Humbled Hospitality

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.

“How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Guests are no longer lingering at Manna House. They come, usually one by one, to get the meal on Monday night, and the hygiene “hospitality bag” on Thursday morning. There’s no waiting for their name to be called for showers. We are not doing showers right now. There’s no gathering for conversation around cups of coffee. We are not serving coffee right now. This is what hospitality looks like in a time of COVID-19: welcoming people for a few basic services in ways that will not encourage the spreading of this coronavirus.

We practice welcome by calling arriving guests by name, and by asking each as they arrive how they are doing. Occasionally our welcome also leads to meeting a special need, perhaps for a blanket or a hat. And our welcome also means the bathroom is available while Manna House is open. Thursday morning several guests took the opportunity to wash up.

How are the guests doing? Not that well. The isolation of the streets is compounded by the closing and reduction of hours for places for people to go. The library is closed. Fast food restaurants are carry-out only; dining rooms and bathrooms are closed. Meals are all takeout, so soup kitchens do not allow for sitting down together to eat.

“It is always hard out here,” a guest said, “now it’s harder than hard.”

I have been seeking to discern the presence of God in this “harder than hard” time of disease, desolation, and death. I have been trying to figure out “How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).

At Manna House this morning there was time between guests arriving to talk. Fr. Val was there, as he is every Thursday. And he brought up this Sunday’s Gospel. It will be Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord is read. This year that means Matthew’s version. In Matthew, Jesus on the cross cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22. There is a pattern in this psalm, a going back and forth between cries of being abandoned by God and affirmations of the gracious presence of God.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.

In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”

What to make of this pattern of lament and lauding of God? How might this psalm and Jesus in his words on the cross speak to this “harder than hard” time? Pierre Wolff, in a book titled, “May I Hate God?” writes that when “We think we are accusing God… in reality God is sorrowfully questioning the world through us.” Jesus in crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” affirms his faith that God is on the side of deliverance, not death; compassion, not crucifixion; salvation, not shameful execution.

I cannot question God unless at the same time I trust God wants something different. Put another way, all that is in me that desires life, that desires a better world, that loves, that seeks justice, that aspires for the good of all humanity and the creation, that is God within me. All that is in me that mourns life lost, that sorrows at suffering, that cries out at injustice, that is God within me.

And so, I am left with a choice in this “harder than hard” time. Jesus faced the same choice in his temptations in the desert. Is God with us in our vulnerability, or should we put our trust in the way of control? Jesus faced his vulnerability as a human being as he responded to each temptation; the same vulnerability I face in my humanity. Will we live on the Word/bread of God, or on the economic power of turning stones into bread? Will we trust in God to be with us or will we test God by claiming religious power over life? Will we serve and worship a God at odds with the powers that be, or serve and worship the idol of domination over others?

Jesus chose to embrace his vulnerability, to practice compassion, not control; discipleship, not domination; solidarity, not separation. Jesus chose to be with the outcasts, the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the foreigners, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, the unclean, the ostracized and excluded. Why? Because that is where God breaks in to affirm another way, and where we can sing God’s song of love and justice, while we live in a strange land, where those are in short supply.