“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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
“I can’t feel my feet,” a guest says to me as he stands on the front porch of Manna House. He is wearing worn out running shoes with mesh uppers. The cold has settled in for a few days on the edge of the polar vortex. Memphis has temperatures in the low twenties, and wind that is cutting.
Another guest tells me, “My hands are numb.” He has on thin cloth gloves. A few other early arriving guests appear out of nowhere as I unlock the gate and the front door. They are all bundled in various ways against the cold, but one sums up the state they are in, “My bones are frozen.”
It is early. The darkness of the night has not given way to the light of the morning. I have arrived to get the house ready for hospitality before we open at 8am. There’s laundry to be folded. The supplies for serving coffee need to be set up. And I would really like some time to read and pray and write before opening. I relish the quiet time in the house alone. It is sacred time.
But when I go past the few gathering guests and open the door to Manna House, I can feel the contrast between the warmth inside and the freezing cold outside. When I cross the threshold, the image of “The Christ of the Breadline” flashes in my mind. Christ is behind me waiting, freezing on the front porch.
I say to myself, “Christ is going to have to wait a few minutes.” I have a few things I have to get done before I can open the house for hospitality. But I make the list shorter and ten minutes later I open the front door and invite in the Christ of the front porch. By then eight people have gathered and they all hurry in thankful for the warmth.
One man heads for a couch and a few minutes later he is asleep. Another sits down and gets a book out of his backpack and begins to read. A few others gather around the table in the front room and talk about nothing in particular. It will be another hour or so before we will be “open” and start the showers and serve hot coffee.
I take a chair at the door of the kitchen and open my prayer book. I am searching for a prayer I know from the Morning Office. I want to pray into the reality of the cold. The prayer comes from the Book of Daniel (chapter 3), where three young men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are tossed into a blazing furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar because they won’t worship idols. In that furnace, “heated to seven times its usual fire,” the three young men sing God’s praises. Maybe in all that heat they really appreciated the cold.
“Bless the Lord all you works of the Lord,
Praise and exalt God above all forever.
Cold and chill, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.
Frost and chill, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord;
praise and exalt God above all forever.”
The prayer makes me wonder how to pray in the midst of a cold that threatens the lives of our guests. Then again, is it the cold that is threatening, or is it the coldness of our culture that deems some expendable, some not “worthy” of shelter, of housing? Maybe we “bless the Lord” in the midst of cold by offering hospitality to those out in the cold? Better still, maybe we “bless the Lord” by becoming the kind of community where we can all enjoy the cold because we have warm places to be with each other, no one is left outside, no one is left behind. Maybe we “bless the Lord” when we recognize each other and the whole of God’s creation as the very presence of God.
The flurry of donations and volunteers has subsided. Christmas and the New Year are past; so is Martin Luther King Day. We have settled in for the long haul months of cold, rain (snow?) from now until at least the end of March.
The Church’s liturgical calendar calls this season until Lent comes, “Ordinary time.” The Sunday readings let go of Christmas themes and return to stories of Jesus’ daily teaching and healing, and his challenge to the way things are with his vision of God’s Kingdom, the way things ought to be.
The liturgical color for vestments during this time is green, a symbol for growth and hope. This symbol stands resolute in this time of struggle. I look at our culture, our politics, and our economy. “Making America Great Again” is taking us backwards to a time of even more overt racism, hatred and fear of people seeking asylum, and the shredding of even the limited and fragile safety nets for people in poverty. For my belief in growth and hope to not be Pollyannaish, I must seriously reckon with despair.
As I sat in the kitchen on a recent morning, listening to the coffee percolate, I could hear someone on the front porch, coughing. The cough was persist. I know that in this time of year colds, and flu, and for some guests, bronchitis and pneumonia, will come more easily. Immune systems already weak are further stressed by the cold. People on the streets in ordinary time go back to being villainized or ignored. The Christmas turkeys are all gone.
Guests come into the warmth of Manna House, and in the midst of conversation and names being called for showers and socks and hygiene, they fall asleep on the couches and chairs. The cold weather saps energy, and some walk the night unable to sleep because of the cold. In ordinary time there is no affordable housing, and few shelter spaces, and even fewer (only Room in the Inn), that are free.
On Monday of this week, even Manna House had no heat. Our furnace went out again. While we waited for the repair man the house was warmed by a few space heaters, and a lot of bodies. Together they put a dent into the twenty degree weather, raising the house temperature to about forty.
“It’s better than outside,” one hopeful guest offered.
A few minutes later a guest made a request for something we do not offer, so I said “no.”
“That’s my first rejection of the day,” he said, “I was waiting for it.”
One of our very mentally ill guests told me, “I really like your jokes. I’ve been laughing since last week about the guy who walked into a bar with jumper cables around his neck and the bartender said, ‘You can come in, but you’d better not start anything.’”
I had come across a Bible verse earlier that I shared with guests as “The Word of the Day.” It sounded familiar, like it was from a song. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22–3:23). When I shared the Bible passage one guest started to sing,
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.
God is present. God hangs in there in ordinary time. The singing guest did not know the rest of the song, so we looked up the remaining verses.
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
Great is Thy faithfulness. Not a bad song for ordinary time.
A guest came in from the cold as the last verse was read.
“Good morning,” I said and then asked, “How you doing?”
“Ain’t locked up. Ain’t covered up. Doing fine.”
“Good morning. We’re going to do a short prayer and then open. Join in if you want to.” Every morning at Manna House, that is how we begin. Guests and volunteers are invited to join hands with each other and pray.
But this morning is not most mornings. This is the season of Advent. We are in a time out of the ordinary, a time of expectation. We are in a time when we are invited to enter into the darkness of the womb. Mary invited the very Word of God into her womb, and we are invited into the womb of God to be expectant with Mary, to respond to the promise of new birth.
Sojourners Magazine recently shared a prayer from Shannon Casey who wrote in Embracing Darkness This Advent Season, “In the darkness of the womb, the future is waiting to be born. And yes, sometimes we’ll feel terrible, but this Advent, may we have ears to hear the midwife as she compassionately reminds us to breathe.”
How do we hear the midwife and compassionately breathe together? Maybe it can happen in song. To sing together we have to listen to each other and breathe together, we have to find harmony together. So for this Advent, for our prayer together on the front porch at Manna House, we are invited to sing together, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
There is something powerful about pulling this “church song” out of church and placing it into our lives at Manna House. Each one of us on the front porch at Manna House are in various ways broken, hurting, and in need of being reborn. We each carry our sins, our faults, our histories of wrongdoing and failings. We are all human beings, vulnerable, in need of love and welcome and respect. Some of us have housing, some do not. Some have some degree of wealth, others struggle with different levels of poverty. For all of us, for Manna House to be a place of hospitality, we have to extend some trust to each other. We each stand in expectation and hope of a better life, of wholeness.And so we sing together “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and listen and breathe together the words of this song that alternates between the darkness of the womb and the light of new birth.
We are captive, we mourn in lonely exile, until the Son of God appears.
We are under Satan’s tyranny, in the depths of hell, but then comes victory over the grave.
We experience “the gloomy clouds of night” and “death’s dark shadows,” but then comes the Light.
We are not at home here on this earth. We are alienated from God and each other, but then comes the key of David to open the door, and we are all welcomed into God’s home, into the Beloved Community.
Singing on the front porch we are a motley choir. A bit off key now and then. A bit forgetful of a word or two of the song. A bit hesitant even to sing. But somehow the song envelopes each of us and we gain a glimpse of another time and space where homelessness ends, where racism and classism and homophobia and sexism cease, where people are just people together.
Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel
Early winter in Memphis. I watch leaves let go of trees. The backyard of Manna House is almost completely covered by the fallen leaves. I see winter’s approaching starkness in the bare branches overhead. And I find my faith in Light and Resurrection tested. In my morning prayer, I read apocalyptic visions that will culminate in a Son born among the least. Yet I know that Son will be immediately threatened by a murderous ruler. This is a time of advent journey.
In this advent journey, I feel the cold of the mornings. I hold the hands of guests during our opening prayer on the front porch. Their icy flesh hints of death. It is a harsh reminder of what it means to have no warm place to stay for the night. Even if they found shelter, that momentary warmth is gone by the time we open at 8.a.m. Shelters usually ask people to get up and get outside by 6 or 7 a.m.
In this advent journey, the line forms quickly and quietly as our guests enter the light and warmth of Manna House. They seek coffee to warm their bodies. They seek welcome to warm their souls. We are going through more hot coffee more quickly each morning. It takes about twenty minutes for the first one hundred cup coffee pot to be emptied. Some guests have taken to filling small thermoses so even after we close they will have some hot coffee. They try to carry the light and warmth of the house with them.
Along this advent journey, my faith is tested, both in God and in humanity. The Christ who arrives at Manna House suffers from our sins, and he is announced by an angel from on low, “There’s a man in the front yard who needs an ambulance.”
I go outside and see a man seated on a chair near the front gate. Another guest had brought a chair down to the gate for the man to sit on. The man is shaking slightly as he sits. He is old and black, and though I recognize him, I cannot remember his name.
He reminds me of his name, and says, “I was just discharged from the Med about an hour ago. They left this in my arm.”
He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an IV port, still taped to his arm. Then he hands me his discharge papers. Dizziness and high blood pressure and dehydration conspired to put him into the emergency room. People in a hurry apparently conspired to leave the IV port in him. The temptation is to rush, for all of us. It is how we lose the Light and end up in darkness.
A guest insists I call an ambulance. Another urges the man to get a lawyer and sue.
“No need to do that,” I respond about the ambulance. “I’ll take him back to the Med.” We have enough volunteers (thankfully) so I have the leisure to leave Manna House for a while.
I get my car from across the street. A few guests gently deposit the man in the front seat. I reach across to click his seat belt into place. Off we go on our Advent journey.
The Med (or should I say its new fancy name, “Region One”?) is about three quarters of a mile from Manna House. We talk along the way.
“I was headed to Catholic Charities,” he says, “I’m working with them to get a place. Do you know Dick Hackett there? He’s going to help me.”
“Sure I know of Dick Hackett. He was the mayor of Memphis.”
“When he was mayor, my Momma cleaned his house, so I figure he owes me.”
We arrive at the hospital. I help him out of the car. He takes my arm so I can steady him while he walks. We take very slow steps as we head arm in arm to the Emergency Room. The nurse on duty at the front desk listens to his story. She does not apologize or offer any explanation about why the IV port was left in his arm. She does come around immediately and go to work.
“There, all done,” she says, as she swiftly and cleanly pulls out the IV port.
We walk slowly back to my car, arm in arm. I drive him to Catholic Charities. He methodically makes his way up the steps, holding the railing, and enters the building. I wonder how his meeting with Dick Hackett will go. It is still Advent.