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.