How Can We Sing the Song of the Lord on Alien Soil?

Sometimes I feel deeply estranged from the world as it is. I feel like I am living in an alien place, that I do not belong here. Sometimes I feel like we are all strangers in a strange land. On such a day, the power of death hangs heavy in the midst of hospitality.

Thaddeus Lawrence was killed last Saturday. Manna House guests shared the news with Kathleen and I at church on Sunday.

Thaddeus was a tall, slender, African American man with a loping stride that covered a lot of ground. He had been coming to Manna House for a number of years now. He wrestled with mental illness, but more he wrestled with the harshness of homelessness.

On his good days, his face would light up with a mischievous smile. On his bad days, he appeared with a very stern face, and he would say angry words, usually not to us, but to the world in general.

But whether smiling or struggling, each day that Thaddeus came to Manna House to get on the list for showers, or socks and hygiene, he would present his ID.  We do not require ID for any services at Manna House, but he would always show his ID, point to his picture, and say his name, “Thaddeus Lawrence.”

When we opened for the day, Thaddeus would come and get his coffee. Typically he would then stand off by himself. But some days he would get very close up in my face to share some secret insight. I never could understand what he was saying. I never could follow his train of thought.

Thaddeus was killed by a hit and run driver near the intersection of Claybrook and Jefferson, one block from Manna House. He had been attacked and thrown into the street, and that was when he was hit.

Guests were very shaken by his death. Some saw what had happened. Others in hearing the news reflected on the violence they know so well.

In the midst of our grief a guest asked me for the “Word of the Day.” I was moved to share Psalm 137. Originally this psalm was about the Israelites in exile.  But in Christian usage “heaven” stands in for “Zion,” and “the City of God” for “Jerusalem.” I like to think of the vision of the Beloved Community as replacing Zion and Jerusalem. In the Beloved Community, we will all come together, all will be welcome, and we will all flourish together in the presence of God. So, I paraphrased a bit as I shared the psalm,

By the rivers of Memphis there we sat and wept,

remembering the Beloved Community;

on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps.

For it was there that they asked us, our captors, for songs, our oppressors, for joy.

“Sing to us,” they said, “one of your freedom songs.”

O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?

If I forget you, City of God, let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not,

if I prize not the Beloved Community as the first of my joys!

The words of the psalm hung in the humid morning air. For a while no one said a word. Then a guest responded,

“Slaves won’t sing for their masters.”

“They aren’t going to entertain those who are killing them,” said another.

“Someone might steal one of those songs, like Elvis took the black man’s music,” said yet another.

“That’s a sad Bible reading” said one more guest, “it’s bleak, but so right.”

“That’s how I feel this morning, knowing about Thaddeus’s death,” I said.

“No one deserves to go that way. Run down like a dog in the street,” a guest added.

Later that morning, after I had left Manna House to go to work, I got a phone call from a minister at a midtown church. An apparently homeless man had been found dead on their property. Could I come and see if I knew who he was? I went. I saw him lying dead. I did not know him. None of us gathered recognized him. As I walked back to my car I started to cry. Thaddeus and this unknown man, both dead. I called Kathleen and returned to Manna House. I had to grieve with her.

I thought of another phrase “vale of tears” that comes from a translation of Psalm 84:6, which describes those strengthened by God’s blessing in the midst of sorrow. Even in the valley of tears they find life-giving water. I feel the tears, but I am also feeling pretty thirsty for that life-giving water. Come Lord Jesus, come!

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