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.