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 https://vawnet.org/sites/default/files/materials/files/2016-09/AR_SAHomelessness.pdf).

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.

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