Bathroom Beatitude

Nothing like starting the morning cleaning shit off the street in front of Manna House. Some poor soul lost bowel control in the night. Guests who had arrived early and were waiting for me to open the gate warned me as I came across the street. After applying some buckets of hot soapy bleach water and a doing a thorough hose down, my street cleaning work was complete.

Memphis is a place where to quote Ed Loring of the Open Door Community, people cannot “pee for free with dignity like Jesus did in Galilee.” Nor can they, “take a crap without getting a police rap.” A severe lack of public restrooms in this city makes finding a place to legally go to the bathroom an arduous task. And as a Southern city, in which those in poverty and those with dark skin are especially not welcome, the task is even more difficult and reflects a long history of segregated bathrooms, and denial of access to bathrooms. A recent article in “The Nation” magazine rightly points out, “Restrooms outside the home have always served to reify norms of who is and isn’t welcome to occupy public life” (Natalie Shure, The Politics of Going To the Bathroom, The Nation, May 23, 2019).

Consider how many restaurants post signs that say, “Restrooms for customers only.” Consider how few parks there are that have restrooms. It is no surprise that when Manna House is open our restroom is in almost continuous use.

Three basic worries are common among people on the streets: where am I going to eat, where am I going to sleep, and how am I going to go the bathroom. Arrests for public urination are common among those experiencing homelessness. Some 20-30 percent of homeless people indicated in a recent survey by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty they have been charged with this “crime.” Fourteen states classify public urination as a sex offense. In Tennessee, public urination falls under “public indecency.” First and second-time offenders of public indecency face a Class B misdemeanor with a $500 fine. After that, the misdemeanor goes up to Class A, the fines increase to $1,500, and jail time enters the picture (a maximum of 11 months and 29 days behind bars).

In light of the criminalization of urination and defecation does the Bible say anything about going to the bathroom? A little biblical research turns up nearly 30 references related to use of the bathroom. Deuteronomy 23:12-14, for example, gives clear instructions to crap outside the camp “so that God may not see anything indecent among you.” In the New Testament there’s nothing about Jesus going to the bathroom; no instruction on the matter. But given Jesus’ humanity, he had to go somewhere, and his disciples did too. And since they were not among the elite owning large houses with bathrooms, it is probably safe to say they went where they could, and Jesus’ instructions about food for the hungry, water for the thirsty, and clothing for the naked could easily include access to bathrooms for those who have to go.

As I was reflecting on the denial of bathrooms to people on the streets I came across Psalm 123, which has nothing directly to do with this issue. Yet I think it gets to the contempt for persons on the streets that denies them access to restrooms, and to God’s concern for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger—those who were the overlooked, vulnerable, marginalized ones. Through the prophets and Jesus, God continually calls us to care for those to whom our society shows contempt.

Our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till God shows us mercy.

Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.

We need to reflect God’s mercy, and we need to affirm that access to adequate restrooms is a fundamental necessity for everyone. All God’s children gotta pee for free with dignity like Jesus did in Galilee.

Through Love May We From Sin Be Freed

“Through love may we from sin be freed”—Nox atra rerum contegit, hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great (540-604).

“God bless the coffee… Make it hot!

God bless the sugar…  Make it sweet!

And God bless the creamer… May it take all life’s bitterness away.”

The call and response that closes our opening prayer at Manna House had just finished. Most guests were headed to the coffee line. A few surrounded Kathleen, getting their names on the shower list or the list for socks and hygiene. I was approached by a guest who handed me a slender book.

“Here look at this,” he said with a slight smile, “It is about my wife and me.”

I opened the book. It was filled with pictures of this guest and his wife. It told the story in beautiful pictures and short sayings from each of them about their lives and their love following her being diagnosed with cancer.

On one of the pages I read this from the guest, “We done seen a lot, but you just got to keep yo peace and blessin’s in God’s hands.”

These two guests have been coming to Manna House for a long time. They have known poverty, including some periods of homelessness. Now they face the challenge of cancer with a terminal diagnosis.

I finished looking through the book, and I shared it with Kathleen. Then I found the guest. “This is a very fine book. I love the pictures and what each of you has to say about what you are going through.”

“Thank you,” the guest replied, “It means a lot to us to come here. We can feel the love. Be sure to pray for us.”

“I will.”

As I turned away from him I saw another guest getting coffee. He and his wife are regular guests who have been coming to Manna House for years. He is usually rather gruff with few words to say. His wife is quiet too but sweeter. I saw a hospital ID bracelet on his wrist.

“Have you been in the hospital? Are you ok?” Each time I’ve seen this guest lately I have been worried. He has been losing weight and has not seemed as energetic as in the past.

“I went to the emergency room.” And then he pointed toward his wife, “She has the papers. I don’t really understand what is wrong with me.”

His wife shared the discharge papers from the hospital with me, including a prescription for an antibiotic. There was a list of ailments, including several chronic illnesses and one infection that needed the antibiotic. Poverty wears people down.

“Be sure to finish your antibiotic,” I said to the guest. He assured me that he would. Then he looked at me and said, “I’m not doing well. Keep me in your prayers.”

“I will.”

I thought of what I had read in the book from the other guest, “We done seen a lot, but you just got to keep yo peace and blessin’s in God’s hands.” The hymn for Morning Prayer I had read earlier that morning had the line, “Through love may we from sin be freed.” I thought of how sin creates the conditions of poverty that wear down our guests, that lead to illnesses that are chronic and to higher rates of cancer.

I try to believe in the power of love, to set us free from sin, from all the heartache and brokenness and hardship of human life. I have long cherished the vision of the power of love given in the Book of Revelation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and God will dwell with them. They will be God’s people, and God will be with them and be their God. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Revelation 21:1-4).

That is the power of love. I saw that power in the pictures and words of the book the guest shared with me. I saw the power of love in the guests who come to Manna House so faithfully and share their lives with each other, with volunteers, with me. I saw the power of love in guests asking me for prayer, just as I have asked them for prayer. I want to believe in this power of love to set us free from sin, to heal, to bring wholeness. Lord help my unbelief (Mark 9:24).

Who is my neighbor?

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)


And who is my neighbor?

The one who I am most likely to neglect, negate, nullify,

Objectify into something, not a person, not even fully human

Not like me, not connected with me, to whom I have no responsibility.


The stranger, the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned, vulnerable reminders

Of my own weakness, contingency, propensity to death.

The one’s I want dead because their lives make my life difficult.


Those outside the norm, outside my comfort zone, the bothersome ones,

I wish they would go away


Be concrete, the alien, the widow, the orphan,

The immigrant and refugee, women, and children,

The death row inmate

The old

The unborn

The poor


Black and brown and red and yellow peoples—hey, anyone who’s not white,

Everyone I’d like to segregate, not see, not be free.

The one’s I won’t list here because I don’t see.


Go beyond the humans I deny to

The creation I threaten

By taking too much, consuming too much,

In my drive to dominate, exploit, control

Destroying land, water, air, species.


Who is my neighbor?

Those not in my neighborhood.

Those I don’t want in my neighborhood.

Those I would never consider to be my neighbor.

“Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

A guest asked me if he could lead the opening prayer at Manna House, and I said, “yes.” The backyard at Manna House is now open. To start the morning, we form our circle for prayer in the driveway entrance to the backyard.

He began by giving thanks to God for every good gift in our lives. Then he quoted from Psalm 119: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105), and he praised God for guiding us in life. Petitions followed. He asked for health—in the name of Jesus. He asked for deliverance from suffering—in the name of Jesus. He asked for a place to live—in the name of Jesus. Then he closed by thanking God again for every good thing in our lives—in the name of Jesus.  Simple. Direct. Needed. Prayer.

I especially needed to hear that God’s word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. I need God to light my way in a world so marked by darkness. It has only been a few weeks since Easter, and I still need reminding about resurrection. God’s creation certainly carries the reminder. Trees have filled out with leaves. Yards display fresh green grass. Peonies, roses, tulips, gardenias, and irises, all display their colors. Redbuds, magnolias, and dogwoods, all join the blossoming celebration of new life.

But this beautiful assertion of the power of life has not been enough for me. Like many others, I have been struck by the senseless death in yet another school shooting. And the news tells of the threatening future we face due to our ongoing pollution of the world. On a smaller scale, I have mourned the loss so suddenly and at such a young age of Rachel Held Evans. Her spirited writings gave such hope and promise. Closer to home, Charlie, who has for many years been an anchor at Caritas Village, offering political analysis, theological wisdom, and a particular view of the world, died unexpectedly. Closer still, I am addressing my own health challenges that are not so subtle reminders of aging and mortality. Death is in the air even as new life springs all around.

So, as much as I appreciate and relish the blossoming of life in God’s creation as a witness to resurrection, I have also found a witness to resurrection as I have spent some time meditating upon this image of God’s word as a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

I have thought about the physical necessity of having a lamp, of having light by which to see while walking in darkness. The guest who shared this Bible verse has probably experienced how acute the need is for light for persons whose homelessness means they will be out walking in the night. I know that in the night I am more likely to stumble. In the dark I am more likely to fall. I have seen guests arrive in the morning with bruises that resulted from a trip in the night. The darkness of night carries danger. A lamp is needed to see where I am going. A light is needed to show the way.

These physical realities ground the spiritual necessity of having God’s word as a lamp and as a light to guide me in the emotional and spiritual darkness that surrounds me. I need this lamp and light to help me resist falling into despair at the reality of death. That despair gives up on love and laughter and on liberation from sin and death.

I need the light in God’s word, that became incarnate in Jesus who resisted death’s power in his life and teaching, and who overturned the power of sin and death in his resurrection. Jesus is God’s lamp that offers light in this dark world. With this lamp, I can walk in my life guided by this resurrection truth, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).