Opening the Gate

My namesake, St. Peter, has long been portrayed as the one who welcomes people to the imagined “pearly gates” of heaven. So, I can’t help but think of St. Peter and those heavenly gates when I open the gate at Manna House each morning to let our guests in for hospitality. 

The whole “pearly gates” image comes from Revelation 21:21 which poetically describes the gates of the “new Jerusalem come down from heaven.” In this city, God “will wipe away every tear” and “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” 

When I open the gate, the sharing of hospitality begins. Volunteers and guests welcome each other. We pray together. Then as guests wait for their names to be called for the showers or socks and hygiene, coffee and water are served, we share stories, jokes are told, and news is passed along. 

This past week was the Feast of Saint Alphonsus Rodriguez. For years he served as the doorkeeper in a Jesuit community in Spain. Of St. Alphonsus it is said, “he encountered God in each person who passed through his open door. He performed his tasks with such infinite love that the act of opening the door became a sacramental gesture” (Ellsberg, All Saints).

A sacramental gesture means a sacred sign of the loving presence of God, one that reflects the life of Jesus. In this case, Jesus initiates this sacrament when he says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and those who seek find, and to those who knock, it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

When I open the gate (or the door) at Manna House as a sacramental gesture, I seek to welcome each person as bringing the presence of God. I often fail. And I know how far what I do is from the welcome offered at the pearly gates. Death still haunts our guests (as it does all of us). Mourning and tears and pain are still near and sure to come again. A sacramental gesture points to but is not the full reality. The gate to Manna House is not the pearly gates. I am not St. Peter. And as I say to our guests from time to time, “Knock and it will be opened to you, if we are open, ask and you shall receive, if we have it to give and your name is on the list.”

But to offer this sign, this hint of heaven is not nothing either. When along with other volunteers I offer this sign, and guests accept what is offered, we all share in a reality stronger than death, stronger than each one of us in our brokenness, our tears, mourning, sickness, and pain. We share in the reality of God’s loving welcome that gives hope to our lives, causes gates and doors to be opened, and the goods of God’s creation to be shared. The truth is, when I open the gate, the guests welcome me as much as I welcome them, we enter together into God’s hospitality, and heaven draws near.

Between Hope and Heartbreak

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.

Break-Ins and Brokenness

I did not want to call the police. Manna House seeks to practice Christian hospitality. Our focus is on welcoming persons in poverty, especially those experiencing homelessness. We seek to meet some specific and basic needs, like showers, clothing, and sanctuary from the violence of the streets. We seek to do this in ways that respect the dignity of our guests.

The focus of the police is quite different. The police enforce laws. The law and the legal system of courts, judges, lawyers, jails and prisons, are not hospitable to people in poverty and people on the streets. 

I did not want to call the police. But Manna House had been broken into six times in the past three weeks. I wanted the break-ins to stop.

Each time goods were taken that we give to our guests to meet their needs: socks, shoes, shirts, underwear, bottled water. And other goods needed to prepare the space for hospitality were taken too. The most expensive was the leaf blower (battery powered) we use to keep the backyard tidy and inviting for guests. 

Each time we had to make repairs to windows, doors, and fencing damaged by the break-ins. We added more security bars, more locks, more lighting, even some low-tech security cameras. I did not like that we were becoming physically more like a fortress than a place of hospitality.

So, when we learned who was doing the break-ins and given there were no signs he would stop, I called the police. They took a report. An investigator was assigned. A few days later there was some follow-up. The man doing the break-ins was found and arrested. He is now in jail, at 201 Poplar, awaiting a court date.

The break-ins have stopped. We can get back to the work of hospitality, serving our guests. We can stop the work of adding security bars and repairing doors and windows and fences. For that I am grateful. I am grateful I can enter Manna House without fearing that this intruder is lurking inside. I am grateful the police enforced the laws against burglary. But I take no delight or satisfaction in having called the police and in the arrest of the man doing the break-ins.

Instead, I am asking for God’s mercy. In my brokenness and in the brokenness of this world, I could not see a way forward except to join with an inhospitable system that will not help the man arrested. He will (likely) be punished with a prison sentence. In prison he will face violence and more dehumanization. I also know nothing will address the poverty and drug addiction that are part of his life, and that he will live with once he is out of prison. Finally, I know that his arrest itself was not without risk to his life. 

The longer I do this work of hospitality the more I encounter the moral perplexity of feeling that I have failed morally even when no right action seems to have been possible. It was right and responsible to act to stop the break-ins. But the man’s arrest, given our criminal justice system, will not help him. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw that moral decisions are often “ventures in the twilight.” Given that as a human being I am finite, fallen, and corruptible, and live in a society of the same, I will fall short on a regular basis. I live in a broken world. I will often live in the twilight.

I do not see any other way than to go with Bonhoeffer who wrote, “Those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and judgment” (Ethics, 268-69). May God forgive me.

[Reflection informed in part by a seminar I took long ago on moral perplexity and on reading Dallas Gingles, Justifications and Judgments: Walzer, Bonhoeffer, and the Problem of Dirty Hands, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 37,1 (2017):83-99.]

The Hard Knock School of Hospitality

The loud knock on the front door at Manna House came shortly after I arrived. I had plugged in the coffee pots, put laundry in the dryer, and then sat down to start my morning prayer. I relish the thirty minutes or so of quiet before volunteers arrive in which I prepare space in my heart for hospitality. But the loud knocking was persistent. I reluctantly got up and went to the front door.

I could see a lone guest through the glass window to the side of the front door. I did not recognize him.

“We’re not open until 8,” I shouted through the glass without opening the door. 

The guest was not impressed by the information I had given him.

“I want some socks!” he shouted back to me through the glass.

Although I know opening the door opens me to more requests, I opened the door and said, “When we open at 8, I’ll be happy to serve you.” 

“Just a pair of socks!” he insisted. 

I closed the door and walked away. Past experience echoed in my head, “It is never just a pair of socks. I’ll bring the socks and then there will be another request, like ‘Just a shirt.” I listened to the voice of experience and I went into the laundry room and settled back in my chair. The knocking began again.

A long time ago, Ed Loring of the Open Door Community wrote a short book about offering hospitality and living in community. He titled it, “I Hear Hope Banging at My Back Door.” But on this morning, I did not hear hope. Maybe because the banging was at the front door. Or maybe because I was just bone tired.

I did not get up and go back to the front door. After a few more minutes, the knocking stopped.

I thought about the importance of accepting my limits. I need to recognize that I cannot serve everybody all the time. Yet, this was somebody at this one time. 

I thought about the importance of boundaries which give some structure to offering hospitality. Set hours of operation make hospitality possible as it allows time to prepare the space for hospitality. There must be times for material and spiritual preparation for offering hospitality.  The doors cannot be open all the time. Yet, I could have opened the door for a few minutes to give out “just one pair of socks.”

I wrestled with acceptance of my own finiteness and the importance of my resisting the sinful pride of being the savior, the one who always responds to need. 

I thought perhaps all of my thinking was really just a way for me to legitimate my sinful refusal to offer aid to the stranger who had knocked at the front door. If that was Christ in the stranger’s guise (Matthew 25:31-46) standing at the front door, I did not let him in and I did not give him a pair of socks.

I went back to the front door. There was no one on the porch. The stranger had left. I went back to the laundry room and sat down.

I opened my prayer book. If there is anything this work of hospitality teaches me over and over again it is that I am in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I do not know with certainty what the right thing to do was this morning. I do not know with certainty that what I did was the wrong thing. I do know with certainty that offering hospitality has its own moral perplexities and complexities. There is no moral purity in the work of hospitality. I am saved by grace, not by offering hospitality.

I also know with certainty that at 8 a.m. I opened the front door, along with a small but adequate group of volunteers. I know, too, that for the next three hours we together offered hospitality, including fresh socks for every guest. I also know that the person who was knocking did not come back.

The Fragrant Work of the Gospel

“I’m sorry I smell so bad.”

I had been approached by a guest in the backyard. He was wearing clothes that were wrinkled and dirty. This apology were the first words out of his mouth.

“You have no need to apologize,” I said to him, “How may I help you?”

“I need fresh clothes, underwear, pants and a shirt. I can wash up in a gas station bathroom.”

Then he apologized again, “I’m sorry I stink.”

“It isn’t you who should be apologizing,” I responded.

“If not me, who? I’m the one who stinks.”

“How about the rich, the powerful, the people who run this country. The capitalists and bankers and politicians. They’re the ones who need to apologize to you.”

Another guest standing nearby said, “Ain’t that the truth!”

I told the apologetic guest, “Meet me at the front door and we’ll get you set up with some fresh clothes and a shower.”

Earlier in the morning, when I had first arrived at Manna House, I went into the laundry room. I was greeted by the stench of shit. I traced the stench to one of our big black trash cans that serve as laundry baskets for the dirty clothes of those who shower. I sorted through the clothes and found the offending underwear. It is not unusual for the underwear of our guests to be soiled in this manner. No public restrooms combined with soup kitchen food leads to bathroom emergencies unmet. In other words, shit happens.

I thought of St. Paul and his famous metaphor of the Body of Christ. Paul once wrote how God the Creator, “has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as God wanted them to be.” Paul noted that “there are many parts, but one body.” And he continued, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment.” 

Then he drew the theological and ethical conclusion, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Corinthians 12:18-26).

Paul reflected the insight and ethos of Jesus and the prophets. If one part of the body (a member of the community) stinks, it is up to the other parts to do something about it. Those other parts must not shame the part that stinks but do something to take away the stench. Like, give that part a shower and some fresh clothes. 

But Paul goes further. He names the cause of the stench. The stench is from the injustice and division that caused some to stink while others luxuriate in perfumed palaces. So, beyond a shower and a change of clothes, the very way all the parts of the body are related needs to be recognized and affirmed. Society needs to be structured so that the most vulnerable are treated with special honor. 

I would guess that Paul’s insight into a Gospel response to stench was connected to his knowledge of how Jesus responded to stench. You might recall the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus arrived days after Lazarus had died. When he commanded that the stone to the tomb be taken away, Martha the sister of Lazarus objected, “Lord, by now he stinks… It has already been four days” (John 11:39). Undeterred, Jesus had the stone removed and raised Lazarus from the dead. 

Jesus’ raising of Lazarus prefigured an even greater work by God. God moved beyond the resuscitation of Lazarus to the resurrection of Jesus. Those who came early to Jesus’ tomb after he had been crucified may have well expected a stench. Instead, of the stench of death there was the surprise of resurrection. God’s loving power raised Jesus from the dead. Easter calls us to this resurrection reality, and to the fragrant Gospel work of hospitality and justice so no one stinks. 

If I Die Tonight No One Will Miss Me

“If I die tonight, no one will miss me.”

One of our guests said this to me on this cold Thursday morning. He had slept outside in the twenty-degree weather last night. Now he was warming himself near the heater in the chapel area at Manna House and waiting for his hot shower. He asked me if I knew whether or not the city would open warming centers tonight. I did not know. 

I called the Office of Emergency Management for the City of Memphis which makes the decision about opening warming centers. I waited through a menu of options which included the Animal Shelter, Garbage Pick-Up, and the Non-Emergency Number for the Memphis Police. There was no option for “Homeless Services” or “Human Shelter.” I selected “0” for the operator. I was told that there would be no warming centers tonight. The forecast is for a low of 31. For Friday the forecast low is 18. I later learned from a city official that warming centers will be open Friday night, but they are not consistently open due to lack of funding. Another city official callously said, “There should be plenty of space at area shelters.” This is simply not true and also glides over the fact that there is no free public shelter in the city of Memphis. 

All shelter in Memphis is church affiliated or run by private organizations. And almost all of those are not free. The largest shelter in the city, the Union Mission, mandates attendance at a Christian worship service in order to stay overnight, and also charges $6.00 for the night. It does offer a few free nights before charging. The only regular free shelter is Room in the Inn Memphis which works with area churches to place people overnight in church spaces. Tonight, there is one church offering shelter through Room in the Inn.

At least one person has frozen to death in Memphis this winter. Eric Martin died near City Hall a few weeks ago. Each winter, people on the streets freeze to death in Memphis. Others die from pneumonia or other illnesses they catch in the bitter cold. 

Earlier this week I learned that a member of a Madison Ave business association referred to people on the streets as “trash that needs to be picked up.” 

The Mayor’s Office and this businessman share the view that some people are expendable. For them, people on the streets have no inherent worth or value. Value depends upon social standing, typically measured by such characteristics as economic status, race, gender, sexuality, and mental and physical health. 

The Gospel holds a different view. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said (Luke 6:20). And in case someone missed his point he told a judgment day parable in which God takes the position that “Whatever you do unto to the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46).

“If I die tonight, no one will miss me.” I wanted to tell this guest at Manna House this morning that he is not expendable, that he is wrong to think such a thing. In honesty, I could not tell him either of those things. So, I simply said, “If you die tonight, I will miss you and so will Kathleen and Ashley and everyone else at Manna House. But please don’t die. It’s time for your shower.”

Brief Reflections on “Sharing the Gospel” or “Evangelizing” or “Saving” Our Guests at Manna House

“Do you share the Gospel with the people who come to Manna House?”

“Do you evangelize the people you serve at Manna House?

Yes, we do, if by sharing the Gospel (or evangelizing) you mean what Jesus meant by sharing the Gospel (evangelizing) which was to share

“good news to the poor, 
    to proclaim release to the prisoners 
    and recovery of sight to the blind, 
    to liberate the oppressed,  

and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

We hope to be good news to our guests who come from the streets and in poverty by offering hospitality that respects their dignity as made in the image of God. 

We hope to proclaim release to the prisoners as we advocate stopping the criminalization of people in poverty, ending the death penalty, and undoing the mass incarceration done by our racist and classist criminal justice system. 

We seek to liberate the oppressed as we stand opposed to the “filthy rotten system” of consumer capitalism that oppresses the poor and God’s creation, and we urge a Beloved Community dedicated to the common good. 

We proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Biblical Jubilee, Isaiah 61:1-3, Leviticus 25:1-22) as we urge and practice a radical redistribution of goods so that everyone can enjoy enough to have life and have it to the full (John 10:10).

“How many people have you saved at Manna House?”

We have saved exactly zero people at Manna House. We are not God. We are not Jesus Christ. We don’t save people. God does. Our guests at Manna House do bring Jesus Christ to us, just as Jesus promised, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). We seek to love each of our guests as Jesus commanded us to do, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

Appeal for Support of Manna House and Manna House Women’s Sanctuary

For the needy will not always be forgotten, nor will the hope of the poor perish forever. (Psalm 9:18, Modern English Version)

Manna House began sixteen years ago. A few of us gathered as a community of volunteers to serve people on the streets and others in poverty in the downtown and midtown areas of Memphis. Several of us had gotten to know people on the streets as we worshipped at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at the corner of Cleveland and Jefferson. 

Three of those people on the streets, Sara, Tyler, and Abe, were regulars at Sacred Heart. They became the “holy trinity” who taught us about the needs and strengths of people on the streets in that neighborhood. They invited us to open a place of hospitality in which sanctuary would be provided, where people would be welcomed for coffee, conversation, showers and clothing, and above all, treated with dignity. Resources were pooled and a house was purchased at 1268 Jefferson to be remodeled into a place of hospitality. 

Our guiding inspirations, in addition to Sara, Tyler, and Abe, were the Open Door Community (then in Atlanta), the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and the long traditions of hospitality in the Christian tradition and in other world religions. 

In the late summer of 2005, Manna House opened without fanfare but with much hope, love, and faith. The then five-year-old daughter of Kathleen, one of the founders of Manna House, held a sign that said, “Free Coffee” and announced to all who walked by “Free Coffee for Sale!” People from the streets started to stop in and relationships were built. In the early months, coffee, conversation, and the occasional sweet roll gathered people several times a week, while fresh socks and hygiene items were also shared. By January, a new shower room was opened, so three times a week showers could be offered with a change of clothes. The “socks and hygiene” continued as well. In the winter months, coats, hats, gloves, blankets, sleeping bags, and more were also offered. In the summer months, fresh t-shirts, baseball caps were added. Haircuts were offered.

Hospitality, the welcome of people in their dignity as made in the image of God, and no requirements of ID or “needs testing” has been our central practice at Manna House. A little over a year later, a former guest (now off the streets and housed) began “More on Monday” a simple meal offered every Monday at Manna House. Over the years Manna House has also hosted a variety of start-up organizations, including Door of Hope, Outreach, Housing and Community, Room in the Inn Memphis, and Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.). Most recently we also opened the Women’s Sanctuary, working with Room in the Inn Memphis to offer shelter to women at a second location on Greenlaw.

All of this has been done over the years with a completely volunteer staff. No one is paid to work at Manna House. We are ordinary people offering hospitality. We started small and have stayed small so that we can offer a personal welcome to our guests. During our sixteen years, people from a variety of faiths (or no particular faith) have served at Manna House.  We have also hosted groups from schools and universities, and other organizations both locally and from across the United States. 

We’ve received financial support from many different individuals and from a variety of religious communities and other organizations. We do not seek or accept any government funding or complicated grants requiring a professional staff. For about $35,000 a year we serve 100 or so guests each day that we are open; that is, about 15,000 people a year. Since we have no paid staff all financial support goes to serving our guests either directly through goods that they receive or indirectly through maintaining our two places of hospitality where our guests are welcomed. We are a 901c3 (official name, “Emmanuel House Manna”), and each year we file a 990. 

We have continued our practice of hospitality through the pandemic. Though the pandemic has changed some aspects of how we offer hospitality, it has not deterred us from continuing to welcome guests, to offer a place of sanctuary, to offer showers, clothing, coffee, a weekly meal, and shelter at the women’s sanctuary.

Please consider supporting the work of hospitality at Manna House. Checks can be made out to Manna House or to Emmanuel House Manna (the official name of our nonprofit) and mailed to 769 Stonewall, Memphis, TN 38107.

Thank you!

Standing at the Foot of the Cross

The hospital, the jail, or the morgue. These are the three likely places where Manna House guests have gone if I have not seen them in a while.

One guest disappeared about a week ago. He showed up this morning. He had a cast on his right arm that ran from his fingers to just below his shoulder. 

“What happened?”

“I tripped and fell on a sidewalk. I’ve been in the hospital. They’ve done three surgeries on my arm.”

He had an awkwardly large and wide sling going around his neck and holding up his arm. He asked for something that would not chafe his neck so much. I suggested we try a tie. I went in and got several from the clothing room. With a little adjustment he had a new slender and non-chafing sling for his cast.

I was approached by another guest later in the morning. I had not seen him for several months. 

“Where you been?”

“Jail. Do you know how I can get my Social Security started again? They cut it off when you’re in jail.”

The Social Security office on Cleveland is still closed to walk-ins due to pandemic restrictions. A person can make an appointment online. Not so easy for someone on the streets. I gave him a few options, like using the public library for computer access.

A week ago, I was told that one of our guests had died of COVID. I have not been able to confirm that rumor. I certainly have not seen him, so I can still hold out the strange hope that he might be in jail or the hospital.

Many years ago, the Open Door Community in Atlanta (now in Baltimore) had a large crucifix with the Christ figure dressed in donated clothes from the community’s clothes’ closet. “The Vagrant Christ” was a regular at street liturgies during Holy Week. It was the Open Door that first opened my eyes and heart to the Liberation Theology understanding of, “the crucifixion of the poor.” As Jon Sobrino wrote of this crucifixion, “Poverty [and I would add, homelessness] is not some sort of natural destiny… It is the effect of historical decisions made by human beings. It is the effect of unjust structures. … It’s contrary to the plan of God the Creator, and contrary to the honor which is due to God.” 

I have learned from the Vagrant Christ and theologians like Sobrino that the poor are crucified. I have learned from the Open Door and at Manna House that when I offer hospitality I stand at the foot of the cross. 

To stand at the foot of the cross, Barbara Holmes writes, is to respond to God’s call “to stand silently at the places where the national powers are crucifying the innocent and waging war against the poor… willing to embody a contemplative resistance which is simply the expression of love and faith that transcends the ability to see or understand the outcomes” (Joy Unspeakable p.106). She adds that to stand silently is not to stand passively. Contemplative resistance requires that I listen, learn, and then bear witness to the ongoing crucifixion of the poor in our society. 

            I find it hard to stand at the foot of the cross and practice this contemplative resistance. There are mornings I do not want to go into the backyard and hear the stories of our guests. Just like with the guests this morning, there is little that I can do when they tell me of their time in the hospital, the jail, and the ways death comes on the streets and in poverty. In contemplative resistance I come to sit with these realities. 

At the foot of the cross, I listen to their stories and learn again how hard and yet necessary it is to trust in the power of love, and in the presence of God in the people who trust me enough to share what they are suffering. They teach me what Jesus knew on the Cross. Even as he cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” God had not abandoned him, just as God had not abandoned him in the silence of 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert. God was with him in the isolation and the darkness. 

At the foot of the cross, when I hear the stories of the Manna House guests, if I practice contemplative resistance, I will also experience the presence of God. I will experience how God remains present and affirms this is not the way things are supposed to be. 

Hospitality as a Civic Virtue: Lessons from the Streets for Civil Conversation

This is a paper I gave at the D.B. Rinehart Institute for Ethics in Leadership Conference at Viterbo University, LaCrosse, Wisconsin, October 22, 2021

In this age of intense political and cultural disagreement and division, what might the Christian practice and virtue of hospitality contribute to reflection upon and ways to improve relationships with each other, and our political and cultural discourse within civic life?

In seeking to respond to that question, I will identify and expand upon four major themes within the Christian tradition of hospitality which reflect biblical and theological wisdom namely, Love, Listening, Learning, and Limits. I believe these four aspects of the practice of hospitality can offer some help in how we enter into relationship with other people, particularly those with whom we most vehemently differ and disagree. I offer my reflections upon those four themes in light of my experience of over twenty-five years in offering hospitality, both in Atlanta and Memphis. I also fully recognize that these four aspects of hospitality by themselves are not sufficient for addressing the significant divisions we face today in our society; they are a contribution not a solution.

As a contribution, these dimensions of the practice of hospitality can offer some practical and hopeful help in our personal lives as we relate to people with whom we differ and disagree. I see both a realism and a hope in the practice of hospitality. The realism is that hospitality “always involves risk and the possibility of failure” (Pohl 14). Strangers are not always friendly, or even nonviolent. Hospitality does not always result in good relationships. Good relationships can be broken. Good relationships are difficult to create and sustain. The hope is that in the practice of hospitality we can enter into relationships that are mutually transformative, that result in mutual good. The hope is that as we share a place of welcome, conversation, a meal, we can come together to recognition of our shared humanity and a willingness to share life together, even as we will have disagreements and conflicts. With this realistic hope in mind, I offer these four dimensions of the practice of hospitality.

Hospitality as a Christian practice has a long biblical and theological history. The Bible identifies strangers as sent from God, as messengers of God. We see this in the Abraham and Sarah story of welcoming strangers who are angels in disguise (Genesis 18).  Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God identifies with the stranger “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:31-46). The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews urges us to “not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). Christine Pohl in Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as Christian Tradition, draws upon this biblical emphasis and the resulting Christian faith tradition of hospitality to state, “Hospitality is a way of life fundamental to Christian identity” (x). She describes evidence of the practice of hospitality from the early church to contemporary examples. Hospitality is a crucial practice in being Christian.

Love as a Christian practice within hospitality recognizes the stranger as made in the image of God. In hospitality, love is practiced through recognition and respect, especially for those who we disregard and dishonor (Pohl 61). Jesus asks his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44) and to recognize him in the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46) saying “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me.”

Love practiced as recognition affirms fellowship with the stranger as a fellow human being. In recognition, we affirm that we share a humanity and a transcendent destiny beyond our differences, significant as those may be. Love also affirms the Divine presence in the stranger. Love recognizes the other as the presence of God as Other. Love calls us to recognize, to see, the stranger as our brother or sister in Christ. In this love, we welcome others, and respect them by affirming their dignity. In love, hospitality affirms that each person matters. No person is dismissed as unworthy of attention.

As applied to our issue of civil discourse and engagement, love practiced as recognition rejects the reduction of any person to a particular social group, stereotype, or political party. Recognition affirms a “common identity” rather than oppositional identities. (See Christian S. Cleveland “Civil Discourse at the Table of Reconciliation,” in Virtue and Voice: Habits of Mind for a Return to Civil Discourse, location 756 of 3578). Hospitality in its affirmation of each person as created in the image of God puts into practice this common identity at a personal level, and urges that such recognition be the basis of our social and institutional lives as well. In this way, hospitality practices an openness to relationship with those deemed “other.” Thus, hospitality is remedial, counteracting the social divisions and inequalities of the broader society as it provides a modest welcome to each person (Pohl 63). As such, hospitality does not solve all social divisions and social ills. Yet in its practice of love, it provides the possibility of building social discourse based upon recognition and respect for each person as part of our shared humanity. With such respect civility becomes possible. (See Adam Pelser and Ryan West, “Respect as an Intellectual Virtue,” in Virtue and Voice, 80-106).

To practice this love is hard. To recognize and respect the stranger as human, as made in the image of God, as our brother or sister in Christ, challenges our tendencies to withdraw and build walls against the stranger. It is not easy to offer this recognition and respect to those with whom I deeply disagree and from whom I am quite different. And I as I will indicate later in my discussion of limits, there are boundaries that are necessary to establish and hold to in order for hospitality to even take place. Welcoming another requires a space and a place into which persons can be welcomed, where each and every person is respected.

Even with boundaries, the challenge in love as respect and recognition involves overcoming one’s fears, repulsions, and stereotypes that perpetuate social divisions. It requires an empathetic engagement with those with whom one does not typically associate, or with whom one finds association difficult.

As I have practiced hospitality over the years, I find some of my biggest challenges with regard to love and respect with white guests who want to assert their entitlement to special treatment, and also openly disdain African American guests. Like Facebook “Friends” with whom I consistently disagree, I find it difficult to empathize with them and understand them. I have to overcome my repulsion in order to listen to them, and serve them with respect. I often return to what Dorothy Day wrote in her autobiography as she quoted from Dostoevsky, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

Pohl, following Day and others in the Christian tradition of hospitality, urges that the demand of love to offer respect and recognition, can only be met by persons sustained by a strong life of prayer and times of solitude (Pohl 13). There is a mysticism inherent to hospitality, in which through God’s grace we come to see those with whom we deeply disagree as fellow humans, as made in the image of God, as the very presence of Christ. To love our enemies and welcome the stranger, we have to enter into prayer. In prayer, we ask that we might see the most difficult persons as God sees them, as God’s children. In prayer, we experience God’s unbounded love for us, which empowers us to love others as God loves us. This is the heart of Jesus’ great commandment, ““A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

How we regard with love those who are difficult to love is a powerful test of our faith. As the First Letter of John puts it, “If anyone says, “I love God,” and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). The mystery of God’s love is that we experience God’s love to the extent that we welcome God’s love for us as unearned, that God loves us even as we are unlovable. This is what grounds our love for those whom we regard as unlovable. I do not know of any other way to enter into this kind of love apart from prayer, apart from the acknowledgment of God’s gracious presence in my life. I do not practice this kind of love “naturally” but only “gracefully.”

Another way I might describe this love comes through Will Campbell’s stories in Brother to a Dragonfly. In one of those stories, Campbell recalls how he recognized “the redemptive company of a racist Jesus” in a favorite uncle who came to sit with him while mourning the death of a child in their extended family. This was an uncle who deeply disagreed with Campbell’s work for civil rights, who was openly racist. (Campbell 150-151). In another place Campbell writes, that “anyone who is not a concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian” (Campbell 201). Hospitality practices the loving truth that as Campbell puts it, “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyways” (Campbell 220).

A fundamental way to show recognition and respect with hospitality is to listen. Let me quote a renowned theologian, Beyonce, in her song, “Listen.”

Listen to the song here in my heart
A melody I start but can’t complete
Listen to the sound from deep within
It’s only beginning to find release
Oh, the time has come for my dreams to be heard
They will not be pushed aside and turned
Into your own all ’cause you won’t

Beyonce’s song indicates what happens when the songs of one’s heart are not heard, the dreams are not listened to, the relationship ends. Listening is a fundamental part of hospitality that makes relationship possible. Being heard is central to how each of us is affirmed as a human person with dignity, with worth. But what does it mean to listen?

The Rule of St. Benedict, which emphasizes hospitality as a key practice of monastic life, starts with the word, “obsculta,” which is translated, “listen.” Centuries of Benedictine spirituality have emphasized the connection between listening and obedience. Obsculta can mean either “listen” or “obey.” Further, the Latin word “obedire” which literally means “listen to” is the foundation for our English word “obedience,” to obey. The Rule of Benedict recognizes that listening is a way of attending, of paying attention to another in such a way that we are open to the divine presence in that person. As one Benedictine writer observes, “There is nothing casual or half-hearted about this kind of listening. It requires close attention, hard work, care. It means more than just absorbing words. It must embrace nuance, intention, and the subtleties that can easily escape us today, when we are used to scanning at high speed or rushing to add our own contribution before we have fully grasped the meaning of what we have just heard…. We are too full of our own noise to listen properly” (Digital nun,

To listen to others in this way in relation to cultural and political division does not mean ceasing to be an activist, to be one who seeks justice. Rather it means, in the words of Will Campbell, to cease being a “doctrinaire social activist” (Campbell 225). The move away from being doctrinaire comes from listening, from learning how the story of oppression is rarely as neat as pure good versus pure evil. As Campbell tells his story of involvement as a white southerner in the civil rights struggle, he writes, “We were right in aligning ourselves with the black sufferer. But we were wrong in not directing some of our patience and energy and action to a group which also had a history” (Campbell 226). And that history, that story, can only be heard if we are willing to listen with empathy, with compassion, and a desire to understand, with recognition and respect for the humanity of the storytellers.

At Manna House this means listening to the stories of African American men who tell of poverty and abuse and harassment from a system set up to benefit white. But it also means listening to the stories of white men who tell of poverty and abuse and harassment from a system set up to benefit whites. And those white men carry a special shame because in a system set up for them, they still “failed.” Since they are told they cannot blame the system, they blame themselves. Meanwhile, the local Union Mission teaches them that it is because they do not love Jesus enough that they are on the streets. When I try to discern what these stories I hear might mean theologically, and how they reflect our deep division, I am better able to love, and I also enter into another practice within hospitality, learning.

When we listen carefully with respect and recognition, we become open to learning, to gaining knowledge and perhaps even wisdom. Hospitality often speaks of this as the mutual transformation that takes place between host and guest in the practice of hospitality. Returning to the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming guests, the hospitality they offer results in their being gifted by their visitors with the promise of a son. When the disciples on the road to Emmaus welcome the stranger, he turns out to be Christ known in the breaking of the bread. I could tell many stories of how I have learned from guests at Manna House. They have taught me about God, about faith, about grace and redemption. They have deepened my understanding of racism, classism, heterosexism, of policing and of politics and economics in the US. (See my blog, Radical Hospitality,

In reflecting upon how I have learned in the practice of hospitality, I see that listening grounded in respect and recognition opens me to what Jason Baehr discusses as intellectual virtues necessary for civil discourse. He argues in Virtue and Voice, that “public discourse is deficient largely on account of how frequently and pervasively it manifests intellectual vices like narrow-mindedness, intellectual arrogance, intellectual dishonesty, dogmatism, and close-mindedness” (Baehr 6). To counter those vices, he urges we need to develop “intellectual virtues” that include curiosity, attentiveness, open-mindedness, intellectual carefulness, and intellectual thoroughness. Intellectual vices include intellectual laziness, inattentiveness, intellectual arrogance, dogmatism, intellectual dishonesty, intellectual hastiness, narrow-mindedness, and close-mindedness” (Baehr 15).

We have to practice those intellectual virtues in order to learn. Intellectual viciousness prevents learning and is manifest in such things as name-calling, failing to fact-check, ignoring counter-evidence and arguments, willfully misinterpreting opposing views, hiding weaknesses in one’s own position, making sweeping generalizations, etc. All of those are inimical to hospitality as they are to civil discourse.

Baehr points out that learning does not mean accepting or even giving any and every belief or argument an open hearing (again something to return to in the discussion of limits). Some views simply do not merit intellectually virtuous consideration. Such views fail to advance human knowledge. At the same time, when we acknowledge our tendency to value our own conclusions above others, we can listen with respect and seek to understand how those we disagree with hold the position they have. In this way we “argue to learn” rather than “argue to win.” We can warn ourselves about “epistemic overconfidence” and keep an awareness that we limited in our own cognitive perspective (Baehr 33-36). In Christian terminology this would be an awareness, in the words of St. Paul, “none are righteousness, no not one” (Romans 3:10 and see Psalm 14:1-3).

In the practice of hospitality, Baehr’s analysis is confirmed. I have found that Learning requires both humility and a sense of humor. Humility is an accurate self-understanding and of our place in the world, along with an ability to acknowledge our own limits and failings. This undergirds our openness to others, and a non-defensiveness. Humility affirms that guests from the streets know the realities of homelessness much better than I do. They also often know better how I can serve them. Manna House was established in consultation with people on the streets who identified what they needed and much of how we should respond to those needs. They also very much see themselves as having “ownership” of Manna House, letting new volunteers know how things are to be done, and informing new guests of the expectations for civility and even charity with other guests and volunteers.

Humor is closely related to humility as humor involves the ability to laugh at ourselves, and to see the incongruity of life. Humor keeps us from taking ourselves or life too seriously. Humor checks self-righteousness and dogmatism. Both humility and humor affirm that no one person and no one group of people have a corner on truth. Hospitality requires a sense of humor, to undercut any self-righteousness or sense of a “savior complex” that those of us offering hospitality might have. Jokes shared certainly lighten the mood at Manna House. So do practices like singing “Happy Birthday” to any guest or volunteer who is having a birthday, but doing so in an intentionally off-key manner so that all can join in without reservation.

Together, humility and humor can work to help us hold our beliefs and our ways of doing things with some tentativeness. Our humble sense that we are finite, fallible, and corruptible supports our willingness to revise our perspectives when given a good reason to do so, a willingness to critically review our own views, and a willingness to acknowledge that others may hold opposing views in good faith. Humility and humor undercut defensiveness. They also de-center us, humility and humor clarify that the world does not revolve around us. Many times in the history of Manna House guests have suggested better ways to do things, and they are almost always correct. Our practice of hospitality is better because we listen and learn from our guests.

Neither humility nor humor, however, should be understood or practiced in a way that cooperates with humiliation. Listening and learning, along with love, are good faith efforts to create and maintain relationships. They are not invitations to abuse. And this brings us to the fourth and final aspect of hospitality, limits.

Hospitality has its limits. In the practice of hospitality, people can wear out their welcome and be asked to leave. In the practice of hospitality not everything goes. At Manna House, we are firm in our expectations, for hosts and guests alike. No denigrating, degrading, or disgusting comments or actions are allowed. A warning is given, and if a person does not change the behavior, that person is asked to leave (and this applies to guests and volunteers alike). If the person does not leave (we have only had this issue with guests), we announce that we are going to shut down unless the person leaves. Peer pressure almost always works to get the person to leave. But sometimes we have to shut down. And there are occasions when the violation has been so egregious that the person who was asked to leave is told not to come back, sometimes for up to a year.

Limits are also present in that we cannot do everything for everybody. We have limited days and hours of hospitality. We have limited numbers of showers we can offer, and a limited amount of clothing and “socks and hygiene” we can give. We do not serve food, except on Monday evenings. We do not allow smoking on the premises. In this time of COVID, we require masks and practice social distancing. We limit the number of guests allowed into the house. We offer much of our hospitality in the backyard.

All of these limits point to how we cannot do everything in our practice of hospitality, but we remain willing to do something (Pohl 135). Likewise, our boundaries are there to ensure that we will continue to offer hospitality. Boundaries make hospitality possible because they preserve the space and place and people who offer hospitality.

Pohl gets to the tension of limits in the practice of hospitality when she states that “hospitality practitioners live between the vision of God’s Kingdom in which there is enough, even abundance, and the hard realities of human life in which doors are closed and locked, and some needy people are turned away or left outside” (Pohl 131).

The reality of limits offers some help in think about how there are also limits to civility. If someone or some group is seeking the destruction of our shared life altogether, or is urging policies that oppress people, those must be resisted. To shout peace, peace, when there is no peace is to be complicit in injustice. As James Baldwin put it, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

At the same time, we can state those limits with love, with respect and recognition, with a willingness to continue to listen and perhaps even learn from what causes such behavior. Seeking to understand is not seeking to justify. But we cannot understand if we do not enter with some empathy into the lives of those with whom we disagree. Demonization does not prepare us for civil discourse or for addressing any underlying causes for the hatred and viciousness. At the same time, we may well need to step back and away from those holding such positions, and publicly oppose them. It is naïve and a failure to accept our own limits and the limits of others to not recognize and oppose wrongdoing. Our efforts at civil discourse will live in the tension between God’s Kingdom in which we sit down together at an abundant and joyous table, and the realities of family dinners (and political disagreements) where there are squabbles, and fights, and sometimes the need to walk away.

What to conclude?
I have offered four dimensions of the practice of hospitality as elements that might improve relationships with each other, and our political and cultural discourse within civic life.
In order to create and sustain a more civil discourse, we might learn from hospitality about how love, listening, learning, and limits can create a community in which persons are welcomed, treated with respect, heard, and valued for what they bring to the table. Hospitality can also indicate that such practices are not an invitation to moral and intellectual relativism or abuse. I return at this point to urging a hopeful realism in addressing our differences. We can begin, at least, to draw upon hospitality as we seek life together marked by love that respects and recognizes each other as God’s children, and in that opens us to listen and to learn, knowing full well that none of us are without fault, that we will disagree, and even fail in relationship, while also affirming we need to keep trying to be better with each other.


Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly: 25th Anniversary Edition, Bloomburg Academics, 2000.

Greg Ten Elshof and Evan Rosa, eds., Virtue and Vice: Habits of Mind for a Return to Civil Discourse, Abiline Christianity University Press, 2019.

Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.