“Go to the poor. You will find God.”

The rain has come every morning this week. Mostly gentle, occasionally intense, the rain moved us from the backyard to the front porch and inside the house. Elbows ran a bit closer together, and chairs were a bit harder to find.  Some might call it “cozy” while others may say it was “crowded.”  Either way, being inside at Manna House is a precursor to the winter months which will be here sooner than we think.

Due to the rain, our guests arrived in various stages of being soaked. Not everyone who comes to Manna House is suffering from homelessness. Some manage to maintain a precarious grasp on housing. The housed were more likely to arrive sporting an umbrella. Those on the streets sometimes had umbrellas, too, though they were typically missing a rib so the canopy sagged and provided less protection. Some had donned flimsy ponchos, the kind you can get for a buck or two at a convenience store. Those lowest on the rain gear “food chain” had resorted to plastic bags for rain protection. The bag would cover their torso as they popped a hole in the bag for their heads, and two more holes for their arms.

Housed or homeless, everyone’s shoes were wet, and so were their socks. Dry and clean socks were a more precious gift than usual. And those on the shower list were happy to discard their wet clothes for fresh and dry clothing.

I was reminded by the rain of how we all need a place to stay; a place to protect us from the elements. We humans are fragile creatures. We lack fur to keep us warm. We do not carry our resting place with us like turtles. Water does not just roll off of us like a duck’s back. We need places out of the rain and cold, or out of the heat and the humidity. A shared and basic human need is for shelter. Even more, we really need a home, especially a home where we can feel secure and welcomed and loved.

I also thought about how Jesus identified with those who have no homes, when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). In context, he was laying out the cost of discipleship to someone who had too easily proclaimed, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus calls us comfortable ones to take the risk of going where he goes, to go where people are suffering. There our hearts can be opened and we can find the compassion and desire for justice born of shared vulnerability. I know I am tempted to think I can ward off my human fragility by acquiring more and more and pretending I do not need help. Jesus calls me to compassion born of a broken heart.

This morning was the feast of St. Vincent de Paul. He said, “Go to the poor, you will find God.” In saying this he did not romanticize the poor, nor did he deny the horrors of poverty. Instead he saw how serving those in poverty could open hearts to see our shared humanity, our need for each other; the recognition of mutual vulnerability that calls us into seeking life together. In the person soaked by the rain, covered by a plastic bag, God invites me into what saves all of us, namely, love. As St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings and wretchedness of other people, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”

The Handcuffs of Gentrification

A guest approached me the other morning at Manna House with disturbing news.

“I was handcuffed by the police yesterday.”

This is a guest who carries with him a well-worn Bible that he frequently and devoutly reads. We often talk together about “the Word of the Day” find some phrase or story that connects with our lives. Other guests often ask him to pray for them, and he does, right away. He puts his hand on the person’s shoulder, bows his head, and prays. He is in many ways a pastor for people on the streets. He is always ready to listen, to offer an encouraging word, and to share a passage from the Scriptures that might inspire. His Christian faith reminds me of St. Francis, a wandering ascetic whose love for others was always readily apparent.

“Why would the police handcuff you?” I asked, stunned that he would be subject to any police suspicion.

“I was sitting on the steps of a building with another guy. He doesn’t come here, but he’s a good guy. We were just sitting there. I had used a water tap to wash my face cloth. It was a hot day, and I needed a cool cloth. But the cops came up and grabbed us. They said we had broken into the building. They pointed to a window that was open.”

“Did they arrest you?”

“No. But we were in handcuffs for two hours.”

“Two hours? Did you at least get to sit an air-conditioned police car?”

“No. We were in the sun the whole time. They called the owner of the building and it took him an hour to get there. He knows me, and he immediately told the police they had the wrong guys. They should let me and the other guy go. The funny thing is that the window the police pointed to was the one I had told the building manager about last week. He told the police all that and then left.”

“And they still held you for another hour?”

“Yup. And threatened us, saying they could still arrest us for criminal trespass, and that we shouldn’t be in this neighborhood. I guess they didn’t like being shown up by the building owner or something.”

I thought of an article I read recently, about the criminal justice system and systemic racism. Systemic racism, the author wrote, “means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede is rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.” (See, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/?utm_term=.31621d6b3822)

Keeping black people in their place, like telling them they “shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.” Did I mention that this guest and his friend are both African American? And yes, it is not only about race, it is also about class. Systemic classism tells poor people that they are not welcome in certain areas.

What “Word of the Day” might speak of what this guest experienced in being handcuffed? Micah the prophet saw this oppression of the poor, and connected it to denying people housing, “But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses” (Micah 2:8-9).

This guest was handcuffed in the area now being called “The Medical District.” The plan is to make this area around the UT Medical School, the Southern College of Optometry, Region One [the Med], and LeBoheur more attractive for wealthier people to move into. You can’t have poor people in such an area, and certainly not homeless black men. This is how gentrification works.

While I was talking with the guest who was handcuffed another guest arrived. He had on a t-shirt that said, “Dixie Homes Reunion.” Dixie Homes was a large public housing project near LeBonheur that was torn down back in 2005. This guest, I found out, had grown up there. We talked about the reunion.

“Where are the people from Dixie Homes now?”

“All over the city.”

“Any live in the houses that were built on the old Dixie Homes property?”

“O hell no!” he said, “Nobody could afford to live in those.”

So, a little more from Micah to chew on in these days. God sees the injustice that is going on.

“Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).