“Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”
“Do you know how I can get my check started again?” a Manna House guest asked as folks gathered in the front yard of Manna House drinking coffee. “My check stopped when I was in jail.”
I was curious about why he was drawing a check.
“Disability” he said, “I have a brain injury. I get seizures. I can’t work.”
Other guests started to offer advice. One said, “They’ll make you prove that disability again, even though you proved it before.”
This elicited some hard realism from another guest. “They’ll turn you down at least a few times before you’ll get approved. Seems like standard practice.”
The guest was discouraged. “I don’t know if I have it in me to get through all that again. I had a social worker help me the first time.”
This led to more advice, about who could be asked, what organizations might help. But again the realism, “Seems like they just don’t want you to get help.”
Then a word came from a guest who had been standing by silently, taking it all in, “Whatever you do, remember, the people at the Social Security Office didn’t make the rules. Your battle is with the system, not with the people there.”
At that, our resident Bible scholar, looked up, turned a few pages of his Bible, and read, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” And he added, “Ephesians, 6:12, King James Bible.”
“Well, ain’t that the truth?” a guest added his version of “Amen.”
“How,” I asked, “Do you go about rejecting the system but loving the people complicit in the system?”
I had been to a MLGW office with Manna House guests before. The long lines, the multiple layers of regulations and requirements to get power turned back on, the presence of an armed guard, the long lists of rules posted on the walls as we sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs, all were typical of places where the poor go to plead their cases for justice or for mercy. The Social Security Office on Cleveland, the “pit” at 201 Poplar, General Sessions courtrooms, jail visitation areas, emergency room waiting areas—they all have a mean spirit, just as they tend to be organized to be inhospitable.
A guest offered this wisdom born of years of confronting the principalities and the powers. “You can’t get caught up in the place. Stay loving with the people. They have it hard too.”
Manna House guests regularly experience and look deep into the reality of evil structured in the way things are. As a guest said to me one morning, “I’m told I’m nobody so often in so many places and in so many ways. They try to take my somebody away.”
But he concluded, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”
When I heard that I thought of Kathleen who often says, “Our guests bring us their best.” Their best comes with a strong realism regarding how things are messed up, but an even stronger sense of hope. This is not a facile optimism, but the kind of hope grounded in faith tested by suffering and injustice, and unwilling to yield to the powers and principalities. This is the faith and the love I experience each time our guests come to Manna House, because we certainly do not meet all of their needs, and we certainly have days when our edges are a bit rough.
The witness of the guests at Manna House helps me to buck up and to not give in to the “luxury of despair” that tempts the privileged. They teach me how to live in hopeful and loving resistance to the principalities and powers, seeking justice, as Sharon Welch writes in Sweet Dreams in America: Making Ethics and Spirituality Work, “without the assurances of eventual victory and without the ego- and group-building dynamics of self-righteousness and demonizing.”
Or, to put it more succinctly, “Ain’t gonna let nobody take my somebody away.”