Hospitality in this Time of COVID-19

This Manna House guest was resigned and defiant about COVID-19, “If I get it, I get it. But I’m not going to help it along.” He explained how he uses the travel size hand-sanitizer he carries with him, and how difficult it is becoming to find a place to wash his hands.

“I can’t find a bathroom with restaurants closed. Where am I supposed to wash my hands now?”

I had no answer to his question other than, “While we’re open you can use the bathroom here.”

It was Monday evening. Ashley and I were serving a take-out meal at Manna House. That morning Kathleen and I had gone to Manna House to share with guests that we would be open only one morning a week for the next few weeks as part of trying to reduce the chances of “social transmission” of COVID-19. We would no longer offer showers or serve coffee. We could no longer offer a place to gather. We would continue to serve the meal on Monday evenings. The guests received the news with sorrow, but also with hope.

“This will pass.”

For the Monday evening meal, Kathleen made soup. Ashley and I served the soup in a cup with a lid, and guests also received some snacks and granola bars in a paper bag.

Guests came to the front door, got the soup and the bag and went on their way. As guests received this modest meal most offered some kind of thanks.

“Glad you’re open tonight.”

“Thanks for being here.”

“A hot meal! Thanks!”

Guests also occasionally shared observations about COVID-19, the various closings around the city of Memphis, and how this was affecting them.

“What I miss the most is the library. I’d go there to check my email. It was the only way I had to stay in touch with my family.”

“Where do they expect us to go to ‘shelter in place’?”

“I’ll make it. I’ll find a way.”

“I hate this #!@#$^& virus.”

“What can I do? I’m out here. No place to go but back to my cathole.”

The usual light-hearted banter among guests was absent. There was a lot of worry, anxiety, and a sense of worsening isolation.

Manna House, like soup kitchens and shelters—are where basic services for people on the streets are offered. At their best, they are also gathering places where welcome and respect and community are shared. We call Manna House “a place of hospitality,” and we try to welcome our guests as we would welcome the very presence of Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). But now hospitality is taking a strange and baffling turn. We can welcome people as we offer limited services, but we have to do so in ways that do not encourage gathering. COVID-19 means gathering is dangerous; gathering is now inhospitable.

Yet in in the absence of places of gathering, the isolation and alienation of being on the streets is intensified. Imagine the isolation people with homes are feeling. Magnify that isolation one hundred times. That would be close to what people on the streets are feeling.

One guest lingered a bit after getting his to-go supper. I asked him how he was doing.

“It’s nothing really new. It’s just making worse what was already bad.”

Then he added,

“I gotta deal with what’s dealt. And right now this is a bad hand.”

“What will you do if you get sick?” I asked.

“I’ll try to ride it out, like I always do. If it gets bad, I’ll go to the emergency room. But I heard they might get overrun.”

We had prayed with our guests before we served the meal.

“God, thank you for the beauty of this evening. Thank you that the rain has stopped for now. God be with us in these anxious and fearful times. God help scientists and doctors to find a cure for this virus. Help us to support each other. Amen.”

“God is with me,” a guest had offered when she received her meal at the door, “God is with us. God will help us through.”

Later that night I heard this guest’s faith echoed in a psalm:

“Turn your ear to me, Lord, and hear me,

for I am poor and destitute.

Keep my life safe, for I am faithful;

O God, save your servant, who trusts in you.” (Psalm 86:1-2)

In this spirit, I will continue to pray for our guests. And we will keep offering hospitality as best we can in this time when hospitality means keeping some distance. May hospitality come again to mean the creation of a place where we can gather together to share life.

God is Our Refuge and Strength

I went out onto the porch at 7:45am on Monday to share the bad news with the gathered guests. There would be no showers today, and no socks and hygiene. Manna House will be open for coffee, the use of the restroom, and each person will be offered a pair of socks with a bar of soap. Guests are not allowed to congregate in the house, and I recommended not congregating in the yard after getting coffee.

I talked with the guests about COVID-19. Closing schools, businesses, entertainment venues, and churches might stop it from spreading too fast and overwhelming hospitals. Social distancing might help stop it from getting to the most vulnerable, the aged, and those whose immune systems are compromised by illness.

I reminded our guests that everyone who serves at Manna House is a volunteer; there is no paid staff. And some of our volunteers fall into the categories of people that are most threatened by this disease, as do a number of our guests. We will try to stay open, I concluded, as long as we can find a way to do that that is responsible to guests and volunteers alike. Hospitality in these days requires finding ways to slow or stop the spread of this dangerous and even deadly virus.

When I finished it began to rain, again. If this is not the wettest winter in Memphis history, it must be close. It seems like day after day the rain comes, sometimes hard, sometimes soft, but always falling. The rain made the chilly forty degree temperature worse.

I was downcast. The cost for the poor is always so great. And now the cost was going up. Manna House exists to mitigate the suffering of people on the streets and in poverty. Our modest efforts to address that suffering have become less in order to try and stop this virus from spreading.

I felt during my announcements and in confronting the realities of the spread of this virus, like life is unraveling. I heard the psalmist who speaks of feeling like the earth is shifting under my feet, and the mountains are falling into the sea (Psalm 46). Where is God’s hospitable order that separates the days from the nights, the dry land from the sea, and puts everything together so that all can flourish? (Genesis 1).

Then after we opened the guests began to share their views.

“We can get through this together.”

“I’m just glad you all are open.”

“Thanks for the coffee.”

“Thanks for the socks.”

“God got this.”

“At least you’re still open so I can pee.”

Then a guest came to Manna House with a big smile on his face. He shared some good news, “The courts are closed.”

Here is the truth of these days that the guests are helping me see. God is at work and God is present somewhere in the darkness of this spreading disease. God has not deserted me or you or the Manna House guests. God is calling each of us in what Henri Nouwen names as “all of the unexplainable absurdities of life.”

There is an intensity in life right now. We are not in ordinary times. I can hear God’s call to pay attention, to the ways in which God is present in the still abundant gifts of this life. The guests this morning called me to pay attention to what is shared; not to what I cannot do.

I can also hear God’s call to pay attention to the deep injustice and suffering that runs counter to God. I am called to pay attention to this troubling part of life that includes this disease and the way it is going to adversely affect, and yes, kill the most vulnerable. I am angry about this reality. And I am angry that our health care system is so weakened by corporate medicine, and by the failure of our government (and us) to create a political and economic system that cares for all people, not just the wealthiest. I am also angry that the current presidential regime is so negligent, so wrapped up in the egotistical mania of Trump, that it has botched efforts to lessen the spread of this disease.

So in these days I am going to listen to God’s call to compassion and to anger, to thanksgiving and to lament. The psalmist affirms, “God is for us a refuge and strength, a helper close at hand, in time of distress. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should rock and the mountains fall into the depths of the sea, even though the waters rage and foam, even though the mountains be shaken by the waves” (Psalm 46:1-3). God is with us in the midst of the uproar and even chaos of these days. “The Lord of hosts is with us,” if we but pay attention and listen to God who is with the poor, the vulnerable, the suffering. This God is a refuge and a strength who leads us in our vulnerability into solidarity.

A Faith Reflection on the Coronavirus

COVID-19, the Coronavirus is an apocalyptic event. I do not mean the world is coming to an end. The word “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that means “to reveal, or uncover.” COVID-19 is revealing a great deal about our politics, our economics, our culture (including our religion), and the state of our souls.

The emptiness of the American soul is being revealed in the presidency. The worship of power, money, and violence is incapable of a truthful, compassionate, and just response to sickness and suffering.  This is the character of the current president, and this character will only be revealed more and more as we go forward. And to be clear, this emptiness is not unique to the American presidency. Across the globe governments have lied about COVID-19. As one headline put it, “Truth Has Become a Coronavirus Casualty.” (

The Father of Lies, Satan, claimed that he could give the kingdoms of this world to Jesus. In one of his rare truthful moments Satan revealed that states are fallen creatures, reflecting our own fallen humanity as those who create and sustain states. The state will not save us even as we can urge the state to do the limited good it can do and to do that well.

The emptiness of our economic life is also being revealed. The virus came to be within the context of a market in which wild animals were being sold for human consumption. Death comes from deadly markets, organized around human wants to the neglect of the well-being of God’s creation. Just as death comes from deadly forms of political and cultural organization, so too death comes from a deadly form of markets. The virus is revealing the fragility and deadly character of a global economy premised upon cheap goods produced by cheapening human lives. Our destruction of the local, of rural communities, of small towns, of urban neighborhoods as factories have closed, is now coming back to haunt us.

We reap what we sow is being revealed. We reap cancer from farming with Monsanto. We reap wars from an imperial politics. We reap exploitation of children from a hyper-sexualized culture. We reap climate change from an economy overly dependent upon carbon fuels. Wrongdoing spreads virally unless we find ways to resist that do not replicate the wrongdoing (Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good).

These revelations also reveal the challenge to our own souls in this time. We will not be able to respond well (compassionately, justly) to this virus or to these other forms of death if we cannot tell the truth about ourselves, our economy, our politics, our culture. Will we be revealed as truth-tellers, or people who prefer to lie and be lied to?

Trump has to lie about this virus and about everything because truth would bring an end to his presidency. Biden or whoever is nominated among the Democrats will have to lie if he hopes to be elected. Our culture, our politics, our market is premised upon lying. The primal lies of Manifest Destiny, of 3/5 human beings in the Constitution, of slavery, of Jim Crow, of the atomic bombiings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of destroying a village in order to save it, of “Operation Enduring Freedom” (among others), of bailing out the banks, of building walls and caging children… Do we want the truth about our lives? Are we willing to be open to the truth?

Jesus said knowing the truth will set us free. Freedom here is the freedom to live well, to flourish, to have abundant life (John 10:10).

Now that we are in the grips of this death (with other deaths circling nearby) the challenge is to live in resistance in ways that do not replicate the lies that got us here.            The lie that life is just a matter of individual survival. The lie that we need to hoard, to “take care of ourselves.” The lie that closing our borders even more will stop the virus. The lie that we should fear each other as bearers of the virus. The lie that there is nothing we can do but submit to the inevitable. The lie that is coming that we need martial law to effectively respond to this virus.

The truth is as ordinary as handwashing. The truth is as ordinary as taking legitimate precautions not to spread this virus. The truth is as ordinary as checking in with elderly neighbors, with friends who have compromised immune systems. The truth is as ordinary as refusing to hoard and to live in fear and anxiety. The truth is as ordinary as facing the truth about our own lives.

The truth is we are all vulnerable human beings who die, so we need to treat each other with love, compassion, justice. The truth is that death does come for us all, and that we are less in control than we might have thought. The truth is that life is a gift, a gracious moment. God calls us to embrace life as a gift and share it. But Satan calls us to regard life as possession. Life as a possession is something that we desperately seek to hold onto by denying we are intertwined, interdependent, and integral to each other as members of the human family.

God is on the side of truth, life, and freedom/liberation. This is the truth we need: God calls us, and loves us into seeking to be well with each other and the whole creation. God is on the side of those suffering under lies, death, and enslavement masquerading as freedom. This is the truth we learn in the life of Jesus: God is on the cross because God is in resistance to the lies. God is resurrection because lies and death do not have the last word. In this apocalyptic moment God asks us, “Will you accept each other as brothers and sisters? Will you accept that you are God’s beloved children? Will you hear and live by the truth that is being revealed?”


Shared Grief and Shared Compassion

I heard the word of God come through the book of Job. I sat in a classroom at Memphis Theological Seminary and God’s word described those considered outcasts. With minimal paraphrase, Job 30:5-8 gave a harshly accurate and contemporary description of people labeled “homeless.”

“They were forced to live away from people;
people shouted at them as if they were thieves.
They lived under bridges,
in cat-holes, and among abandoned buildings.
They cried out like dogs in a junkyard
and huddled together in illicit campsites.
They are deemed worthless people without names
and were forced to leave the neighborhood.”

When Job spoke these words, he tried to set himself above and apart from those he described. But through suffering, he learned compassion born of the solidarity of shared humanity. He came to listen and learn from people on the margins. Suffering “de-centered” Job so that he could both hear God and become compassionate. That is what I learned in the classroom.

On Thursday morning, the word of God came as I and other volunteers prayed with our guests gathered on the front porch of Manna House. In prayer, we placed before God the grief of those who live in the way Job described. The guests who come to Manna House live that life and carry that grief. They are pushed away, despised, and disrespected. They are seen as other than human, as wild dogs or feral cats, dirty, and disgusting. They arrive tired and cold from the places where they fitfully slept in the abandoned nooks and crannies of the city. We prayed in recognition of this grief, calling for God’s loving justice.

Then in our prayer we went a step further. We placed before God the additional grief our guests carry, which is the grief of human loss we all share. Talk with any one of our guests, and the stories of loss spill forth. They are stories any one of us might be able to tell. Loss of parents, caregivers, spouses, friends, jobs, sanity, sobriety, health. But for our guests, their stories are made worse by the fragile social safety net they already experienced in poverty, which unraveled under the weight of such loss.

Yet there is the human connection of loss and grief. Neither volunteers nor guests are immune to the vulnerability of human life. We cannot change the reality that we lose those we care about and love. And we, too, will get sick, our bodies fail us as we age, and death will come to us as certainly as to all who live.

So we prayed from the shared grief in our hearts to the loving heart of God. Heads bowed in recognition that yes, we are in this together. Touch us God with your healing love. Help us embrace our shared vulnerability. Help us to learn solidarity in suffering, grief shared in grace, and to end the illusion of separateness, and the denial of our shared humanity.

Sharing in vulnerability, we turned to God and to each other to learn compassion, and we turned against seeking to control and dominate and exclude.

Job’s words describe the results of control, domination, and exclusion. Job’s word deny the humanity of those “deemed worthless people without names.” There is no recognition of our common human experience of loss and grief. Solidarity is shattered when we refuse to open ourselves to the grief of others, and our own. In the absence of compassion born of shared grief, we exclude those we deem “different” and do them violence.

Job learned a way of solidarity and compassion from his suffering and grief. This is the way, the truth, and the life that we can learn from Jesus, who was moved with pity to heal others, who wept over Jerusalem, and who suffered and died, and who in rising calls us to new life.

In this way, in this new life,

we welcome the stranger.

We come together as people.

We greet each other as brothers and sisters.

We call each other by name.

We live together in community.

We invite each other into our homes.

We know love that shares grief.

We know the grace of God.