A Calloused Heart

Guests from the streets wait in front of Manna House. They sit on the curb of the sidewalk. Two men and a woman. All dressed for warmth in the layers of clothing that street people have as a uniform through the winter months, and that a few even wear through summer heat.

This morning is warmer. But the night chill no doubt lingers for these three who had slept outside.

The woman looks up as I nearly reached the sidewalk. I have my key ready to open the gate.

“Will you all do showers today?” she asks.

“Yes mam.”

“What time do you start?”

“Eight o’clock.”

“What time is it now?”

“Six forty-five.”


Her weariness and resignation go out with her breath.

I unlock the gate, walk up the steps, unlock the front doors, and go in to start the coffee and change over laundry from the day before. Her weariness follows me.

Two words from a nurse who volunteered at Manna House several years ago come to mind.

“Calloused hearts.”

She said that nurses have to develop calloused hearts, and she observed the same was true at Manna House.

A calloused heart.

Skin callouses develop to protect the skin in areas of friction or pressure. A calloused heart develops to protect compassion and care from the friction of unending need and the pressure of despair from systematically imposed suffering. 

A calloused heart loves the people who come for hospitality and hates the injustice that grinds them down.

A calloused heart maintains boundaries needed for long-haul hospitality. Hospitality to last needs order, along with a humility that accepts that not every need can be met, even as a community of people can faithfully meet some needs.

A calloused heart is innocent as a dove and wise as a serpent. Grace gives the innocence in which everyone who comes is welcomed. No ID is required. No means testing takes place. No distinction is made between “worthy” and “unworthy” poor. No demand is made to change or to be evangelized. But with wisdom gained from experience, stories that seek to create sympathy for special treatment are discarded. With wisdom, people who threaten hospitality’s decorum and the dignity of others are asked to leave.

A calloused heart still weeps. Jesus wept. I weep. I hear the stories of loss that pile up in the lives of our guests. The death of loved ones. No work. Exploitative work. Agony in addiction. Torment in mental illness. Beatings. Harassment from police or passing strangers. Physical suffering from cold, rain, heat, mosquitoes and rats. Bad food. 

I weep as our guests die. Sometimes alone. Always too early. I weep from the harsh dismissal of any care for people on the streets and the calls to punish them further.

At eight o’clock the Manna House door opens. 

A calloused heart. I have one. With a calloused heart I can make it through this morning.

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