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