the street. The stream of profanities she loudly shouts clears her path. People look on amused or amazed or terrified. Somebody’s child.

I heard at Manna House two weeks ago that she died alone in an abandoned apartment building. I wondered if she ever said, like my child said last week “I want to paint a rainbow Daddy.”

My phone rang yesterday. A mother and daughter are coming to look for their son on the streets of Memphis.

“He just up and left three years ago. He went from acting strange sometimes to being strange all the time. We followed leads and we think he’s here.”

He is somebody’s child.

People of faith commonly assert that “We are all children of God.” Some of us might have even sung as children,

“Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world…”

And some of us might even have come across Shane Bertou’s version of this song that does not use racial categories and racist language like “Yellow” and “Red.”

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Every color, shape and size, they are precious in his eyes.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

When I sing this song as an adult I know that it is not just about “the little children of the world” but all of us. Jesus loves all of us. And Jesus himself taught, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
Yet here we are. Somebody’s child, God’s child—God’s children, are abandoned on the streets. This got me thinking about something else Jesus said, something about his identification with children, including those abandoned on the street. It is a call from Jesus. And it is not an easy one. It is a call that demands hospitality to be sure, but also the struggle for justice, for housing as a human right, so that all God’s children have a home.

“’If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me’” (Mark 9:30-37).

Praise God, all you angels (Psalm 148:9)

The Feast of the Apparition of St. Michael was Tuesday, May 8. I came across this obscure feast as I prayed in preparation for opening Manna House.  In my morning prayer book, I read about St. Michael the Archangel, “St. Michael’s weapons were truth, humility, and love, and with these he vanquished the devil.” Sitting in the Manna House kitchen listening to the coffee percolate, I got to thinking about angels and spiritual warfare in relation to offering hospitality.

We have a special relationship with angels as Manna House. They come to us every morning we are open. We stand on the biblical promise, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). We know Abraham and Sarah entertained angels disguised as strangers (Genesis 18). We even know Jesus comes among us in our guests as he promised, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (See Matthew 25:31-46).

There are lots of stories about angels in the Bible. Angels are usually messengers from God.  They say interesting things, like telling Mary she’s pregnant with Jesus even though she has not had sex with Joseph.

But in the Book of Revelation angels are not so much fun. They appear as warriors. Michael the archangel is portrayed as a warrior against the devil (Revelation 12:7 and you can also check out Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:13-19). Angels are the soldiers in spiritual warfare.

Hospitality and spiritual warfare—how are the two connected? Manna House has been open thirteen years. There is a deep joy in this work as the angelic guests share their lives with us. These angels evangelize us as we hear their amazing stories of resilience, of continuing to hope and to cope in the midst of poverty, illness, loss of family members and friends. They are truly messengers from God.

But the angels also bring messages that reveal evil deep within our society. The power of sin is death, and death is a way of life in our nation. As Dr. James Cone pointed out in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” the purpose of both the cross and the lynching tree “was to strike terror in the subject community.” Evil uses terror to threaten or impose death. Death is the major weapon evil uses in spiritual warfare. Evil is not reducible to individual human decisions and actions; it is systemic, seductive, slippery, and sophisticated. And to resist that evil, to struggle against it, requires that we be spiritually grounded and socially engaged.

The power of evil uses homelessness to kill other human beings and to strike terror in our hearts. Homelessness is a death sentence. Over 100 guests have died since we opened thirteen years ago. Two more have died just in the past month, Demarco Woods and Carolyn Bates.  Homelessness enforces our tenuous place in this ultra-competitive and individualistic society. Our souls quake, because we know homelessness is the tip of the iceberg called “poverty.” And none of us, except perhaps the very wealthy, are immune from the possibility of poverty.

This is how spiritual warfare wages around us. The powers that be try to discipline us by our fear of falling into poverty and homelessness. We are encouraged to hate the bodies of our brothers and sisters on the streets (in Memphis, mostly black bodies) because they represent our deepest anxieties and fears about living in a society in which we are all expendable. Much of that hatred is an attempt to cast them further from us. The seductive promise is made, “You can be safe if ‘the homeless’ are regarded as a different kind of being to whom we owe nothing but our disdain. They, like immigrants, are “animals.”

Hospitality enters this spiritual warfare as hospitality rejects this terror and the fears it tries to put into our lives. Hospitality rejects the crucifixion of the poor. Hospitality affirms our shared humanity.       In “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” James Cone does not just name the power of evil to kill. He also names the power of God to bring new life, to create and sustain human flourishing. Cone wrote, “God took the evil of the cross and lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine.” That transformation requires repentance and resistance grounded in faith in resurrection. As Angela Davis said, “We know that the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.” And St. Paul wrote, “I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6).

This is the resistance as we wield the spiritual weapon of hospitality against the power of evil. We come to listen to the stories. We come to stand in solidarity. We come to welcome people by name. We come to offer a cup of coffee, a shower, and a change of clothes. We come to entertain angels, and to learn from the warrior angels how God’s resurrection power takes on the power of death. And in this spiritual warfare in which we fight with the weapon of hospitality we remember that, “St. Michael’s weapons were truth, humility, and love, and with these he vanquished the devil.”