The Gift of a Purple Heart

A guest, I’ll call her “Sally,” called me over to her. She sat alone at a picnic table in the backyard at Manna House. I was not pleased that she wanted to talk with me. Sally is short white woman probably in her early forties. She is very mentally ill, cantankerous, strangely dressed, and disheveled. My past interactions with her have included asking her to leave Manna House for being disruptive. But this morning, Sally seemed calm. She told me she had something for me. She said it was a gift. “Thanks for all Manna House does,” she said. Sally reached out her hand and put a small costume jewelry purple heart into my hand. On the heart it read, “Nurse.”

“You all mean a lot to me,” she said.

A purple heart? In the military, the purple heart in awarded in recognition of being wounded in war. In hospitality, just what is the war and what are the wounds? 

Sally herself is more deserving of a purple heart. I cannot fathom the wounds Sally has suffered from the violence of homelessness. I have some knowledge of statistics regarding the depth of horror of women face in homelessness. Studies show that almost all women on the streets have suffered sexual violence at some point in their lives. Women in homelessness are highly likely to be assaulted and raped. One study described homeless women as enduring a “traumatic lifestyle” in which incidents of sexual assaults are “layered upon ongoing traumatic conditions such as struggling to meet basic survival needs and living with ongoing threats and dangers.” (See https://vawnet.org/sites/default/files/materials/files/2016-09/AR_SAHomelessness.pdf).

To try and understand Sally’s wounds, I have to also add the violent injustice of untreated mental illness, the anguish of addiction, and the loss of connection with family and friends. Her wounds, like the woundedness of so many on the streets, means carrying a grief characterized by shock, despair, and anger. The trauma from the violent uprooting of people from homes, human dignity, and hope is a deep wounding. 

And yet in the midst of her wounds and loss and grief, Sally offered me the gift of a purple heart. Did she sense my wounds from offering hospitality to wounded people? I have seen the violence our guests have suffered from homelessness and poverty. I have lost count of the number of guests who have died. I see guests arrive blooded from falls or fights. I still remember the man who arrived in a wheelchair covered in his own excrement and maggots. I have seen guests convulse from seizures. I have prayed with guests as they have lost parents, siblings, friends. I have heard guests tell their stories of rejection for being gay, lesbian, or transgendered. I have seen the torment in the eyes of guests whose mental illness is untreated. I have heard the anger of guests when I have told them “no” because our hospitality has its limits too. 

Where do I go with this woundedness? How do I accept woundedness without becoming so calloused that my ability to show up again and again to offer hospitality is destroyed? Sally’s gift of a purple heart pointed not only to the woundedness of our guests, but also to my own woundedness. But I cannot stop there. For me, the recognition of woundedness in a purple heart is finally not enough. I have to turn to another symbol of woundedness, the cross, to find a way of compassion through woundedness. The cross was imposed on Jesus as a way to crush him and his reign of God movement. The wounds imposed on Manna House guests are intended to crush them. The wounds I receive doing hospitality are intended to harden my heart, so I stop offering hospitality.

Jesus resurrected still has the wounds from the cross. Jesus resurrected still has a purple heart. But instead of bringing death, those wounds and that purple heart now give witness to healing and life. This is the hope that emerges from grief. There is a healing that emerges from woundedness. When I attend to the wounds from the perspective of the cross, I find that the wounds invite me into compassion. I will not run from the woundedness of the guests at Manna House or my own woundedness. Our wounds join us together. From the perspective of the cross, I am invited through the gift of the purple heart to see our mutual vulnerability and our need for each other.

Sally is still on the streets, still suffering from mental illness and addiction, still susceptible to the violence done to women on the streets. But in the light of the cross, her gift of the purple heart reveals to me something more going on with her, and I hope with me. Our wounds call us to embrace and support and heal each other. Our wounds call us to share with each other the gift of the purple heart, wounds transformed by love, and wounds that know the necessity of justice in which the wounding will stop.

Water is a Sacrament of Salvation

I felt the Holy Spirit move me Thursday morning at Manna House. I had to say a few things about water as I invited all of us to wash our hands before entering the backyard.

“Come and wash your hands!

Wash this death-dealing virus away!

Soap up and let the water flow over your hands.

Water is liberation. Water is life.

The Israelites passed through water on their way out of slavery into freedom.

Jesus passed through water on his way into his liberating work as the Son of God.

In baptism we pass through water on our way to liberation from sin and death.

I got a few “Amens,” and “Alleluias,” from guests as they went to the handwashing stations. I believe the hand washing took on a holy significance. 

Hand washing, especially in this time of pandemic, is a way to promote life, the fullness of life for which Jesus came.

And hand washing points to another reality. Water is at the heart of the hospitality we offer at Manna House. Certainly, without water, no hands get washed. 

Even more, without water we could not offer hot coffee for guests to drink. Without water there would be no cooler filled with cold water to drink on hot days. Without water we could not offer showers for our guests. Without water we could not do laundry to cleanse the clothes and towels for showers. Without water we could not clean the coffee pots and sugar containers, and we could not mop the floors.

From beginning to end, water flows through our hospitality. Water’s role in hospitality signifies God’s liberating welcome to new life. Biblically, water is a sacrament of salvation.

The prophet Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).

Jesus makes offering water a sign of discipleship. “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward” (Mark 9:41). And again, “I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink” (Matthew 25:35).

At the Last Supper, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. After this washing in water he gives them the new liberating commandment for life in God, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).

Paul writes that we are buried with Christ “through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4, see also 1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:5 and Colossians 2:12).

In the Book of Revelation, the final vision includes “the river of the water of life.” This life-giving river flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb, and the hospitable invitation is given, “let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:1-2, 17).

On Thursday morning, I felt the Spirit hover over the waters of hospitality at Manna House (Genesis 1:2). There was a hint of the new creation made possible as water flowed and offered life. And it all started with the invitation to wash our hands.

The Transfiguration of the Lord and of the Slow Man in the Shower

The showers at Manna House these days are a scarce commodity. Due to COVID19 restrictions, instead of two in the shower room, only one person at a time is allowed into shower. The shower room also needs to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized between each shower. And we have reduced our hours of hospitality, so volunteers and guests alike spend less time together, even with masks and physical distancing. Due to all of these considerations, instead of twenty people on Monday and twenty people on Thursday getting a chance to shower, we only have room for six on each day.

            I am sure that showers are the most important physical form of hospitality we offer at Manna House. No doubt the safe sanctuary offered is important, and so are the socks and hygiene, and the coffee. But the showers and the change of clothes for each person who showers, are most transformative.

            Today, near the end of the morning, two of the people who had signed up for showers did not show up. There was enough time, barely, to offer another person a shower. Among the guests still in the backyard there were several regular guests who had showered on Monday. They declined the offer to shower. “Give it to someone who hasn’t showered yet this week,” each of them said.

            There was a new guest. He sat alone on a bench drinking his coffee. In front of him was his wheelchair, with his belongings strapped to the chair with various ropes and makeshift ties made out of grocery store bags. He was delighted to be asked to shower. “I haven’t had a shower for several weeks. I’m covered in sweat and mosquito spray.”

            Off he went to the clothing room. Volunteers carefully and compassionately helped him pick out clothes and shoes. Then he went into the shower room. 

            Last call was made for coffee. All the other guests left. The coffee pot, coffee cups, and sugar and creamer containers were picked up and put away. The shirts, socks, and hygiene items to be shared with guests in the backyard were all picked up and put away inside. The trash was taken out. and trash cans were taken to the street. The laundry was sorted, and two loads of laundry were begun. We gathered in the house for our time of reflection with all of the volunteers. And after all of this, there was still no sign of the man who had gone into the shower room.

            I grew a bit impatient. I said to one of the volunteers, “No good deed goes unpunished.” 

I asked a volunteer who had helped get the man ready for his shower, “What do you think is taking him so long?” She said, “Well, I know he wanted to shave.”

Not ready to wait any longer, I started toward the shower room door. Just then, the man appeared, smiling, freshly shaved, clean clothes, and a fresh mask that he was beginning to put on. “I feel like a new man,” he said.

I thought about how he looked in the backyard before he was asked if he wanted to shower. Hunched over his coffee cup, eyes down, rumpled and smelly clothes. I thought about how he looked now, and what he said.

Then I thought about this day, the Feast of the Transfiguration. Jesus on the mountain “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (see the whole story in Matthew 17:1-9).

            I thought about how right Peter was when he said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”

            I thought about how before me now, as Jesus promised, was he himself, mystically present (Matthew 25:31-46). I heard, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

            I did not fall down prostrate as the disciples did at Jesus’ transfiguration. But I did hear at the transfiguration of the slow man in the shower, “Rise, and do not be afraid of people who take too long in the showers.”

            Sometimes I am slow to hear God. Often, I am hard of heart. Like Peter in the Gospels, I have little faith. I over-estimate my willingness to follow Jesus, and under-estimate the cost of discipleship. I need constant reminders that God is not far away, and yet is on a different timetable than my own.            

Jesus told his disciples as they came down from the mountain after the Transfiguration, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” I am telling you this vision of the transfiguration of the slow man in the shower because death has been defeated. Jesus has already been raised from the dead. And for this reason transfiguration can happen at Manna House on Madison Heights, like it did on Mount Tabor.

Holding on in the Dog Days

The “dog days” of summer are here. In Memphis, the heat and humidity are intense. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the “dog days” arrived when the star Sirius appeared in the July sky and rose just before the sun. This sign in the sky signaled the hottest time of the year. They believed the “dog days” could bring fever, or even catastrophe. In our time, this ancient view is appropriate. A guest said this morning, “We got high temps, high humidity, high infections, and high tension on the streets.”
In these dog days, Manna House guests arrive bedraggled. Incessantly hot weather in the day goes hand in hand with swarms of mosquitoes at night that make sleep impossible. So, we offer a place to rest in the shade, some cold water, some coffee, showers with a change of clothes, and socks and hygiene, and we hope all this provides some welcome relief.
But even though Manna House is again offering showers for men twice a week, pandemic precautions restrict the number of showers to six men each morning. Only one person is allowed in the shower room at a time (instead of the usual two). And since we sanitize the shower room after each person showers, that further limits the number of people we can serve. The combination of pandemic and our small shower space means the shower list fills up quickly. Each morning people are turned away. Some bow their heads in sorrow, others lift their voices in anger. Both responses are justified, and both make my heart ache. The relief offered at Manna House is limited.
Further the pandemic has significantly changed the way we offer hospitality, even as it has not ended it. We are all wearing masks at Manna House and practicing physical distancing. When guests arrive, they are directed to the handwashing stations. If they need a mask, one is provided. We encourage people to sit six feet apart on the benches and at the picnic tables. I miss seeing the smiles of our guests. I miss being able to shake hands as part of welcoming people to Manna House. I miss the ease of gathering without worrying about infecting others or getting infected.
I find offering hospitality in these dog days physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausting. I know I am grieving loss. I feel the loss of the days when the shower room could handle twenty to twenty-five men on Mondays and Thursdays, and ten to fifteen women on Tuesdays. I feel the loss of volunteers who have rightly decided the risk is too high for them to come to Manna House. I feel the loss of guests who have perhaps decided the same thing, or perhaps find our reduced services not worth coming for anymore. I feel the loss of wearing masks, with muffled voices, and again no smiles. I feel the loss, for now, of the weekly shelter offered at the Manna House Women’s Sanctuary. Much work and many funds and the building is largely unused until a safe way of offering shelter can be found. I feel the loss, too, in the way these days are grinding down guests. I can see the physical decline that comes from being on the streets. The grief I feel is deep and I slog through it in these dog days.
How to honor my grief and not get stuck in it? How to honor my grief and still offer hospitality? I find the old practice of Lectio Divina learned in monastic days to be helpful. I turn to a passage in the Bible and stick with it and let it stick to me (easier to do in days of high humidity). I mull it over. I chew on it. I step away from it and come back to it. I pray over it and with it. I ask, what is this Word of God in these human words telling me to be and to do? 
In these dog days, I am called to biblical passages that speak to relief from the heat and the cooling refreshment of water. Here are two, both from the prophet Isaiah:
“They will not hunger or thirst, nor will the scorching heat or sun strike them down; For God who has compassion on them will lead them and will guide them to springs of water.” (Isaiah 49:10)
“The Lord will guide you always; will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:11)
So, I pray: Heat and pandemic and death are here. But so is God in the water that cools and gives life. The dog days are here. But so is God who is the Creator of the stars and the sun and the moon. I feel stuck in the doldrums of the dog days. But I have a Compassionate Companion along the way who reminds me of where I am headed. 
As I pray over these Isaiah passages, I begin to hear the words of the old hymn reborn in the Civil Rights Movement, “The only chain that we can stand,
Is the chain of hand in hand.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on”
Indeed, in these dog days, hold on.

Where Have You Been?

“Where you been? I haven’t seen you in like three weeks.”

“I was downtown and around.”

“Well, I’ve been looking for you. I was worried about you.”

“Thanks. I’m ok. Good to be missed.”

I was in the laundry room folding clothes with the windows open.  I could hear the guests talking on the front patio and porch. I could hear guests checking in with each other, making sure their friends are making it.

“Where you been?”

When I started to reflect on this question, I thought about the Bible’s first question, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). God asks Adam this question after he had eaten of the forbidden fruit. This question can be read as accusatory: God asks the question to find out Adam’s guilt. But I think it can also be read as God asking a question of concern, like one guest asking another “Where you been?”

To care for another person is to want to know where they have been, what is going on in their life, how they are doing.

From Genesis on, I can find in the Bible where God is always looking for us, like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. When the shepherd finds that lost sheep, the shepherd does not judge or condemn, but offers healing hospitality and rejoicing (Ezekial 34:11, 16, Luke 15:3-7).

I think Jesus spoke through the guest who asked, “Where you been?” And the guest who responded saw this as a godly question, and acknowledged what I know to be true in my life, it is good to be missed, it is good to be found, it is good to be welcomed.

I have certainly missed Manna House guests during our time of being on reduced days and hours for hospitality. Now that we are slowly adding days and hours, more guests are returning.

We added back showers on Mondays a couple of weeks ago. We clean and air out the shower room between each use, and we are only allowing one person to shower at a time (we have two shower stalls). Socks and Hygiene distribution has been moved to the back porch, so people can wait in the backyard and they do not have to congregate in the house as they wait for their names to be called. Thankfully our backyard is big enough that people can spread out and do the physical distancing necessary. We are requiring all guests and volunteers to wear masks.

As guests return, I am catching up with them, and they are catching up with me and with other volunteers. We have all been lost. We have wandered around, lamenting our loss of a place to gather and welcome each other. We have missed each other. This place of hospitality is where together we are found, healed, and rejoiced over.

In the larger scheme of things, I think this is what our society and our world needs. We need to create a society in which we ask each other, “Where have you been?” We need to create a world of welcome in which we are healed and rejoiced over.

God is looking for us. We are found by God when we look after each other. We are found by God when we hear God’s voice in the voice of the Other; when we hear God say, “I can’t breathe” as Jesus said on the cross, as George Floyd said under the knee of a cop. We are found by God as we lift that knee of oppression, and kneel instead to wash each other’s feet (John 13:1-7).

“Where you been?” Imagine if we sought out each other to welcome each other. Imagine if each one of us knew that we were missed. We might get closer to the reign of God.

In this Parched and Weary Land

When my alarm went off Thursday morning, I was tired. I wanted to go back to sleep. I did not want to get up and go to Manna House. My soul was dry. My spirit was thirsty.

I could have prayed, “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). But that prayer would have been a lie. I was not earnestly searching for God.

I still got up and went to Manna House. Maybe God’s grace means good habits are hard to break.

Later in the morning, a guest made me think and pray about water in this parched and weary land. He said to me, “You know what’s really been hard out here?”

“What?”

“No place to get water.”

He described the shortage of water for drinking and washing. With the coronavirus pandemic closures the streets are more barren and desolate.

“The bathrooms of fast food restaurants are closed. The library is closed. The two water taps we relied upon are closed off. Finding water has been hard. It’s near impossible to clean up, much less shower.”

This lack of water is not from a drought. There is plenty of water. But not if you are poor and on the streets. The pandemic makes poverty and homelessness worse.

So I wondered, where is God in this? Later in the day I found the prophet Isaiah gave a response.

“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue fails for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water” (Isaiah 41:17).

Together this guest and the prophet Isaiah reminded me why I get up and go Manna House. God calls me. God calls me to the holy work of offering water to those who are thirsty and to those trying to find a place to wash up.

My conversation with this guest about water started as we watched guests use two new portable handwashing stations. A local nonprofit, “A Lee Dog Story” provided Manna House with these stations. Guests washed their hands before they walked up onto the porch for coffee and a hygiene bag. Other guests walked into the house to use the bathroom and the sink in there for handwashing.

Next Thursday we will resume offering showers. We think we have a way to do this that is safe for the guests and the volunteers. It will mean fewer showers, and frequent cleaning of the shower room. But it will mean ten people from the streets will be able to shower.

At the end of the morning the same guest stopped me at the door. I was headed out to bring in the coffee pot, the sugar, and the creamer. He held out two empty plastic water bottles.

“Can you fill these for me?”

At that moment I looked Jesus in the eye. He looked tired. His clothes were rumpled and wrinkled and worn. He had not shaved for at least a few days. His baseball cap had sweat marks all across the front bill.

“When Lord did I see you thirsty?” (Matthew 25:44)

I took the water bottles, went inside, and filled them with cold water. I went back outside and handed them to this guest. He said thanks and see you next week.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” said the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 55:1). And he was echoed by Jesus, “If anyone thirsts, let that one come to me and drink” (John 7:37).

When I left Manna House, I was still thirsty. My soul was still dry. But now I was earnestly seeking God in this parched and weary land, because in this guest, God had been even more earnestly seeking me.

Realism and Resistance: Wisdom for the Long-Haul Journey

He pushed the wheeled walker ahead of him as he came up the sidewalk. I have known him ever since we opened Manna House nearly fifteen years ago. He is a big man, broad shouldered, heavy but not overweight. He played football when he was young, many years ago. He has worked hard all his adult life, physical labor, warehouses, construction, landscaping. About a year ago he started walking with a cane. Today was the first time I have seen him with a walker.

“How are your legs” I asked him.

“Not good. They may have to go they say.”

“They who?”

“My legs. The doctors say my legs may have to go.”

“That’s not good.”

“What can I do? If they go, they go; but not without a fight.”

Realism and resistance. I have learned this lesson many times over from guests who come to Manna House.

Realism. Life does not bend to our wills. There are some things no matter how hard we try that we cannot change. Illness and death are part of life. Evil persists and gets embedded in our personal and institutional lives.

Resistance. I do not have to like this shadow side of reality or embrace it or surrender to it. I can accept illness and death without being foolhardy about my health or willing to consign others to death too early. I do not have to submit to evil, either personally or institutionally.

The guests teach the realism and resistance at the heart of Christian faith and discipleship. There is a world in need of redemption; and there is a Redeemer incarnate in human life. There is crucifixion, imposed by the powers that be, and there is resurrection, the power of life and love at work in the world. There is evil, and there is good that will not be conformed to evil and will resist evil (Romans 12:21).

Realism and resistance. Another guest on Thursday confirmed the lesson. She is the first to arrive on Thursday mornings. She has always been a regular guest, but now she is among the few who make up a kind of faithful remnant in this time of offering reduced services. She consistently has two cups of coffee. She always arrives alone and leaves alone. She does not say much. But her eyes are bright, and her smile is ever present. She struggles with mental illness and with poverty. She worked in corporate America until something gave way in her life and she ended up on the streets. She is housed. She lives on a disability check, and with carefully predetermined rituals that provide stability. She knows what she has to do, and she does it.

The Psalms provide prayers that reverberate with realism and resistance. Realism recognizes, “All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning” (Psalm 73:14).

Resistance draws from another Resource.

“Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).

Likewise Psalm 88, realistically recognizes the hardness that comes in life.

“I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death” (Psalm 88:3).

“I am shut in; I may not go out my eyes are dim with grief” (Psalm 88:8b-9).

And faithfully calls upon God in resistance.

“But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:13-14).

In these days of pandemic, I need my teachers at Manna House to share with me this lesson of realism and resistance. And I am grateful to them and to the echoes of this lesson in Christian faith and the prayer of the Psalms. Together they provide wisdom for the long-haul journey.

 

Humbled Hospitality

The neighborhood is quiet this Thursday morning. I look down the street toward Claybrook and Jefferson. Once in a while someone goes in or comes out of the “yellow store” at the corner. The small park where people usually congregate is empty. Looking up the street, there are no students from the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering crossing to gym class at Mississippi Boulevard Church. It is a beautiful sun-filled morning; spring is in the air. Birds sing their songs, trees are leaved out in fresh green, and weeds are growing quickly through every crack in the sidewalk or patio bricks. Yet, there are few people to be seen.

The sense of isolation, or even desolation, is broken on occasion as a Manna House guest arrives. They come one by one. On occasion two will show up at once.  Voices are a bit muffled for some as they speak through facemasks. It only takes a moment or two to hand each guest a “hospitality bag” filled with hygiene items, a pair of socks, and a granola bar. It was the same on Monday night when we handed out takeaway suppers. Greetings are brief. Words are few.

I am grieving the loss of hospitality in which people would congregate at Manna House, drink coffee, exchange news, gossip, argue politics or religion. I am not getting my usual theological education from Moses, Larry, Don, Joyce, Patsy, among my other teachers from the streets. I am missing sharing bad jokes with Darren and Robert, and whoever else would listen. As Kathleen said to me the other day, “Just giving things out isn’t hospitality.”

Fifteen years ago, Manna House started. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday morning since then, we have been open. Same for the More on Monday meal added about a year later; every Monday evening the door would open, and people would come in. People from the streets and from surrounding neighborhoods with low income housing gathered. Hospitality was offered: a sanctuary place was created where a community of people formed around shared cups of coffee, showers, clothing, hygiene items, food, conversation. If I have done my math right, we have been open well over 3,000 times with more than 80,000 guests welcomed (that includes repeaters). I find this quantifying of what has gone on and what is past only highlights what is not happening now.

But something is happening. Albeit on a small scale. I am going to call it “humbled hospitality.” No conversation is more than five minutes. But the hello, and the inquiry, “How are you doing?” sometimes sparks a few words.

One of the guests who arrives asks me if I am still willing to be a reference for him. “They might call you this week. I have a bunch of applications in and this one place called me. I’m trying not to get my hopes up.” I tell him that if they call I will definitely put in a good word for him.

Another guest approaches me as I am pulling weeds, “Do you have anyone to mow the grass?” When I explain that we do it ourselves, he responds, “I’m looking for work. I was doing so good. I had a landscape job. Got myself a place. Even got a car. Now, no work. I may lose my place. My car is gone.” I think of the 22 million unemployment claims made over the past four weeks. The number is staggering; the reality is one person after another without work, each with a story of how they were doing when they had work and the suffering they are experiencing without work.

Yet another offers a blessing to those of us handing out the hospitality bags. “God be with you. Just good to see you.”

One more gives me an update, and some of that theological education I have been missing. “I’ve got the cancer. I’m through the surgery. I don’t know what lies ahead but God is with me, just like He’s with you.”

It is still Eastertime. And this guest’s message to me makes it plain. In these times when the night seems so strong and it seems like the light will never shine through again, God’s love comes through. God’s love is stronger than disease and death. To be a witness to the resurrection, I have to live with the conviction that every spark of light is part of a larger dance of love that will spread and burst forth in a flame that cannot be quenched. So it is with humbled hospitality, what little I may offer, still makes possible the sharing of some human relationship in this time of social distancing. And for now, I have to trust that spark can be part of God’s dance of love, of God’s larger flame.

“How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Guests are no longer lingering at Manna House. They come, usually one by one, to get the meal on Monday night, and the hygiene “hospitality bag” on Thursday morning. There’s no waiting for their name to be called for showers. We are not doing showers right now. There’s no gathering for conversation around cups of coffee. We are not serving coffee right now. This is what hospitality looks like in a time of COVID-19: welcoming people for a few basic services in ways that will not encourage the spreading of this coronavirus.

We practice welcome by calling arriving guests by name, and by asking each as they arrive how they are doing. Occasionally our welcome also leads to meeting a special need, perhaps for a blanket or a hat. And our welcome also means the bathroom is available while Manna House is open. Thursday morning several guests took the opportunity to wash up.

How are the guests doing? Not that well. The isolation of the streets is compounded by the closing and reduction of hours for places for people to go. The library is closed. Fast food restaurants are carry-out only; dining rooms and bathrooms are closed. Meals are all takeout, so soup kitchens do not allow for sitting down together to eat.

“It is always hard out here,” a guest said, “now it’s harder than hard.”

I have been seeking to discern the presence of God in this “harder than hard” time of disease, desolation, and death. I have been trying to figure out “How should we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).

At Manna House this morning there was time between guests arriving to talk. Fr. Val was there, as he is every Thursday. And he brought up this Sunday’s Gospel. It will be Palm Sunday and the Passion of the Lord is read. This year that means Matthew’s version. In Matthew, Jesus on the cross cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus’ words come from Psalm 22. There is a pattern in this psalm, a going back and forth between cries of being abandoned by God and affirmations of the gracious presence of God.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.

In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.”

What to make of this pattern of lament and lauding of God? How might this psalm and Jesus in his words on the cross speak to this “harder than hard” time? Pierre Wolff, in a book titled, “May I Hate God?” writes that when “We think we are accusing God… in reality God is sorrowfully questioning the world through us.” Jesus in crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” affirms his faith that God is on the side of deliverance, not death; compassion, not crucifixion; salvation, not shameful execution.

I cannot question God unless at the same time I trust God wants something different. Put another way, all that is in me that desires life, that desires a better world, that loves, that seeks justice, that aspires for the good of all humanity and the creation, that is God within me. All that is in me that mourns life lost, that sorrows at suffering, that cries out at injustice, that is God within me.

And so, I am left with a choice in this “harder than hard” time. Jesus faced the same choice in his temptations in the desert. Is God with us in our vulnerability, or should we put our trust in the way of control? Jesus faced his vulnerability as a human being as he responded to each temptation; the same vulnerability I face in my humanity. Will we live on the Word/bread of God, or on the economic power of turning stones into bread? Will we trust in God to be with us or will we test God by claiming religious power over life? Will we serve and worship a God at odds with the powers that be, or serve and worship the idol of domination over others?

Jesus chose to embrace his vulnerability, to practice compassion, not control; discipleship, not domination; solidarity, not separation. Jesus chose to be with the outcasts, the lepers, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the foreigners, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, the unclean, the ostracized and excluded. Why? Because that is where God breaks in to affirm another way, and where we can sing God’s song of love and justice, while we live in a strange land, where those are in short supply.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hospitality in this Time of COVID-19

This Manna House guest was resigned and defiant about COVID-19, “If I get it, I get it. But I’m not going to help it along.” He explained how he uses the travel size hand-sanitizer he carries with him, and how difficult it is becoming to find a place to wash his hands.

“I can’t find a bathroom with restaurants closed. Where am I supposed to wash my hands now?”

I had no answer to his question other than, “While we’re open you can use the bathroom here.”

It was Monday evening. Ashley and I were serving a take-out meal at Manna House. That morning Kathleen and I had gone to Manna House to share with guests that we would be open only one morning a week for the next few weeks as part of trying to reduce the chances of “social transmission” of COVID-19. We would no longer offer showers or serve coffee. We could no longer offer a place to gather. We would continue to serve the meal on Monday evenings. The guests received the news with sorrow, but also with hope.

“This will pass.”

For the Monday evening meal, Kathleen made soup. Ashley and I served the soup in a cup with a lid, and guests also received some snacks and granola bars in a paper bag.

Guests came to the front door, got the soup and the bag and went on their way. As guests received this modest meal most offered some kind of thanks.

“Glad you’re open tonight.”

“Thanks for being here.”

“A hot meal! Thanks!”

Guests also occasionally shared observations about COVID-19, the various closings around the city of Memphis, and how this was affecting them.

“What I miss the most is the library. I’d go there to check my email. It was the only way I had to stay in touch with my family.”

“Where do they expect us to go to ‘shelter in place’?”

“I’ll make it. I’ll find a way.”

“I hate this #!@#$^& virus.”

“What can I do? I’m out here. No place to go but back to my cathole.”

The usual light-hearted banter among guests was absent. There was a lot of worry, anxiety, and a sense of worsening isolation.

Manna House, like soup kitchens and shelters—are where basic services for people on the streets are offered. At their best, they are also gathering places where welcome and respect and community are shared. We call Manna House “a place of hospitality,” and we try to welcome our guests as we would welcome the very presence of Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). But now hospitality is taking a strange and baffling turn. We can welcome people as we offer limited services, but we have to do so in ways that do not encourage gathering. COVID-19 means gathering is dangerous; gathering is now inhospitable.

Yet in in the absence of places of gathering, the isolation and alienation of being on the streets is intensified. Imagine the isolation people with homes are feeling. Magnify that isolation one hundred times. That would be close to what people on the streets are feeling.

One guest lingered a bit after getting his to-go supper. I asked him how he was doing.

“It’s nothing really new. It’s just making worse what was already bad.”

Then he added,

“I gotta deal with what’s dealt. And right now this is a bad hand.”

“What will you do if you get sick?” I asked.

“I’ll try to ride it out, like I always do. If it gets bad, I’ll go to the emergency room. But I heard they might get overrun.”

We had prayed with our guests before we served the meal.

“God, thank you for the beauty of this evening. Thank you that the rain has stopped for now. God be with us in these anxious and fearful times. God help scientists and doctors to find a cure for this virus. Help us to support each other. Amen.”

“God is with me,” a guest had offered when she received her meal at the door, “God is with us. God will help us through.”

Later that night I heard this guest’s faith echoed in a psalm:

“Turn your ear to me, Lord, and hear me,

for I am poor and destitute.

Keep my life safe, for I am faithful;

O God, save your servant, who trusts in you.” (Psalm 86:1-2)

In this spirit, I will continue to pray for our guests. And we will keep offering hospitality as best we can in this time when hospitality means keeping some distance. May hospitality come again to mean the creation of a place where we can gather together to share life.