God Loves Suzy

“Would you pray for me?”

I was asked this question by a guest on the front porch at Manna House some fifteen years ago. 

What followed stays with me and speaks to what is being done to trans people in the United States these days.

When I asked Suzy (not her real name) what she wanted me to pray for, she began to tell her story. She had been born biologically male. But she realized early on in her life that her assigned male gender did not fit with who she really was. She was never interested in boy things. She saw herself as a girl. She wanted to dress in “girls’ clothing.” As the “son” of a minister, this led to her parents’ condemning her, and angry “discipline” that included beatings. Finally, she was thrown out of the family home at age thirteen. She had lived on the streets ever since. She survived the trauma of this rejection and her being without a home through prostitution and drugs. 

“I’m so tired. I want to kill myself,” she continued in tears, “I just want to be loved for who I am. Pray that God will love me. Pray that I find a church that will love me.”

I said, “I do not have to pray that God will love you. God already loves you. You are loved by God.”

“But then why won’t any church love me?” she asked.

I shared with her about a few churches that I knew were welcoming and affirming; places I knew would open their arms to her, “They will love you.”

I took her hands in mine and prayed. “God help Suzy to know that she is loved, fully loved by you. Help her to find a church where she will be embraced for who she is.”

I am telling this story now because there is an evil spirit abroad stirring up hatred toward people like Suzy. Laws are being passed based upon that hatred. Too many churches are either openly endorsing this hate or silently standing by while it goes on.

I am telling this story now because Suzy’s suffering and tears are a cry from the heart that echoes the heart of God. 

I am telling this story now because it reminds me that at the very center of our practice of hospitality at Manna House is the belief that each guest is sent by God and embodies the presence of God. 

The biblical testimony is clear. Jesus taught that “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). God sends messengers who come as strangers. To hear God’s voice we need to welcome those strangers (Genesis 18, Hebrews 13:1-3).  “Whoever mocks the poor [the vulnerable and despised] shows contempt for their Maker” (Proverbs 17:3). God hears the cry of the poor (Psalm 34:6). God does not despise those marginalized because of their sexuality, but rather they reflect God’s work in the world. In the prophet Jeremiah, the Ethiopian eunuch Ebedmelech rescues Jeremiah, acting on behalf of the king of Judah, and is later spared by God for this act (38.7–13; 39.15–18). The Ethiopian eunuch in the New Testament was a triple outsider — a gender-variant foreigner from a racial minority. He was not allowed to worship in the Temple due to his sexuality (see Deuteronomy 23:1, No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of God). But Philip welcomes him into the church (Acts 8:26-40).

The fear and contempt of trans people expressed in laws, political rhetoric, and the teachings of too many churches is contrary to hospitality. It is contrary to God’s love for the stranger, for the poor and vulnerable, for the marginalized. It is contrary to this basic truth, God loves Suzy.

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.

A Few Reflections From a Night of Protest in Response to the Police Murder of Tyre Nichols

Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by five Memphis police officers. They have all been dismissed from the police force and now face second degree murder charges, among others. On Friday night, just as the videos of Tyre’s murder were being released, I joined with about 400 people in a protest.

We met at Martyrs Park, which commemorates those who died in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. It overlooks the Mississippi River. In the distance sits the old Holiday Inn where Dr. King once stayed in 1968 during the Sanitation Workers Strike. For his last visit, when he was assassinated, he stayed at the Lorraine Motel, about 2 miles from the park. One block from the Lorraine, now the National Civil Rights Museum is a historical marker for the “Memphis Massacre”—a police riot in 1866 in which 46 African Americans were killed, with homes, schools, and churches burned to the ground. 

As we left Martyrs Park we were walking within that history, as we marched toward the old site of Fort Pickering where African American Union soldiers were billeted after the Civil War, and who were the among the first killed in the riot.

I felt the weight of this history as I walked into the night. Tyre, an African American man, aged 29, had been stopped by Memphis police for a supposed traffic violation. All of the officers directly involved with the beat down were also African American. The police chief is African American. But the plantation mentality which hangs in the air in Memphis is strong; strong enough that some African Americans share the white attitudes of disdain for the ones still in certain neighborhoods. All five officers belonged to the Scorpion Unit, formed just a few years before. Its formation was urged by the white Mayor of Memphis, Jim Strickland who had campaigned on a promise to crack down on crime. Scorpion was intended to create a powerful police presence in areas deemed high crime, to intimidate and dominate, much like an occupying military force.

We made our way onto Interstate 55 and shut it down. We eventually stopped on the Memphis and Arkansas Bridge, the “old bridge,” built in 1949, with the new “Hernando Desoto” bridge, finished in 1973, a few miles to the north where Interstate 40 crosses the river; a bridge shut down by protestors in 2016 after white police officers gunned down Alton Sterling, a Black man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile, a Black man in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota.

With traffic backing up for miles both east and west, and the next steps of the protest uncertain, I decided to make my way back toward the place where we had initially stopped traffic. There a man had just tried to drive through the barricades and found himself stuck with protestors yelling at him to back up and turn around. He eventually did. I ended up in a conversation with Edie Love, a Memphis Theological Seminary graduate. She is a Unitarian Minister. With her clerical shirt on she serves as a movement chaplain. She had been part of the group urging the man to turn around.

I stood for a while, there in the dark, on the highway, with vehicle lights in the distance visible for at least a mile. I thought about Tyre who was killed about 80 yards from his mother’s home, and who called out in his last words for his Mom. I thought about his mother, and his family. I wondered about the family backgrounds of the police officers. 

I tried to discern something of God in all of this. Tyre still lived with his Mom. He was a skateboarder, a way for him to find a path (I had read earlier in the week) between gang life and athletics. As he skateboarded, he would also stop and take photographs, beautiful shots from around the city of Memphis. He seemed like a Christ figure, an innocent in a world of sin. Struck down, crucified, the Christ of the lynching tree (in James Cone’s words). He was “‘buked and scorned” and made his final journey alone.

I needed to pray. I walked alone along the side of the highway, retracing my steps, passing the cars stopped by the shutting down of the bridge. I went down the embankment we had climbed to get onto the highway, and then up Riverside Drive, before turning left to go back to the street where I had parked. 

I drove to the Lorraine Motel. I was alone there. The night was quiet. I looked up to the second-floor balcony, room 306, marked by the large white wreath of flowers. Tyre. Dr. King. And the long, long list of men and women killed by the police. “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”

As I left, I did not feel much hope. I turned away from the museum and onto Front Street. There, off to the right, on the sidewalk, I saw a young African American man. He held a skateboard as he walked.

Advent Promise: Christ Comes in the Stranger’s Guise

Advent is filled with prophetic promises of a better world in which to live. This morning, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed” (Isaiah 56:1).

In the midst of these promises, people living on the streets line up at Manna House to get their names on the list for showers or for “socks and hygiene.” After days of cold rain, the sun is out this morning. But the temperatures are dropping as a cold north wind makes itself known. There is little of salvation or justice in the air.

A question arises about a guest asking to get on the shower list. Is he allowed to shower, or he is still banned? He has quite a reputation for trouble. Over the years he has been asked to be away for a month or more several times. He has a hard time treating other guests and volunteers with respect. He almost always goes over the limit of 20 minutes we ask each guest to observe for their shower time so that others may also shower. He is sour, angry, prickly. He easily flies into a rage when he perceives some slight. 

But he is also Christ in the stranger’s guise (Matthew 25:31-46). This is the fine line we walk at Manna House. We believe in the prophetic promises of Jesus, so we try to welcome each guest as Christ. But at the same time, not every guest who comes to Manna House is Christ-like. Do we live into the prophetic promise of Jesus? 

This morning we decide to try again. We live into hope in the promise. We put this guest on the shower list. When his name is called, he comes in and is friendly, cooperative, and finishes his shower early.

A little while later, the same question arises about another guest. We decide to put him on the shower list. When his name is called, he comes in and is demanding, disrespectful, and goes way over the time limit for his shower. Finally, as he completely disrupts our ability to offer other guests showers, he is asked to leave and told he cannot shower here until next month. Enraged, on his way out he selects a number of excellent cuss words with which to describe each of us.

And this is how the morning at Manna House goes. We go back and forth between the prophetic promises of God and the ongoing realities of sharing hospitality as broken people with broken people in a broken world. We have another world in view (and sometimes catch glimpses of it here and now), and we live in this world (filled with suffering, sorrow, and sourness).

I believe this is why we have to start each morning with prayer. I know I need to put in God’s hands the whole ongoing contrast between what ought to be and what is. In this place, we live between the prophetic promises fulfilled and the yearning for those promises to be fulfilled. 

And so, we pray in this way with our guests at Manna House each morning. We ask God to bless the coffee, and we respond, “Make it hot.” We ask God to bless the sugar, and we respond, “Make it sweet.” We know as we pray that the coffee is already hot, and the sugar is already sweet. The promise is already fulfilled. But then, we ask God to bless the creamer, and we respond, “May it take all life’s bitterness away.” Here we proclaim our hope in the promise that makes our sharing of hospitality at Manna House possible.

In this Advent season, the constant sharing of the prophetic promises, including that of a Savior who is to come, raises our hopes. But it also raises the reality of the contrast between the promises of a better world to come, and the world in which we live. This world has sorrow and joy, brokenness and healing, death and life, sin and salvation. 

Advent raises and intensifies the question, do we hold on for (and live into) the joy, the healing, life and salvation, or do we give into the sorrow, the brokenness, the power of death, and sin? 

In the midst of the injustice of homelessness, Manna House is where I try to live into the reality that Christ comes in the stranger’s guise. In doing so, I hope to share in the grace of God’s loving, life-giving, and liberating hospitality, and I pray:

Come, Lord Jesus, bring us your peace and your justice
that we may rejoice before you with a healed and loving hearts.

The Coming of Jesus

J.C. came regularly to Manna House for years. Then the pandemic came, and he came no more. I thought of J.C. this morning, the first Monday of Advent, because I used to welcome J.C. as “Jesus Christ.” As I called the names on the shower list, I would call for “Jesus Christ” when it was J.C.’s time for a shower. I knew I was on solid theological ground in doing so since Jesus himself had said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). 

I don’t know what happened to J.C. He may well be dead. Or, he may have moved on to another city or another neighborhood, or even got some housing. Whatever the reason for his absence, without J.C., I no longer have an easy daily reminder that the guests at Manna House bring the very presence of Christ.

Sure, there is a guest named “Salvatore.” His very name means “Savior.” But Salvatore is far from an easy reminder of the presence of Christ. Salvatore is cantankerous, short tempered, always testing the time limits for taking a shower. He is not peaceable. He is perpetually dissatisfied with what we can offer him at Manna House. 

What I am struggling to realize is that Salvatore is a hard reminder of the presence of Christ. He brings to mind a quotation from St. Vincent de Paul, “You will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give soup and bread. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good-humored. They are your masters, a terribly sensitive and exacting master you will see. And the uglier and the dirtier they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.”

Salvatore, as Christ present, as the Savior, is a sensitive and exacting master. As such, he saves me from self-righteousness, self-importance, a charity from above that is antithetical to hospitality. Love is a “harsh and dreadful thing” because it demands that I serve not from attraction and my own desires, but rather from the mystery of God, who is Other. Love is a discipline that requires practice and God’s grace. I have to overcome my ordinary repulsions and defensiveness and self-seeking, all of which are about me protecting and promoting me.

I think this is why Advent begins with Jesus teaching about God’s judgment that is to come. Christmas for babies is about a baby coming that is cute and non-threatening to the way I am, and the way things are. Christmas for adults is about God coming in judgment, overturning the unjust status quo, starting a revolution of the heart that requires a revolution of the way I live, including my politics, my economics, my culture. God born into obscurity, on the margins of the Roman Empire, de-centers the powers that be. King Herod tried to kill the newborn Jesus because he saw the threat. Pilate also saw the threat and so had the adult Jesus killed.

Salvatore brings God’s judgment right into my face. Salvatore saves because he undercuts my deadly sin of pride. Dorothy Day once said that serving the poor is “dangerous work,” because you begin to think you are “God’s gift to humanity.” Salvatore reminds me that I am not even a gift to him, much less to humanity. 

In his reminder of my shortcomings, Salvatore offers to me something that is truly salvific, the reminder to repent. He brings me up short and offers the honest assessment. I am far from loving as Christ loved. I am far from welcoming others as he did. In truth, I need to be freed, as the Advent song “O Come O Come Emmanuel” states, “from Satan’s tyranny.” 

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.