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.

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