Manna House is located somewhere between hope and heartbreak. Perhaps you are too.
Heartbreak is more common. It is part of a daily grinding reality for our guests. Poverty and homelessness destroy people. So many of our guests come to Manna House exhausted and fall asleep in the chairs in the backyard. Other guests come battered from a fight or a fall. Some rotate in and out of jail. I got a letter last week from a guest who is languishing in 201 Poplar, facing criminal charges. Some come clearly disturbed, wrestling with mental illness. And then there is the heartbreak of death. This week a guest arrived to share sad news. A guest diagnosed with cancer last spring has died. This was in addition to the death of yet another guest we just learned about this morning.
These heartbreaks piled onto the heartbreak of Carolyn Randall’s death this week. Carolyn was a longtime Monday morning volunteer at Manna House. She had an unfailing sense of humor. Kathleen reminded me that Carolyn would bring in her purse her own bottle of taco sauce for lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. She knew what spice she wanted, and she brought it. Carolyn incredible patience, and gentleness with Manna House guests. She could be both “no nonsense” and compassionate at the same time. She made each person around her feel loved and accepted.
Meanwhile, Memphis as city is heartbroken. The city has been shaken by the abduction and murder of a young mother, quickly followed by a murder spree as a man rampaged through the city, eventually killing four people. This on top of the murder of two community activists this past summer, one of whom I knew. Autura Eason Williams was a graduate of Memphis Theological Seminary, and very active in our Formation for Ministry program and in our Center for Faith and Imagination.
The death toll from murders in Memphis in 2022 is over 170. Memphis continues to suffer from years of disinvestment in its neighborhoods and schools, from a criminal justice system that is only punitive and not restorative, and from a national cultural glorification of violence, misogyny, racial hatred, and unbridled celebration of “winners” over “losers” defined by wealth and celebrity.
So, heartbreak, yes.
But what about hope?
Hope is more fragile and fleeting. But hope has its moments in the midst of heartbreak. Hope comes when a guest returns to joyfully announce, “I have a place to live!” Or hope arises when a guest shares that he’s found work that will get him off the streets. Hope is nourished when guests and hosts share stories in the backyard, and we remember our shared humanity. Hope is reborn when a guest emerges with a smile and a renewed sense of dignity after taking a shower. Hope is celebrated when we all sing “Happy Birthday” together to a guest who hasn’t heard happy birthday to her in years. Hope even comes when we laugh together over jokes that are painfully bad (one of my specialties).
We carry hope when we refuse to give in to the power of evil. Evil divides, demoralizes, and dehumanizes us. Hope is lived out in the faith that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (MLK). Hope lives with vulnerability without giving into cynicism and bitterness. Instead, hope draws upon vulnerability to ground compassion. We are in this together, let’s help one another become better. Hope knows that there are no easy answers to why good people suffer, to why evil wracks our souls, to why we fail over and over again. Hope knows that the only solution is love and that love is a “harsh and dreadful thing” (Dorothy Day quoting from the Brothers Karamazov).
On the night when we were all ordered to “shelter in place” while police searched for the man killing others across the city, including in our neighborhood, our seven-year-old daughter began to sing “This Little Light of Mine.” Her singing represents hope. In the night, in the midst of heartbreak, she found and amplified the Light. I am thinking she’s right. Living into the Light, into life, into liberation, into love is the only way to live between heartbreak and hope.