The neighborhood is quiet this Thursday morning. I look down the street toward Claybrook and Jefferson. Once in a while someone goes in or comes out of the “yellow store” at the corner. The small park where people usually congregate is empty. Looking up the street, there are no students from the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering crossing to gym class at Mississippi Boulevard Church. It is a beautiful sun-filled morning; spring is in the air. Birds sing their songs, trees are leaved out in fresh green, and weeds are growing quickly through every crack in the sidewalk or patio bricks. Yet, there are few people to be seen.
The sense of isolation, or even desolation, is broken on occasion as a Manna House guest arrives. They come one by one. On occasion two will show up at once. Voices are a bit muffled for some as they speak through facemasks. It only takes a moment or two to hand each guest a “hospitality bag” filled with hygiene items, a pair of socks, and a granola bar. It was the same on Monday night when we handed out takeaway suppers. Greetings are brief. Words are few.
I am grieving the loss of hospitality in which people would congregate at Manna House, drink coffee, exchange news, gossip, argue politics or religion. I am not getting my usual theological education from Moses, Larry, Don, Joyce, Patsy, among my other teachers from the streets. I am missing sharing bad jokes with Darren and Robert, and whoever else would listen. As Kathleen said to me the other day, “Just giving things out isn’t hospitality.”
Fifteen years ago, Manna House started. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday morning since then, we have been open. Same for the More on Monday meal added about a year later; every Monday evening the door would open, and people would come in. People from the streets and from surrounding neighborhoods with low income housing gathered. Hospitality was offered: a sanctuary place was created where a community of people formed around shared cups of coffee, showers, clothing, hygiene items, food, conversation. If I have done my math right, we have been open well over 3,000 times with more than 80,000 guests welcomed (that includes repeaters). I find this quantifying of what has gone on and what is past only highlights what is not happening now.
But something is happening. Albeit on a small scale. I am going to call it “humbled hospitality.” No conversation is more than five minutes. But the hello, and the inquiry, “How are you doing?” sometimes sparks a few words.
One of the guests who arrives asks me if I am still willing to be a reference for him. “They might call you this week. I have a bunch of applications in and this one place called me. I’m trying not to get my hopes up.” I tell him that if they call I will definitely put in a good word for him.
Another guest approaches me as I am pulling weeds, “Do you have anyone to mow the grass?” When I explain that we do it ourselves, he responds, “I’m looking for work. I was doing so good. I had a landscape job. Got myself a place. Even got a car. Now, no work. I may lose my place. My car is gone.” I think of the 22 million unemployment claims made over the past four weeks. The number is staggering; the reality is one person after another without work, each with a story of how they were doing when they had work and the suffering they are experiencing without work.
Yet another offers a blessing to those of us handing out the hospitality bags. “God be with you. Just good to see you.”
One more gives me an update, and some of that theological education I have been missing. “I’ve got the cancer. I’m through the surgery. I don’t know what lies ahead but God is with me, just like He’s with you.”
It is still Eastertime. And this guest’s message to me makes it plain. In these times when the night seems so strong and it seems like the light will never shine through again, God’s love comes through. God’s love is stronger than disease and death. To be a witness to the resurrection, I have to live with the conviction that every spark of light is part of a larger dance of love that will spread and burst forth in a flame that cannot be quenched. So it is with humbled hospitality, what little I may offer, still makes possible the sharing of some human relationship in this time of social distancing. And for now, I have to trust that spark can be part of God’s dance of love, of God’s larger flame.