Angels at Manna House, from September 2014

This past Monday, September 29th [in 2014], after the gate to the backyard was opened, we gathered with our guests as we do each morning, to pray. On that day, as I led the prayer, I announced that it was the Feast of Archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. When I came across this fact during my morning prayer I had not been all that thrilled. Archangels seem like a mythological hangover lurking around the edges of Christian faith. Angels are a little bit too sappy for my taste, like the old TV program, “Touched by an Angel,” or that movie with John Travolta, “Michael.”

          But then I remembered Hebrews 13:2 that I now shared with our guests, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.” Maybe I just needed to focus on the presence of God’s messengers in those who come to Manna House. (The Hebrew word for angel is mal`ach, and the Greek word is angelos; both words mean “messenger”).

          So I invited all of us present to turn to our neighbor and say, “Good morning Angel!” There was much laughter as we all considered the outside possibility that some whom we welcomed were angels, messengers of God. 

            I was pleased with my theological recognition that the Bible holds together angels and hospitality. Abraham and Sarah welcomed visitors who were angels (Genesis 18). The same angels found Lot to be hospitable, but the people of Sodom to be utter failures when it came to hospitality (Genesis 19, Ezekial 16:49). Mary had an angelic visitor, namely Gabriel, giving her the news that she was pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). Mary was quite hospitable, given the surprising news Gabriel gave in that visit.

            I was also pleased that one of the readings on this Feast Day gives an ancient and poetic depiction of angels in the Book of Revelation, the same angels who we welcome in the practice of hospitality. In Revelation, these angels are crucial in spiritual warfare. “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they were defeated… And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…..” (Revelation 12:7-9).

After this battle is over “a loud voice” is heard “saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God’” (Revelation 12:10-12).

Angels acting on the authority of Jesus Christ throw out the prosecutor who would condemn us on Judgment Day. Given that angels are those we welcome when we offer hospitality, the very angels to whom we offer hospitality are the ones who throw out the D.A. (District Accuser a.k.a. Satan). Michael and the others angels, to whom we offer hospitality, are our Public Defenders advocating for us on Judgment Day.

Hospitality and throwing out D.A.’s, that kind of angel theology appealed to me. No sap and sentimentality there.

But, later this same morning, I was called into the house. A volunteer told me a guest who had just arrived wanted to see me. I was not particularly happy to hear this. Almost always this means the guest wants a special favor, and he was told “no” by another volunteer. So he’s appealing to a higher authority, me. And now I have to say “no” again. I was certainly not thinking my high theological thoughts about guests as angels as I approached him. I brusquely said to him, “Stephen, what do you want?”

He replied, “I don’t want anything.”

“Then why do you want to see me?”

“I have something for you.” And he handed me a little red purse, smaller than a post-it note.

Now Stephen is quite mentally ill, and my compassion started to come back, albeit a bit paternalistically.

“Thank you Stephen. This is very nice.”

“No, you idiot,” he said, “Open it!”

I undid the little metal snap on the purse. Inside there was a thin piece of cardboard. I began to pull it out. I saw a tiny golden angel lapel pin attached to it and the words, “This is your guardian angel who will watch over you all your days.”

My knees grew weak. I could feel tears in my eyes. 

“Thank you Stephen. You don’t know how much this means to me.”

“O yes I do,” he replied, and with that he turned and left the house.My years of theological training had about dried up inside of me any belief in angels. I could talk theological talk about angels and hospitality and D.A.’s, but in this moment my talk was silenced. I simply had to accept the mystery of God and God’s angels. I had been touched by an angel.

The Gift of a Purple Heart

A guest, I’ll call her “Sally,” called me over to her. She sat alone at a picnic table in the backyard at Manna House. I was not pleased that she wanted to talk with me. Sally is short white woman probably in her early forties. She is very mentally ill, cantankerous, strangely dressed, and disheveled. My past interactions with her have included asking her to leave Manna House for being disruptive. But this morning, Sally seemed calm. She told me she had something for me. She said it was a gift. “Thanks for all Manna House does,” she said. Sally reached out her hand and put a small costume jewelry purple heart into my hand. On the heart it read, “Nurse.”

“You all mean a lot to me,” she said.

A purple heart? In the military, the purple heart in awarded in recognition of being wounded in war. In hospitality, just what is the war and what are the wounds? 

Sally herself is more deserving of a purple heart. I cannot fathom the wounds Sally has suffered from the violence of homelessness. I have some knowledge of statistics regarding the depth of horror of women face in homelessness. Studies show that almost all women on the streets have suffered sexual violence at some point in their lives. Women in homelessness are highly likely to be assaulted and raped. One study described homeless women as enduring a “traumatic lifestyle” in which incidents of sexual assaults are “layered upon ongoing traumatic conditions such as struggling to meet basic survival needs and living with ongoing threats and dangers.” (See

To try and understand Sally’s wounds, I have to also add the violent injustice of untreated mental illness, the anguish of addiction, and the loss of connection with family and friends. Her wounds, like the woundedness of so many on the streets, means carrying a grief characterized by shock, despair, and anger. The trauma from the violent uprooting of people from homes, human dignity, and hope is a deep wounding. 

And yet in the midst of her wounds and loss and grief, Sally offered me the gift of a purple heart. Did she sense my wounds from offering hospitality to wounded people? I have seen the violence our guests have suffered from homelessness and poverty. I have lost count of the number of guests who have died. I see guests arrive blooded from falls or fights. I still remember the man who arrived in a wheelchair covered in his own excrement and maggots. I have seen guests convulse from seizures. I have prayed with guests as they have lost parents, siblings, friends. I have heard guests tell their stories of rejection for being gay, lesbian, or transgendered. I have seen the torment in the eyes of guests whose mental illness is untreated. I have heard the anger of guests when I have told them “no” because our hospitality has its limits too. 

Where do I go with this woundedness? How do I accept woundedness without becoming so calloused that my ability to show up again and again to offer hospitality is destroyed? Sally’s gift of a purple heart pointed not only to the woundedness of our guests, but also to my own woundedness. But I cannot stop there. For me, the recognition of woundedness in a purple heart is finally not enough. I have to turn to another symbol of woundedness, the cross, to find a way of compassion through woundedness. The cross was imposed on Jesus as a way to crush him and his reign of God movement. The wounds imposed on Manna House guests are intended to crush them. The wounds I receive doing hospitality are intended to harden my heart, so I stop offering hospitality.

Jesus resurrected still has the wounds from the cross. Jesus resurrected still has a purple heart. But instead of bringing death, those wounds and that purple heart now give witness to healing and life. This is the hope that emerges from grief. There is a healing that emerges from woundedness. When I attend to the wounds from the perspective of the cross, I find that the wounds invite me into compassion. I will not run from the woundedness of the guests at Manna House or my own woundedness. Our wounds join us together. From the perspective of the cross, I am invited through the gift of the purple heart to see our mutual vulnerability and our need for each other.

Sally is still on the streets, still suffering from mental illness and addiction, still susceptible to the violence done to women on the streets. But in the light of the cross, her gift of the purple heart reveals to me something more going on with her, and I hope with me. Our wounds call us to embrace and support and heal each other. Our wounds call us to share with each other the gift of the purple heart, wounds transformed by love, and wounds that know the necessity of justice in which the wounding will stop.