Jesus in the Coffee Line

“Christ of the Breadlines” is a woodcut famous in Catholic Worker circles. There among the people pictured waiting for a meal stands Jesus, identifiable with a halo around his head and clothing from the first century.

When I entered Manna House this morning after we had shared prayer on the front porch that image popped into my head. I saw the coffee line already formed. Guests were lined up from the front door to the table at the back of the dining room. Seated next to the coffee pot, James was offering each person a “Good morning!” and a cup of coffee. Charles was busy walking up and down the line serving vitamins to whoever wanted one. With their coffee cups filled, guests moved along the table to put in cream and sugar, and then on to find a place to sit.

The coffee line moved with a steady pace, unhurried, but not slow. After a cold night, a hot cup of coffee helps to warm the insides even as it warms chilled hands. There is usually not much conversation as people stand in line. Conversations begin when guests sit down with their coffee.

The image of “Christ of the Breadlines” inspired an old song tune to come into my head, “Jesus on the Mainline.” But I changed the lyrics to, “Jesus in the Coffee Line.”

“Jesus in the coffee line, give him a cup,” I started to sing, repeating that line three times until I added, “Just hand him a cup and fill it up!”

Then I added another verse,

“Jesus in the coffee line, sign him up” repeating that line three times until I added, “Just get him a shower and the clothes he wants.”

I tested the lyrics with a few of the guests. The focus group seemed happy enough that I may have a new song to sing at Manna House. I would not be surprised if another guest or two helps with developing some additional lyrics.

Behind this version of the song is the ongoing importance of Matthew 25:31-46 for our practice of hospitality at Manna House. Although not on the list of sacraments in any church, I am convinced that Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” initiated what should be called “the sacrament of hospitality.” In this sacrament, Jesus is present, and offered to us in the guests who come to Manna House. As with any sacrament, we are called in faith to recognize in the outward sign of our guests, the inward reality of the presence of Christ. And that presence is guaranteed by the Word of Jesus himself.

So when Patsy tells me yet again that she is headed to the hand doctor, I try to hear in her voice the voice of Jesus who healed people. When I hear that “Shorty” had a heart attack, and I do not know Shorty, I listen to the guest who shares the compassion of Christ in describing how Shorty is doing. When I hear that “Old man Chris was hit by a car and he was knocked clean out of his wheelchair,” I listen to Christ’s judgment when the guest telling me this adds, “Ain’t that cold?”

Yet I find this faith in the sacramental presence of Christ in our guests is often tested. Certainly not every guest is Christ-like in his or her demeanor. And just as certainly, the routine of offering what might be called the “liturgy of hospitality” can chip away at the sense of the sacredness of the work. Folding piles of laundry every day, or cleaning showers and bathrooms, can become more burden than blessing.

So finally my faith in Christ’s presence cannot depend upon the guests or my thoughts and feelings. Thank God. Faith itself is a gift. Faith stands on the graciousness of God. And in this sacrament of hospitality, for me to see Jesus in the coffee line has to always come back to the gracious promise of Jesus; that he is among the “least of these.”

This means I have to sing another verse, one that is closer to the meaning of the original song that made it plain that Jesus listens and heals and saves us. Yes, I can sing, “Jesus in the coffee line, tell him what you want.” and sing it three times before I add, “Just stand with him in line and tell him what you want.”




Remembering Robin Vargas

Robin regularly came to Manna House, mostly for coffee. Like a number of our guests, she had a job. She worked at Jack Pirtles. She made just enough to usually have a place to live. Then she tired of Memphis and moved to another city. She might have become one of the many guests who I get to know, and then disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

So I was glad when we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago. We became “friends” and I got glimpses into her life away from Memphis. Occasionally we exchanged messages. She wondered how a guest she knew was doing, or she asked, “Whatever happened to….?” She seemed to be doing ok. Life was still hard, but bearable. The move had changed the scenery, but not the grind required to keep a job and a place to live.

Then one day she shared a survey that asked, “What country song was written about your life?” The answer was, “Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell.” Why this song? Because “Robin you never give up, no matter how dark your days get. You’ve seen failure, but you’ve never been one to give in or back down in the face of fear. ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’ is a beautiful tribute to your spirit and a reminder that you are always stronger than you believe.”

Robin lived that song. Her son died about two years ago. Then about a year later she was diagnosed with cancer.

“Things go from bad to worse
You think it can’t get worse than that
And then they do.”

On February 10th of this year Robin posted, “Hi. I just wanted to say goodbye to all my friends and family. I’m suffering from stage 4 lung cancer, can’t barely breath so it won’t be long. Just want you to know I love you all. And if you smoke, please, please, quit. God bless you. Going to hospice. They said the way I’m breathing it won’t be long.”

She died 9 days later.

From what I knew of Robin’s life, nothing ever seemed to come easy for her. But she had an unconquerable spirit. “Good morning, God bless,” she wrote on Facebook posts. In her note about going to hospice, there is no self-pity. In the midst of her own ills, she shows concern for others, “Just want you to know, I love you all. And if you smoke, please, please, quit.”

Much like the country song Robin identified with, she had a realism that held onto hope rather than giving in to despair.

“If you’re goin’ through hell keep on going,
Don’t slow down if you’re scared don’t show it,
You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.

I’ve been deep down in that darkness,
I’ve been down to my last match…

But the good news is there’s angels everywhere out on the street
Holdin’ out a hand to pull you back up on your feet…

Another guest at Manna House remembered Robin as one of those “angels everywhere out on the street.” She wrote, “She was one of the dearest people that I met during my years on the street… She will be very missed.” Indeed she will.

Pay Attention

Two blue jays and a cardinal perched on the small tree outside the kitchen window. I could see them as I sat in the kitchen at Manna House. I was there early, in the hour before we open, to make sure the coffee was percolating. The brilliant red of the cardinal and deep blue of the blue jays stood in sharp contrast to the morning greyness. The birds were pecking at something on the tree branch that seemed bare except for a few lingering brown leaves. Clearly they could see something I could not.

The daily Bible readings in the lectionary this week have included the first creation story from Genesis. God’s vibrant presence in the creation comes throughout the story. Each day God brings something new into existence, land and water and trees and all sorts of living things, and the refrain follows, “And God saw that it was good.”

How often do I even pay attention to God’s beautiful creation and all of its contrasting colors?

The blue jays flew off. The cardinal stubbornly stayed the course for a minute longer, then it was gone too.

The rain and clouds that have lasted for days were not giving way to any hint of sunshine. Still, the light of day started to illuminate the yellow brick of the church visible down the block. The passing car lights made the rain soaked streets shine. And a guest walked up the sidewalk towards Manna House wearing a bright orange reflective vest, staunch in his resistance to the drab morning.

Psalm 104 presented itself.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.”

When Manna House opened at 8 am, I went with the other volunteers to join the guests on the front porch for our opening prayer. We held hands and offered our simple prayer of thanksgiving for the day. We also asked God to be with those who are hurting. And, inevitably one guest asked again for God’s help as she goes to yet another doctor’s appointment. Standing together in a circle of sorts, we wear different shades of different colors. We are a colorful group. And our clothing is also all sorts of colors, especially these days with the knit love caps topping a lot of heads warding off the morning chill.

We do not pray long. There is a warm house to enter and coffee to get to and showers to be taken and other needs to be attended to. Hospitality responds to basic human needs, especially the need to be welcomed, to be treated with dignity and respect, to pay attention.

“All creatures look to you
to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”

As I enter the house behind those who have lined up for coffee, the first two names for the showers are being called. Morning greetings are shared among guests and volunteers. A few guests quickly take to the couches, hoping to catch some sleep.

If I pay attention, I can see God’s creative love in each person in the house. God’s colorful creating continues.

“When You send forth your spirit, they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth.”

Cold and Chill Bless the Lord!

“I can’t feel my feet,” a guest says to me as he stands on the front porch of Manna House. He is wearing worn out running shoes with mesh uppers. The cold has settled in for a few days on the edge of the polar vortex. Memphis has temperatures in the low twenties, and wind that is cutting.

Another guest tells me, “My hands are numb.” He has on thin cloth gloves. A few other early arriving guests appear out of nowhere as I unlock the gate and the front door. They are all bundled in various ways against the cold, but one sums up the state they are in, “My bones are frozen.”

It is early. The darkness of the night has not given way to the light of the morning. I have arrived to get the house ready for hospitality before we open at 8am. There’s laundry to be folded. The supplies for serving coffee need to be set up. And I would really like some time to read and pray and write before opening. I relish the quiet time in the house alone. It is sacred time.

But when I go past the few gathering guests and open the door to Manna House, I can feel the contrast between the warmth inside and the freezing cold outside. When I cross the threshold, the image of “The Christ of the Breadline” flashes in my mind. Christ is behind me waiting, freezing on the front porch.

I say to myself, “Christ is going to have to wait a few minutes.” I have a few things I have to get done before I can open the house for hospitality. But I make the list shorter and ten minutes later I open the front door and invite in the Christ of the front porch. By then eight people have gathered and they all hurry in thankful for the warmth.

One man heads for a couch and a few minutes later he is asleep. Another sits down and gets a book out of his backpack and begins to read. A few others gather around the table in the front room and talk about nothing in particular. It will be another hour or so before we will be “open” and start the showers and serve hot coffee.

I take a chair at the door of the kitchen and open my prayer book. I am searching for a prayer I know from the Morning Office. I want to pray into the reality of the cold. The prayer comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 3), where three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are tossed into a blazing furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they won’t worship idols. In that furnace, “heated to seven times its usual fire,” the three young men sing God’s praises. Maybe in all that heat they really appreciated the cold.

“Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord,
Praise and exalt God above all forever.
Cold and chill, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.
Frost and chill, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.”

The prayer makes me wonder how to pray in the midst of a cold that threatens the lives of our guests. Then again, is it the cold that is threatening, or is it the coldness of our culture that deems some expendable, some not “worthy” of shelter, of housing? Maybe we “bless the Lord” in the midst of cold by offering hospitality to those out in the cold? Better still, maybe we “bless the Lord” by becoming the kind of community where we can all enjoy the cold because we have warm places to be with each other, no one is left outside, no one is left behind. Maybe we “bless the Lord” when we recognize each other and the whole of God’s creation as the very presence of God.