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.