Who is my neighbor?

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

 

And who is my neighbor?

The one who I am most likely to neglect, negate, nullify,

Objectify into something, not a person, not even fully human

Not like me, not connected with me, to whom I have no responsibility.

 

The stranger, the hungry, thirsty, sick, naked, imprisoned, vulnerable reminders

Of my own weakness, contingency, propensity to death.

The one’s I want dead because their lives make my life difficult.

 

Those outside the norm, outside my comfort zone, the bothersome ones,

I wish they would go away

 

Be concrete, the alien, the widow, the orphan,

The immigrant and refugee, women, and children,

The death row inmate

The old

The unborn

The poor

LGBTQ

Black and brown and red and yellow peoples—hey, anyone who’s not white,

Everyone I’d like to segregate, not see, not be free.

The one’s I won’t list here because I don’t see.

 

Go beyond the humans I deny to

The creation I threaten

By taking too much, consuming too much,

In my drive to dominate, exploit, control

Destroying land, water, air, species.

 

Who is my neighbor?

Those not in my neighborhood.

Those I don’t want in my neighborhood.

Those I would never consider to be my neighbor.

“Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”

A guest asked me if he could lead the opening prayer at Manna House, and I said, “yes.” The backyard at Manna House is now open. To start the morning, we form our circle for prayer in the driveway entrance to the backyard.

He began by giving thanks to God for every good gift in our lives. Then he quoted from Psalm 119: “Your word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105), and he praised God for guiding us in life. Petitions followed. He asked for health—in the name of Jesus. He asked for deliverance from suffering—in the name of Jesus. He asked for a place to live—in the name of Jesus. Then he closed by thanking God again for every good thing in our lives—in the name of Jesus.  Simple. Direct. Needed. Prayer.

I especially needed to hear that God’s word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. I need God to light my way in a world so marked by darkness. It has only been a few weeks since Easter, and I still need reminding about resurrection. God’s creation certainly carries the reminder. Trees have filled out with leaves. Yards display fresh green grass. Peonies, roses, tulips, gardenias, and irises, all display their colors. Redbuds, magnolias, and dogwoods, all join the blossoming celebration of new life.

But this beautiful assertion of the power of life has not been enough for me. Like many others, I have been struck by the senseless death in yet another school shooting. And the news tells of the threatening future we face due to our ongoing pollution of the world. On a smaller scale, I have mourned the loss so suddenly and at such a young age of Rachel Held Evans. Her spirited writings gave such hope and promise. Closer to home, Charlie, who has for many years been an anchor at Caritas Village, offering political analysis, theological wisdom, and a particular view of the world, died unexpectedly. Closer still, I am addressing my own health challenges that are not so subtle reminders of aging and mortality. Death is in the air even as new life springs all around.

So, as much as I appreciate and relish the blossoming of life in God’s creation as a witness to resurrection, I have also found a witness to resurrection as I have spent some time meditating upon this image of God’s word as a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.

I have thought about the physical necessity of having a lamp, of having light by which to see while walking in darkness. The guest who shared this Bible verse has probably experienced how acute the need is for light for persons whose homelessness means they will be out walking in the night. I know that in the night I am more likely to stumble. In the dark I am more likely to fall. I have seen guests arrive in the morning with bruises that resulted from a trip in the night. The darkness of night carries danger. A lamp is needed to see where I am going. A light is needed to show the way.

These physical realities ground the spiritual necessity of having God’s word as a lamp and as a light to guide me in the emotional and spiritual darkness that surrounds me. I need this lamp and light to help me resist falling into despair at the reality of death. That despair gives up on love and laughter and on liberation from sin and death.

I need the light in God’s word, that became incarnate in Jesus who resisted death’s power in his life and teaching, and who overturned the power of sin and death in his resurrection. Jesus is God’s lamp that offers light in this dark world. With this lamp, I can walk in my life guided by this resurrection truth, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

A Thirsty Soul

“O God you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water” (Psalm 63:1).
I was out of sorts on Tuesday morning before Manna House opened. I am not sure why. Some of it might have been the tedium of folding the laundry from Monday’s showers. Some of it might have been my own neglect of time for quiet and prayer. Maybe I was just tired. At any rate, I found the opening verse of Psalm 63 from the Liturgy of the Hours to be spot on. I felt spiritually parched. I was a thirsty soul.

Then Ashley called me to the front door, twenty minutes before we were to open. A guest was complaining about another guest taking her seat on the front porch. The accused guest was forceful in her defense. She also punctuated her comments with plenty of curse words. I am not Solomon with a wisdom to make discerning judgments. So my response?

“You can both go.”

This set off a round of recriminations now aimed at me instead of each other. And a third guest decided that he would get involved to adjudicate the situation.

“You can go too,” I responded.

As they left, I heard one make an angry assertion that I was not fair—probably true. I heard another question my Christian faith—a worthy question.

And then the last parting shot came, “You need the people here to make money.” That last one made me laugh. No one is paid to serve at Manna House.

I went back inside to continue folding laundry. Other volunteers began arriving to help with laundry, to get the coffee table set up, and to prepare the clothing room for the showers that would be offered for women—the normal preparations for Tuesdays.

Once we were open, the morning moved along without incident. Then, about an hour in, the man I had asked to leave, came by the front gate.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked me.

“Sure.”

“First, I want to apologize. I should have kept my mouth shut.”

“Apology accepted.”

“I’m new here. Tell me about this place.”

I explained the days and times we are open, and what we offer each day. And I added, “We are all volunteers. There is no paid staff.”

“I’d like to get on the shower list for Thursday.”

I wrote his name down on the list.

“Can I come back in for coffee?”

“Yes. Welcome back.”

By the end of the morning I was no longer out of sorts. I felt like some graciousness had been extended to me, by this guest willing to come back and try with me again, by the other guests and volunteers who made for a peaceful morning, by the warming sun that promised a beautiful spring day.

The next verse of Psalm 63 floated back into my heart, “So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and glory.”

The love that flows continuously from God, even when I am too hard-headed and hard-hearted to notice, had gently brought relief to the desert in my soul.

Manna House Women’s Sanctuary

Kathleen has a vision of a Women’s Sanctuary. In this sanctuary, women and children are welcomed into a safe place for shelter, for food, for healing and wholeness.

Kathleen’s vision started at Manna House and at Room in the Inn. In both places, women arrive with a few small children or even an infant in tow. Almost always the women and children were homeless because they were fleeing a violent man. The National Coalition for the Homeless reports, “When a woman decides to leave an abusive relationship, she often has nowhere to go. This is particularly true of women with few resources. Lack of affordable housing and long waiting lists for assisted housing mean that many women and their children are forced to choose between abuse at home and life on the streets. Approximately 63% of homeless women have experienced domestic violence in their adult lives (National Network to End Domestic Violence).” This national reality is worse here in Memphis where poverty is more widespread and there are few shelters.

Like Manna House, the Women’s Sanctuary will be small, completely staffed by volunteers, and a place where hospitality can be offered, where people will be respected, their dignity affirmed, and time will allow for conversation and relationships to develop. It will be a warm and inviting place, comfortable and not institutional. The guests will be welcomed as bringing the Divine presence, who comes in the stranger’s guise, echoing an ancient hymn:
I met a stranger yest’-er’en.
I put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place,
and in the name of the Triune,
God blessed myself and my house.
My cattle and my loved ones.
And the lark sang in God’s song:
Often, often, often goes
the Christ in the stranger’s guise.
Often, often, often goes
the Christ in the stranger’s guise.

To start to make Kathleen’s vision a reality, Manna House purchased a duplex last fall. It had “good bones,” but years of neglect meant it needed significant renovation and repair. Work began, demolition of a dilapidated garage, and removal of old plumbing, some walls, some ceilings. Roof repairs were made.

As winter turns into spring, the work continues. The goal is to open by late summer. Manna House will be entering its 15th year. That seems like a good time to begin this new venture.

Volunteers have helped a great deal. More Volunteer Days are coming where you can join in to help with painting, cleaning, yard work, and more. Watch for notices here on Manna House Memphis for future Volunteer Days.

But volunteers are not enough. Professionals have to do some of the work to make sure it is up to code. So, there is also need for financial support. We are estimating $30,000 should complete the renovation, covering materials, plumbers, electricians, carpenters.

If you can help, Kathleen and I would be very grateful. Checks can be made out to Emmanuel House Manna (our 501c3), and mailed to 248 N. Willett, Memphis, TN 38112. Thank you!

Did some meditation on this passage as I wrote about humility:
 
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
But at Manna House
we are not Jesus,
though we try to follow him.
So ask,
and we will give it to you,
if you are on the list for socks and hygiene, or for a shower,
and if we have it.
So seek,
and you will find it.
If we have it to share.
Knock,
and the door will be opened to you
if it is Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday
during our regular hours.
 
For not everyone who asks, receives.
You have to be on the list.
And not everyone who seeks, finds.
Because we only offer a limited number of services.
And, not everyone who knocks,
will have the door opened.
Unless it is during our regular hours of hospitality.

Some biblical support for humility

Did some meditation on this passage as I wrote about humility:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Ask and it will be given to you;
seek and you will find;
knock and the door will be opened to you.
For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;
and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8)
But at Manna House
we are not Jesus,
though we try to follow him.
So ask,
and we will give it to you,
if you are on the list for socks and hygiene, or for a shower,
and if we have it.
So seek,
and you will find it.
If we have it to share.
Knock,
and the door will be opened to you
if it is Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday
during our regular hours.
For not everyone who asks, receives.
You have to be on the list.
And not everyone who seeks, finds.
Because we only offer a limited number of services.
And, not everyone who knocks,
will have the door opened.
Unless it is during our regular hours of hospitality.

Humility and Hospitality

“How do you take it?” a guest asked.

He had watched and listened to a verbal tussle I had with another guest. That other guest had not exactly been kind in response to my request that she leave after hurling a string of insults at me.

This really had not been much of a conflict. When insults move to verbal threats of violence that is more disconcerting.

Still, the question lingered, “How do you take it?”

Hospitality is a stern teacher in humility. Either I learn humility or I burn out and quit doing hospitality. Or worse, I quit doing hospitality, but I continue to offer “charity.”

Humility teaches me that guests come to Manna House already having heard too many “no’s.” I would be frustrated and angry, too, if I was on the streets.

Humility teaches me that this does not mean I am an open target for abuse and disrespect. It does mean I seek to live with an honest assessment of my standing in the world and in relationship to other people.

Humility teaches me that hospitality does not allow someone to continue with behavior that undermines hospitality for everyone else.

Humility also teaches me that I have to accept that I cannot meet every person’s every need. Humility admits limitations in hospitality.

So humility teaches me that hospitality does not end homelessness, or create the institutional changes necessary to end homelessness. And so humility also propels me to join with others to seek those changes so homelessness can end.

Humility also teaches me to listen to guests who complain about the limits to our hospitality.  Sometimes a complaint includes a suggestion about how our practice of hospitality could be improved. Humility helps me go ahead and make the change.

Mostly what humility teaches me is to look for and accept with thanksgiving the incredible gifts the guests at Manna House offer each day. In humility I can acknowledge and celebrate that guests offer me as much (or maybe more) hospitality than I can ever offer them.

If I can learn humility, I can listen and learn a lot about resistance to racism and the strength of African American men and women. This happened a few weeks ago when I stumbled into a discussion about Spike Lee’s talk at the Grammy Awards which honestly named the racism in our society and among so many of our political leaders these days.

If I can learn humility, I will be asked to help a guest fill out a government form to apply for housing because he cannot read.

If I can learn humility, I will be honored when I am asked to cut a guest’s very long fingernails because he cannot do that since he had a stroke.

If I can learn humility, I will be invited to hear stories of loss, of grief, and of miraculous restoration and joy.

If I can learn humility, I can recognize that offering hospitality really means being open to all the hospitality guests offer, their trust, their welcome, their graciousness, and sometimes even their insults.

“How do you take it?” Really only with help from those who teach me humility.

 

Jesus in the Coffee Line

“Christ of the Breadlines” is a woodcut famous in Catholic Worker circles. There among the people pictured waiting for a meal stands Jesus, identifiable with a halo around his head and clothing from the first century.

When I entered Manna House this morning after we had shared prayer on the front porch that image popped into my head. I saw the coffee line already formed. Guests were lined up from the front door to the table at the back of the dining room. Seated next to the coffee pot, James was offering each person a “Good morning!” and a cup of coffee. Charles was busy walking up and down the line serving vitamins to whoever wanted one. With their coffee cups filled, guests moved along the table to put in cream and sugar, and then on to find a place to sit.

The coffee line moved with a steady pace, unhurried, but not slow. After a cold night, a hot cup of coffee helps to warm the insides even as it warms chilled hands. There is usually not much conversation as people stand in line. Conversations begin when guests sit down with their coffee.

The image of “Christ of the Breadlines” inspired an old song tune to come into my head, “Jesus on the Mainline.” But I changed the lyrics to, “Jesus in the Coffee Line.”

“Jesus in the coffee line, give him a cup,” I started to sing, repeating that line three times until I added, “Just hand him a cup and fill it up!”

Then I added another verse,

“Jesus in the coffee line, sign him up” repeating that line three times until I added, “Just get him a shower and the clothes he wants.”

I tested the lyrics with a few of the guests. The focus group seemed happy enough that I may have a new song to sing at Manna House. I would not be surprised if another guest or two helps with developing some additional lyrics.

Behind this version of the song is the ongoing importance of Matthew 25:31-46 for our practice of hospitality at Manna House. Although not on the list of sacraments in any church, I am convinced that Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” initiated what should be called “the sacrament of hospitality.” In this sacrament, Jesus is present, and offered to us in the guests who come to Manna House. As with any sacrament, we are called in faith to recognize in the outward sign of our guests, the inward reality of the presence of Christ. And that presence is guaranteed by the Word of Jesus himself.

So when Patsy tells me yet again that she is headed to the hand doctor, I try to hear in her voice the voice of Jesus who healed people. When I hear that “Shorty” had a heart attack, and I do not know Shorty, I listen to the guest who shares the compassion of Christ in describing how Shorty is doing. When I hear that “Old man Chris was hit by a car and he was knocked clean out of his wheelchair,” I listen to Christ’s judgment when the guest telling me this adds, “Ain’t that cold?”

Yet I find this faith in the sacramental presence of Christ in our guests is often tested. Certainly not every guest is Christ-like in his or her demeanor. And just as certainly, the routine of offering what might be called the “liturgy of hospitality” can chip away at the sense of the sacredness of the work. Folding piles of laundry every day, or cleaning showers and bathrooms, can become more burden than blessing.

So finally my faith in Christ’s presence cannot depend upon the guests or my thoughts and feelings. Thank God. Faith itself is a gift. Faith stands on the graciousness of God. And in this sacrament of hospitality, for me to see Jesus in the coffee line has to always come back to the gracious promise of Jesus; that he is among the “least of these.”

This means I have to sing another verse, one that is closer to the meaning of the original song that made it plain that Jesus listens and heals and saves us. Yes, I can sing, “Jesus in the coffee line, tell him what you want.” and sing it three times before I add, “Just stand with him in line and tell him what you want.”

 

 

 

Remembering Robin Vargas

Robin regularly came to Manna House, mostly for coffee. Like a number of our guests, she had a job. She worked at Jack Pirtles. She made just enough to usually have a place to live. Then she tired of Memphis and moved to another city. She might have become one of the many guests who I get to know, and then disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

So I was glad when we reconnected on Facebook a few years ago. We became “friends” and I got glimpses into her life away from Memphis. Occasionally we exchanged messages. She wondered how a guest she knew was doing, or she asked, “Whatever happened to….?” She seemed to be doing ok. Life was still hard, but bearable. The move had changed the scenery, but not the grind required to keep a job and a place to live.

Then one day she shared a survey that asked, “What country song was written about your life?” The answer was, “Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell.” Why this song? Because “Robin you never give up, no matter how dark your days get. You’ve seen failure, but you’ve never been one to give in or back down in the face of fear. ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’ is a beautiful tribute to your spirit and a reminder that you are always stronger than you believe.”

Robin lived that song. Her son died about two years ago. Then about a year later she was diagnosed with cancer.

“Things go from bad to worse
You think it can’t get worse than that
And then they do.”

On February 10th of this year Robin posted, “Hi. I just wanted to say goodbye to all my friends and family. I’m suffering from stage 4 lung cancer, can’t barely breath so it won’t be long. Just want you to know I love you all. And if you smoke, please, please, quit. God bless you. Going to hospice. They said the way I’m breathing it won’t be long.”

She died 9 days later.

From what I knew of Robin’s life, nothing ever seemed to come easy for her. But she had an unconquerable spirit. “Good morning, God bless,” she wrote on Facebook posts. In her note about going to hospice, there is no self-pity. In the midst of her own ills, she shows concern for others, “Just want you to know, I love you all. And if you smoke, please, please, quit.”

Much like the country song Robin identified with, she had a realism that held onto hope rather than giving in to despair.

“If you’re goin’ through hell keep on going,
Don’t slow down if you’re scared don’t show it,
You might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.

I’ve been deep down in that darkness,
I’ve been down to my last match…

But the good news is there’s angels everywhere out on the street
Holdin’ out a hand to pull you back up on your feet…

Another guest at Manna House remembered Robin as one of those “angels everywhere out on the street.” She wrote, “She was one of the dearest people that I met during my years on the street… She will be very missed.” Indeed she will.

Pay Attention

Two blue jays and a cardinal perched on the small tree outside the kitchen window. I could see them as I sat in the kitchen at Manna House. I was there early, in the hour before we open, to make sure the coffee was percolating. The brilliant red of the cardinal and deep blue of the blue jays stood in sharp contrast to the morning greyness. The birds were pecking at something on the tree branch that seemed bare except for a few lingering brown leaves. Clearly they could see something I could not.

The daily Bible readings in the lectionary this week have included the first creation story from Genesis. God’s vibrant presence in the creation comes throughout the story. Each day God brings something new into existence, land and water and trees and all sorts of living things, and the refrain follows, “And God saw that it was good.”

How often do I even pay attention to God’s beautiful creation and all of its contrasting colors?

The blue jays flew off. The cardinal stubbornly stayed the course for a minute longer, then it was gone too.

The rain and clouds that have lasted for days were not giving way to any hint of sunshine. Still, the light of day started to illuminate the yellow brick of the church visible down the block. The passing car lights made the rain soaked streets shine. And a guest walked up the sidewalk towards Manna House wearing a bright orange reflective vest, staunch in his resistance to the drab morning.

Psalm 104 presented itself.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord, my God, you are great indeed!
You are clothed with majesty and glory,
robed in light as with a cloak.”

When Manna House opened at 8 am, I went with the other volunteers to join the guests on the front porch for our opening prayer. We held hands and offered our simple prayer of thanksgiving for the day. We also asked God to be with those who are hurting. And, inevitably one guest asked again for God’s help as she goes to yet another doctor’s appointment. Standing together in a circle of sorts, we wear different shades of different colors. We are a colorful group. And our clothing is also all sorts of colors, especially these days with the knit love caps topping a lot of heads warding off the morning chill.

We do not pray long. There is a warm house to enter and coffee to get to and showers to be taken and other needs to be attended to. Hospitality responds to basic human needs, especially the need to be welcomed, to be treated with dignity and respect, to pay attention.

“All creatures look to you
to give them food in due time.
When you give it to them, they gather it;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”

As I enter the house behind those who have lined up for coffee, the first two names for the showers are being called. Morning greetings are shared among guests and volunteers. A few guests quickly take to the couches, hoping to catch some sleep.

If I pay attention, I can see God’s creative love in each person in the house. God’s colorful creating continues.

“When You send forth your spirit, they are created,
and You renew the face of the earth.”