Strangest Damn Church

What we call the Chapel at Manna House is an extension of the shed in the backyard. In this covered space there are a few old donated church pews and some park benches, along with a statue of St. Francis, and a large crucifix where a silver Jesus hangs from a wooden cross attached to the shed’s sheet metal wall.  It is not fancy. But it has been the scene for a few weddings among guests, memorial services for guests who have died, and even one ordination for a Manna House volunteer now a chaplain at a local hospital.

In COVID times, since we cannot crowd into the house, guests gather in the backyard, even when it rains. We make do with picnic table umbrellas, a red tent, and the Chapel, as places where the guests can stay dry.

As I moved around the backyard this morning talking with guests, I stopped in the chapel.

“How you all enjoying church this morning?” I asked.

“This ain’t no damn church,” a rather sour faced guest responded.

I said, “You’re sitting on pews, there’s a statue and a crucifix, and over there is the minister.” I pointed to another guest, and then added, “He’s about to take up a collection, $5 dollars from each of you.”

“I’m a minister, too!” the sour guest said. And we all laughed, even him.

Then he said, “Charlton Heston was a horrible Moses. He messed up that movie ‘The Ten Commandments.’”

“He sure did,” I said, “no white man would stand with slaves and get them free. Besides Moses was dark skinned.” 

The guest smiled and shook his head as if amazed and asked, “What’s your name?”

I told him and asked him for his name. Then he said, “Let me tell you a joke.”

“A man goes to church on Sunday. While he’s waiting for the service to start a Deacon taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘You aren’t allowed in here. You got to go.’ The man is upset, but he doesn’t want to cause a scene, so he gets up and goes. During the week he prays about it and thinks about it and decides maybe he wasn’t dressed properly for church. So, he gets a suit and returns the next Sunday to the same church. While he’s waiting for the service to start a Deacon taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘You aren’t allowed in here. You got to go.’ The man is upset, but he doesn’t want to cause a scene, so he gets up and goes. During the week he prays about it and thinks about it and decides maybe he needs to make a sizeable offering then he’ll be allowed to stay. So, he returns the next Sunday to the same church. He makes it until the offering when he puts $500 dollars in the plate. Just then the Deacon taps him on the shoulder and says, ‘You aren’t allowed in here. You got to go.’ The man doesn’t want to cause a scene and he leaves. But he’s very upset. He prays to God, asking God why this is happening. ‘Why won’t they let me in to that church?’ God answers him, “They’ve never let me in either.’

As the guests and I laughed, the man said, “I don’t go to church. You see why. That’s why this can’t be a church.”

“Well, you’re here and you just gave a great sermon, so this is church now.”

“Strangest damn church I’ve ever been in,” the man said, only now he smiled.

Of Broken Angels and People

I have to confess that for the past month or so, I have not been very attentive to the presence of God at Manna House. I have grown tired of the changes to how we offer hospitality due to COVID. Masks mean I cannot see smiles. Social distancing prevents the relaxed gathering of people in the house. A number of guests who are housed, but enjoyed the community of conversation around coffee, have simply stayed away. Our coming together is always tinged by some level of anxiety about contracting COVID.

God got through all of that yesterday and got my attention. It started, of course, with a guest who called me by name.

“Pete,” he said, “you don’t remember me, do you?”

When I arrived at Manna House on this morning to open the gate and help prepare the house for hospitality, I had seen this man sleeping in the parking lot. He was under a blanket, on the hard surface of the lot, sound asleep. A purloined grocery cart stood watch over him, filled with his belongings. I figured he would eventually wake up and come across the street to Manna House for a cup of coffee, and maybe get a shower and a change of clothes.

About mid-morning, I was unloading donations from my car at the front of Manna House.  I saw that the man was now awake. I also saw that he had difficulty standing. I went across the street and asked him if he would like a cup of coffee. That is when he called me by name.

Then he told me his name. And yes, then I remembered him.

This began a conversation and a process that involved driving him to his lawyer’s office so they could help him get his disability check started again (his check had been stopped because he was in jail this past year), a quick stop at Catholic Charities to get a sack lunch, and then on to the Methodist University Hospital Emergency Room, to get medical clearance to stay at the Room in the Inn Recuperative Care Center.

All of this was facilitated by several of us Manna House volunteers, while others continued the usual hospitality of showers, socks and hygiene, and coffee. One of the volunteers that helped me with driving the guest around and getting him into the Emergency Room is a Memphis Theological Seminary student who is doing his Clinical Practicum at Manna House this semester.

When we got back from the hospital, we started to have a conversation about Manna House and how it works. Another guest came up to us and said, “God bless Manna House.” I responded, “God bless you. Do you know you are blessing?

A little later, at the end of the morning, Ashley and Kathleen fixed the broken wing of the concrete angel that has stood in the backyard of Manna House since we opened. Thanks to their careful work and some cement glue, the angel is now whole.

But as I looked at the angel, I saw the cracks were still visible in her wings, reminders of her brokenness. I started to think about all of the angels, all of the messengers of God who remind me of God’s call, of God’s gracious presence.

Those messengers have always been there, and yet in these days of COVID I have missed them. I have not been paying attention.

The angel reminded me of God’s presence that I had seen in the man in the parking lot, in the way in which volunteers responded, and in the guest who said, “God bless Manna House,” and that I now realized in myself. Every one of us at Manna House, whether guest or volunteer, comes with broken wings, more or less healed. It is in our brokenness, our wounds, that God’s gracious presence comes and helps us so that our compassion grows, as Paul wrote of God telling him, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made whole in infirmity” and so Paul concluded, “Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The angel with a broken and now repaired wing called me back again to the grace of God that comes in hospitality, when we welcome each other in our brokenness. As it says in the New Testament Book of Hebrews, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so, some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Yes, to angels with broken wings, they are most adept at announcing God’s loving presence.