The Gift of Smallness

Lately, Jesus, Dorothy Day, and St. Therese of Lisieux have gone to work on my soul. I had succumbed to the deadly “bigger is better” and “busier is better” viruses. There were mornings at Manna House when I wondered if it was worth our even staying open. Given the risk to ourselves and to our guests, and the small amount of hospitality we were offering, should we even keep our reduced schedule of two mornings a week, from 8:00-10:000am?

Part of this questioning no doubt came from my sense of the paucity of what we were offering compared to the “glory days.” Pre-pandemic we were open three mornings a week from 8:00-11:30am. Typically, we would manage twenty-five or more people for showers, fifty-one or more for socks and hygiene, and three to four hundred cups of coffee served to several hundred guests. Now we had two mornings a week from 8:00-10:00am, six people for showers, maybe thirty for socks and hygiene, and a hundred or so cups of coffee for maybe sixty guests all total.

Part of my questioning also came from the slower pace for myself at Manna House. With fewer guests, on many mornings I found myself with a significant amount of “down time”—when there was little or nothing to do but wait for another person to finish his shower, so the next guest could be called in.

I know I was also mourning not only the reductions in service, but also the loss of relationships with people on the streets and others who came to Manna House each day we were open. Those relationships relied upon offering a place where it was comfortable to come and hang out. With our limitations on going into the house (one person at a time for use of the bathroom, and one person at a time for showers), we did everything else outside, including the coffee serving and “socks and hygiene.” It was not that comfortable for hanging out. For the people with a place to stay, the choice to stay away was easy. And many of the people on the streets likely found warmer places to go. In either case, the community at Manna House was smaller.

In my mourning and questioning, I heard the voice of Jesus say, 
“‘Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast.’
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn and sad.”

And I listened as I rested, and Jesus said, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18–19).

Then I heard Dorothy Day say, “by little and by little,” we are made whole by the small things, chosen deliberately and repeated each day in the service of the poor.

Then I heard St. Therese of Lisieux say that I should seek the “Little Way” in which “What matters in life is not great deeds but great love.” The key is not performance but relationship.

In the spirit of the little way of the mustard seed, Jesus, Dorothy, and Therese called me to embrace the gift of the smaller, the slower, the fewer. In this gift, I have space for practicing the presence of God. At Manna House this means I can slow down and recognize God’s presence in each guest as “Christ comes in the stranger’s guise” (see Matthew 25:31-46). When I am not so rushed, I can see each person’s dignity, and listen more carefully to each person. I can also take the time to sit for conversation.  

On Thursday, this gift of the smaller meant I sat down with a couple of guests, one black and one white. I listened to their stories about when they were younger. I was gifted as I saw their eyes brighten and smiles come across their faces as they reminisced about growing up in the country. They had simple stories about hunting, swimming, and taking care of “chores.” For a few minutes we were all in another place, a smaller place, a simpler place. Bigger and better took a back seat to the beauty of being with each other. And it was good.

A Stone Rejected Who Became A Cornerstone

I’m not exactly sure when Robert B. started coming to Manna House. It was at least six years ago. This morning his close friend, Darren, shared with me the sad news. Robert died sometime last Thursday morning in his sleep, under the bridge where he stayed. 

For someone who came to Manna House so regularly, I did not know a lot of details about Robert’s life, but his character spoke clearly. He was a quiet man. He was unfailingly friendly but reserved. He liked to keep his nose in a book and out of other people’s business. And he did not really appreciate other people trying to get into his business either.

Always thin, Robert was even thinner since he got out of the hospital in late fall. He had been stabbed and for a while it was touch and go. I went up to see him (my clergy pass allowed me in despite the COVID restrictions). We talked and I prayed with him. This was “a bad cut,” he said in a matter-of-fact monotone. He held no grudge or hatred toward the person who had done it. “We were both being stupid,” he said, “it happens when you drink too much.”

Robert never got too excited about anything. I tried hard with my silly jokes to get him to laugh, but the best I could get was a wry smile and a shaking of his head. He would warn people to not ask me to tell a joke. “They are painfully bad,” he would say, “Don’t get him started.”

He would often ask me for the weather forecast. He wanted to know the ten-day forecast with highs and lows and chances of rain. I had a sense that Robert did not like surprises. He certainly moved in a methodical way, never hurried, but also never slow.

Robert read historical novels, thrillers, and mysteries. Every picture I have of him from Manna House he has a book in his hands, and he is reading. He was a regular in the furthest corner of the backyard. There he constituted with a few others guests an informal library reading space. It was like they created an oasis of quiet in the midst of all the activity of a morning at Manna House.

Robert had a dignity about him that was part humility and part acceptance of himself for who he was. He sometimes came to Manna House after having drank too much. He was always apologetic and vowed to not do that again. He told me that Manna House was a place he felt welcomed, and he wanted to keep it that way.

The first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation is the cornerstone. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure. Robert was a “stone that the builders had rejected” (Psalm 118:22). He was on the streets, one of the “homeless” defined as a problem and sometimes even a menace. But he “had become the cornerstone” at Manna House. His steady presence helped establish a sense of orderliness in which people can relax, and hospitality becomes possible. 

I am unsettled by Robert’s death. Life seems more precarious than ever these days. But I am also going to hold onto Robert’s witness to ordinary steadfastness and human decency in the midst of failures and falls. He would certainly wobble from time to time, but he constantly returned to read a book, to say hello, to be a friend. Perhaps he showed that joy in life is only possible in the midst of vulnerability. That seems like a lesson I can rightly draw from the life and character of Robert, much like the life of another stone that was rejected and became a cornerstone.