Of Walls and Sin and Break-Ins

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.”—Robert Frost, from “Mending Wall”

Manna House reopened today. We were closed last week due to repeated break-ins. In the past six weeks we have had more break-ins and attempted break-ins than in our past fifteen years. I think our last break-in was more than ten years ago. 

The person or persons breaking in were quite determined. They used a crowbar to pry off security bars on windows and bust through doors. Once inside they did additional damage to interior doors that were locked. And they rummaged about looking for things to steal creating additional messes. 

Over the past few weeks, we have gone to work, repairing, replacing, and reinforcing doors and windows. We also cleared tree limbs and other brush that might obscure views of the house from the street. Since not much was taken (there is not much to take), we also restocked and got rooms back in order.

But beyond these physical repairs and clean up, I have needed time to for spiritual repair. I need time to remember why I do this work and who I seek to serve. I have to address my anger, frustration, and feelings of despair.

One way to do this was to talk with our guests. On the mornings we were closed, I went to Manna House. I stood on the front porch and greeted guests as they arrived and shared with them the news that we were not open. Then we talked about the break-ins. They found the break-ins as confusing as I did. And, as they talked they offered me some reassurance.

“Why would anyone break in here?” one guest asked, “There ain’t nothing to take. You give it all away.”

“Sorry this is happening. It don’t make no sense.”

“Isn’t everything in here donations? What’s to take?”

“Evil abounds.”

“Damn, I hate missing my shower, but I understand.”

“I’ll pray for you all.”

I also took time to simply be at Manna House, in silence, and in prayer. The space felt desecrated in some way. These break-ins felt personal, like whoever was doing this was attacking the hospitality we seek to offer at Manna House. Was it a disgruntled guest? Was it someone I had angered? Why so determined to get in and do damage to this place? Or were these break-ins the work of someone who could care less about Manna House? Is Manna House just another place where there might be something of value to steal?

            I do not have answers to those questions. But as I have sat with them, a few things have emerged to keep me going. Manna House is a place of hospitality, where we welcome people and share needed goods. But Manna House is also a place with more resources than someone on the streets or otherwise in poverty. Our fence, our security bars and locked doors, are all signs of holding onto things, of trying to shut some out on some days and at some times. During certain days and hours, we are walling some out. I have no doubt, as we wall out some, we do give some offence. I know we give offence by the anger that comes when I have said “No” to a guest’s request, for clothing, for a shower, for a backpack. My “no” always has a good reason (boundaries, limits, our hours of operation being sustainable), but that good reason is from my perspective, my place of privilege, my place of power. My good reasons will not assuage the anger a guest may feel. And such anger may well have led to these break-ins. 

            I have had to remind myself that Manna House, the work of hospitality I do there with others, is a sign of grace, but also of sin. The hospitality is the grace. The sin is that the goods of this earth are not shared justly, and that even hospitality reflects on some level a divide between “haves” and “have-nots.” I am not saying such sin means Manna House should be broken into (just as I would not say we should do away with our fence and locked doors and security bars on the windows). I am saying, I need to avoid the self-righteousness which feeds my anger and discouragement about these break-ins. I need to realize that even in the good of hospitality I share, I am not addressing the deepest hurt and injustices that feed the evil of break-ins. I need to realize this is God’s work in a broken world, not my work.

            When Manna House reopened today, that good of hospitality was shared again. And the guests did as they so often do, they offered me pastoral care. “Don’t take it personally,” one guest said, “just keep doing what you do. A better day is coming. You wait and see.”