The Handcuffs of Gentrification

A guest approached me the other morning at Manna House with disturbing news.

“I was handcuffed by the police yesterday.”

This is a guest who carries with him a well-worn Bible that he frequently and devoutly reads. We often talk together about “the Word of the Day” find some phrase or story that connects with our lives. Other guests often ask him to pray for them, and he does, right away. He puts his hand on the person’s shoulder, bows his head, and prays. He is in many ways a pastor for people on the streets. He is always ready to listen, to offer an encouraging word, and to share a passage from the Scriptures that might inspire. His Christian faith reminds me of St. Francis, a wandering ascetic whose love for others was always readily apparent.

“Why would the police handcuff you?” I asked, stunned that he would be subject to any police suspicion.

“I was sitting on the steps of a building with another guy. He doesn’t come here, but he’s a good guy. We were just sitting there. I had used a water tap to wash my face cloth. It was a hot day, and I needed a cool cloth. But the cops came up and grabbed us. They said we had broken into the building. They pointed to a window that was open.”

“Did they arrest you?”

“No. But we were in handcuffs for two hours.”

“Two hours? Did you at least get to sit an air-conditioned police car?”

“No. We were in the sun the whole time. They called the owner of the building and it took him an hour to get there. He knows me, and he immediately told the police they had the wrong guys. They should let me and the other guy go. The funny thing is that the window the police pointed to was the one I had told the building manager about last week. He told the police all that and then left.”

“And they still held you for another hour?”

“Yup. And threatened us, saying they could still arrest us for criminal trespass, and that we shouldn’t be in this neighborhood. I guess they didn’t like being shown up by the building owner or something.”

I thought of an article I read recently, about the criminal justice system and systemic racism. Systemic racism, the author wrote, “means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede is rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.” (See,

Keeping black people in their place, like telling them they “shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.” Did I mention that this guest and his friend are both African American? And yes, it is not only about race, it is also about class. Systemic classism tells poor people that they are not welcome in certain areas.

What “Word of the Day” might speak of what this guest experienced in being handcuffed? Micah the prophet saw this oppression of the poor, and connected it to denying people housing, “But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses” (Micah 2:8-9).

This guest was handcuffed in the area now being called “The Medical District.” The plan is to make this area around the UT Medical School, the Southern College of Optometry, Region One [the Med], and LeBoheur more attractive for wealthier people to move into. You can’t have poor people in such an area, and certainly not homeless black men. This is how gentrification works.

While I was talking with the guest who was handcuffed another guest arrived. He had on a t-shirt that said, “Dixie Homes Reunion.” Dixie Homes was a large public housing project near LeBonheur that was torn down back in 2005. This guest, I found out, had grown up there. We talked about the reunion.

“Where are the people from Dixie Homes now?”

“All over the city.”

“Any live in the houses that were built on the old Dixie Homes property?”

“O hell no!” he said, “Nobody could afford to live in those.”

So, a little more from Micah to chew on in these days. God sees the injustice that is going on.

“Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).

Still Full of Sap, Still Green

A mother had shown up with her child, three years old, named, “Heaven.” She had a little toy guitar that she was playing.

“Have you heard of Sister Rosetta Tharpe?” I asked her mother.

“Who’s she?”

“She’s the Godmother of rock and roll. Your daughter there is gonna play like her when she grows up.”

A few of the older guests around nodded their heads.

“I know of her. She was something else.”

“She could sure enough play. Gospel. Blues. Lord, she was good.”

I brought up one of her songs on “You Tube.” So we listened a little while to “Didn’t it Rain?”

“You gotta know your history, little one,” an older guest said to Heaven, who strumming her toy guitar as we listened to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

“How she gonna know someone so old?” the little girl’s mother sounded incredulous, “Is she even still alive?”

“How old are you?” the older guest asked the mother.

“I was born in 1992. You figure it out.”

“That makes you exactly young,” said another guest, “Shoot. I was already married and working in ’92.”

Others joined in sharing their ages.

“I was born in 1979. I’m pushing 40.”

“I’m forty-three.”

“Fifty-six here, but I feel older.”

And then the older guest who wanted to emphasize knowing history said, “I’m 76.”

We were all astounded.

“What’s your secret?” I asked.

“Ain’t no secret,” he said, “I just keep waking up. Ain’t no special wisdom I have. Sometimes I’d wished I was dead. But I just kept waking up. That’s most of how I’ve kept on livin’. I wake up and get moving.”

“God gets me up every morning,” one of the more pious guests then intoned.

“O yes,” the older guest said, “I know it’s God nudging me, but I’m the one that’s gotta get out of bed. God isn’t going to put my feet on the floor and get me out the door.”

“Well, thank God you made it thus far, then, because without God you’d be done.”

“God’s got my thanks. I know where my life comes from and where I’m going.”

I kept thinking on the music and the ages and the faith I was hearing. So when I was asked a few minutes later for the “Word of the Day,” I turned to Psalm 92 verse 12-15. The Psalm seemed to resonate with the reflections of the morning on age and history and the trajectory of God through our lives.

The just flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are still full of sap, still green,
showing that the Lord is upright;
God is my rock, and there is no injustice in God.

Street Theology

“God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front.” A Manna House guest was explaining to me his approach to life.

“I’m getting old. I can’t be catting around like I used to. I gotta find a regular place I can call my own.”

“How long have you been out on the streets?” I asked him.

“Ten years more or less. Here and there. Sometimes I’ve had a place, but never as steady as I’d like.”

“What’s kept you out here?”

“I can’t seem to keep a job. I don’t know. I get anxious. I wander off. Something in me isn’t quite right. I’m on medication now. That helps. But for years it was just me.”

“What do you mean by ‘God’s got my back. But I’ve got my front’?

“I’ve got to take care of my own business, but God makes sure I make it through.”

I spent last week at Bethel University teaching in the Program of Alternative Studies of Memphis Theological Seminary. This program is for persons who are seeking ordination in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church but for one reason or another cannot pursue a seminary degree.  I taught a class called “Spirituality and Social Justice.”

Part of our discussion was about the spiritual foundation that inspires and sustains our seeking justice and being engaged in the work for justice. So we read together from the Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, looking for spiritual resources for commitment to the long haul struggle for justice. We came across this statement:

“As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace, to live in the covenant community, and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Lord. Believers never achieve sinless perfection in this life, but through the ministry of the Holy Spirit they can be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit” (Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith, 4.22).

I heard in this theology from the church an echo from the Manna House guest’s theology from the streets. “God’s got my back” or in other words, God “through the ministry of the Holy Spirit” makes it possible for me to “be progressively conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, thereby growing in faith, hope, love, and other gifts of the Spirit.” “But I’ve got my front.”  In other words, “As believers continue to partake of God’s covenant of grace… and to serve God in the world, they are able to grow in grace… [but] never achieve sinless perfection in this live.” I have a responsibility to attend to my business, to seek God’s will for love and justice in the world.

I also heard an echo from Thomas Aquinas who said, “grace perfects nature.” God graciously, that is lovingly, works within each of us respecting our human nature, the very human nature that God created. We are called to grow in God’s love and justice, consistent with our nature as human beings.

There is a true humility in this theology of God’s work in our lives. “God’s got my back” recognizes that I am not on my own. I do not make it through this life, I did not even come into this life, without God’s ongoing love. “But I’ve got my front” acknowledges I have a role to play as well. I am not a passive robot or a plaything of God (consider in contrast how the ancient Greek and Roman gods messed with humans). God loves us enough to create room for us to have responsibility to take care of our human business, to seek to live with each other with dignity and justice.

Maya Angelou put it this way, “It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.”

Knowing that God’s got my back gives me the hope that love and justice are attainable, are worth struggling for, that as Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Knowing that God’s got my back allows me to confess that something in me is not quite right, and I need to face that truth honestly. I need to reach out for help, from God and from others, so we can struggle together for love and justice.  Taking care of my own business requires that I acknowledge my responsibility and confess my sin, trusting that God does have my back. God has not abandoned me in this struggle for love and justice. God will make sure I get through. I can rely on God’s grace. Sin and injustice will not be triumphant.

Hat Thief

St. Basil wrote, “Should we not give the same name of thief to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

I am hat thief. I have too many hats. I accumulate baseball caps. I go somewhere to visit, and I buy a hat. It is my souvenir. And since I am bald headed, people like to give me hats. I get hats for my birthday. I get hats at Christmas time. No matter the source of a hat, I wear the hat for a while, and then it gets put up on a shelf. After a while it gets pushed further and further back, by other hats.

I was convicted of hat thievery this morning while I was at Manna House. Today I was part of the crew doing hospitality in the backyard. The backyard, with its shade and greenery, fills with guests as soon as we open, and stays full most of the morning as guests seek to avoid the heat of the July sun.

The backyard is where guests approach me about getting on the “list” for showers or “socks and hygiene” or about special requests. I refer all the “list” requests to the “list person,” which today was Kathleen.

The special requests require some discernment. I can handle most of them by urging the person to get on “the list.” A few simply require a firm “no” as what is requested is beyond our limits. Some, thankfully, can be handled as part of the regular flow of hospitality within the necessary boundaries we have at Manna House.

“I need a piece of paper to write down a phone number.” That’s not a problem. I make a quick dash into the house and get a piece of notebook paper.

“I need the phone number for Shelby County Schools.” I can easily look that up on my phone.

“What’s the Word for today?” I shared from Psalm 80:20, “Lord God of hosts, restore us; light up your face and we shall be saved.”

But it was in the midst of such special requests, that the evidence started to pile up to convict me of hat thievery.

“I need a hat for my head. The sun is getting me.”

“Hey, can you get me a hat? I’m getting burned up on my head.”

“This shade is nice, but when I go back out there, I sure could use a hat.”

At first, I was able to confidently refer these requests to the socks and hygiene list. On Thursdays, the guests on that list can get hats.

But later in the morning, when I knew the list was full, I could not make such an easy referral. Instead, I went into the house to see if more hats could be given out. That is when I found out our hat supply is dangerously low. If I gave out more hats today, we would not have hats for the men who are signed up to shower on Monday. That’s when I remembered the words from St. Basil. And that’s when I had to confront my own hat thievery. I have more hats than I need. I have stolen them from the guests at Manna House who asked me for a hat this morning. I will give them back Monday when we open. Well, at least most of them.

How Can We Sing the Song of the Lord on Alien Soil?

Sometimes I feel deeply estranged from the world as it is. I feel like I am living in an alien place, that I do not belong here. Sometimes I feel like we are all strangers in a strange land. On such a day, the power of death hangs heavy in the midst of hospitality.

Thaddeus Lawrence was killed last Saturday. Manna House guests shared the news with Kathleen and I at church on Sunday.

Thaddeus was a tall, slender, African American man with a loping stride that covered a lot of ground. He had been coming to Manna House for a number of years now. He wrestled with mental illness, but more he wrestled with the harshness of homelessness.

On his good days, his face would light up with a mischievous smile. On his bad days, he appeared with a very stern face, and he would say angry words, usually not to us, but to the world in general.

But whether smiling or struggling, each day that Thaddeus came to Manna House to get on the list for showers, or socks and hygiene, he would present his ID.  We do not require ID for any services at Manna House, but he would always show his ID, point to his picture, and say his name, “Thaddeus Lawrence.”

When we opened for the day, Thaddeus would come and get his coffee. Typically he would then stand off by himself. But some days he would get very close up in my face to share some secret insight. I never could understand what he was saying. I never could follow his train of thought.

Thaddeus was killed by a hit and run driver near the intersection of Claybrook and Jefferson, one block from Manna House. He had been attacked and thrown into the street, and that was when he was hit.

Guests were very shaken by his death. Some saw what had happened. Others in hearing the news reflected on the violence they know so well.

In the midst of our grief a guest asked me for the “Word of the Day.” I was moved to share Psalm 137. Originally this psalm was about the Israelites in exile.  But in Christian usage “heaven” stands in for “Zion,” and “the City of God” for “Jerusalem.” I like to think of the vision of the Beloved Community as replacing Zion and Jerusalem. In the Beloved Community, we will all come together, all will be welcome, and we will all flourish together in the presence of God. So, I paraphrased a bit as I shared the psalm,

By the rivers of Memphis there we sat and wept,

remembering the Beloved Community;

on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps.

For it was there that they asked us, our captors, for songs, our oppressors, for joy.

“Sing to us,” they said, “one of your freedom songs.”

O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?

If I forget you, City of God, let my right hand wither!

O let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not,

if I prize not the Beloved Community as the first of my joys!

The words of the psalm hung in the humid morning air. For a while no one said a word. Then a guest responded,

“Slaves won’t sing for their masters.”

“They aren’t going to entertain those who are killing them,” said another.

“Someone might steal one of those songs, like Elvis took the black man’s music,” said yet another.

“That’s a sad Bible reading” said one more guest, “it’s bleak, but so right.”

“That’s how I feel this morning, knowing about Thaddeus’s death,” I said.

“No one deserves to go that way. Run down like a dog in the street,” a guest added.

Later that morning, after I had left Manna House to go to work, I got a phone call from a minister at a midtown church. An apparently homeless man had been found dead on their property. Could I come and see if I knew who he was? I went. I saw him lying dead. I did not know him. None of us gathered recognized him. As I walked back to my car I started to cry. Thaddeus and this unknown man, both dead. I called Kathleen and returned to Manna House. I had to grieve with her.

I thought of another phrase “vale of tears” that comes from a translation of Psalm 84:6, which describes those strengthened by God’s blessing in the midst of sorrow. Even in the valley of tears they find life-giving water. I feel the tears, but I am also feeling pretty thirsty for that life-giving water. Come Lord Jesus, come!

What About Romans 13?

What about Romans 13:1-7?   A few notes to help one’s biblical study

Does Paul endorse unquestioned Christian obedience to the law/government and participation in state violence?

First:  what is Paul’s attitude toward the Roman Empire in his other letters?

  1. 1 Thessalonians: What will happen to those who trust in the Roman Empire’s “peace and security” (1 Thessalonians 1:10, 2:19, 3:13, 4:31-18, 5:2-3). What is Christian armor compared to Roman armor? (1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Ephesians 6:10-17)
  2. 1 Corinthians: Who does Paul hold responsible for the death of Jesus? (1 Cor 2:6-8) What will happen to the rulers of this world? (1 Cor 15:24) What is the wisdom of Christ vs. the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor 1:18-25)
  3. Philippians 3:20: Where is the citizenship of Christians?
  4. Colossians 2:12-15: What does Christ do to the rulers and their way of “justice”?
  5. 1 Corinthians 6:1-8: Does Paul trust Roman justice and encourage Christian participation in it?
  6. Acts of the Apostles 17:1-8: Of what are Paul and Silas accused? Paul also uses Roman power when necessary—appeals to Caesar (Acts 25)


Second:  Immediate Literary Context of Romans 13:1-7, Put Romans 13:1-7 in the Context of Romans 12 and 13.  Paul’s ethic for Christians is counter-imperial: no violence, no imitation of the evil that wrongdoers have done

  1. What had Paul just written in Romans 12:17-21 regarding how Christians are to live? “Beloved never avenge yourselves…” and “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
  2. What does Paul write immediately after Romans 13:8-10? “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” “Love does no wrong to the neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
  3. If Paul is endorsing state violence and/or Christian participation in or support for state violence in Romans 13:1-7 then he is contradicting his own teaching regarding love and the need to reject vengeance.


Third:  the Historical Context in which Paul Writes

  1. Christians are a minority, and the Roman Empire is not a democracy. Christians have no hope of transforming the Roman Empire through any sort of typical political activity to which we may have access to today. Paul is urging members of the Roman church community to lay low—to not disturb Roman order insofar as they can do that and remain faithful to God. They are to see God’s hand even in events contrary to God’s will for human life. God is ultimately in control of history, including the Roman state. Divine authorization of state authority is not divine approval for everything the state does. Further, the sword referred to in Romans is the judicial sign of authority, not an actual sword.
  2. So, even though Paul may realistically see that the state may have power to execute, it is clearly NOT the calling of Christians to seek vengeance through state violence or to approve of state violence. Christian calling is to live alternative life of the Kingdom of God and insofar as possible not engage with the state.


Fourth: Paul is being descriptive rather than prescriptive

  1. Paul is not offering any blessing to state power, but simply observing what it is like and making sure it is seen as UNDER God’s sovereignty and thus subject to God’s judgment. He has already made it clear that Christians who are to live as the Body of Christ in the world are to live by a very different standard.
  2. What is the evidence for the view that Paul is being descriptive rather than prescriptive?

a: Paul’s description of the Imperial rule is in opposition to Roman views which claimed that the Imperial rule simply brought peace, and no mention of HOW it brought that “peace”–through the sword and the cross.  Paul’s description unmasks Roman ideology about the “Pax Romana” as false, as a cover for the brutal realities of Roman imperial power.  (See also 1 Corinthians 2:7-10, where Paul identifies “the rulers of this age” as responsible for the execution of Jesus).

b. Why was Paul writing to the Church in Rome? Paul was urging the church in Rome to welcome back exiled Jewish Christians.  Right after Romans 13, Paul writes in Romans 14, “Welcome those weak in faith…” in reference to the Jews.  A major theme of the letter is the unity of the Church in Rome “in Christ” rather than continuing divisions between “Greek and Jew.” (See Romans 2-4, 9-11—where Paul specifically addresses relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians).

c.  In the Hebrew Scriptures (Paul’s “Bible”) those who carry out the wrath or vengeance of God are not friends of God.  Rather their use of violence will one day rebound to destroy them.  For example, see what Jeremiah the prophet says about Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:8-14), and what Isaiah says about Assyria as agent of Lord’s judgment (Isaiah 10:5-22).

Fifth: Paul’s Peace of Christ or “Pax Christi” versus the Peace of Rome or “Pax Romana”:

  1. Peace of God and Christ is the Peace Paul Endorses—not the Roman Peace that is enforced by the sword and cross: Romans 1:7, 16:20; Phil 4:7, 9; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2, 13:11; 1 Thess 1:1; 2 Thess 1:2, 3:16
  2. What is the Peace of God/Christ? The path to God’s Peace is not through violence (imposing the sword and cross on others) but through obedience to the way of God. This way of God in Jesus that consists in love is exactly what the power of sin and death tries to destroy through the cross, but is prevented from doing so since God’s power brings resurrection. Freed from the power of sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who share in Christ’s life are to live as Christ, in loving service to others. see Romans 12:1-21


Sixth, Paul Reflects the Heart of the Biblical Faith About God:  God is a God of life, not of death. God is a God of liberation, not oppression.

  1. God in raising Jesus Christ from the dead defeats the power of sin and death, opening us to new life in Christ. Life in Christ is what we are to share with others. Romans 6:12-14.  We are to share life of Christ through a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-20). The state may engage in revenge, but Christians should not. Christians should live in a way that stands against/resists such an approach to justice.  See also Matthew 5:38-48
  2. God’s justice seeks the redemption of sinners, not their death. This has been a major theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans… And, in fact it is a major theme of the whole Bible…How does God deal with sinners? God holds them accountable for the sake of bringing them to repentance, reconciliation, restoration to life. See the stories of Cain, Moses, David, the people of Israel, Old Testament Prophets, i.e. Ezekial 33:11, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.”
  3. Paul calls Christians to a Ministry of Reconciliation, not a ministry of revenge! See 2 Corinthians 5:15-20, Christ’s way of life is the pattern for Christian discipleship. (Romans 14:1a, 3b; 15:7, Phil 2:5-13)

An Uptick in Sticks

“What you got there?” I asked a guest walking into the back yard at Manna House.

“My walking stick.”

“With nails sticking out from it?”

“I walk in some rough places.”

“You can’t bring that in here.”

“Why not?”

“Sticks break bones. This is a place of peace and sanctuary.”

“Oh, ok.”

That was one of the sticks I noticed as it was being carried in. I saw another in a guest’s backpack. Similar conversation followed. I saw another stick placed behind a guest’s chair, not so carefully hidden. I asked him to take it out of the yard.

Over the years various guests have sought to bring their “walking sticks” into Manna House. The number seems to go up as the temperature rises. It is pretty hard to hide a stick when we are indoors during the winter. But as we move to the back yard with warmer temperatures, guests tend to want to bring their sticks with them.

We are not having it.

So when I was asked for the “word of the day” this morning I shared from Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” A discussion ensued.

“This is a hard saying,” I said as I shared the verse.

“Why do you think so?” a guest challenged me.

“It is a hard world and it’s hard to do good when others are doing evil to you.”

“That’s the truth,” said another guest, “These streets are dangerous.”

“Why do you think people carry sticks?” I asked.

“A good way to overcome some evil,” a guest said as he turned the passage on its head.

“You know, ‘speak softly and carry a big stick,’” another guest contributed a bit of American tradition. Thanks President Teddy Roosevelt.

“I’m going to try and take this word to heart,” one more guest chimed in, “I’m not doing so well with my anger.”

Yesterday I read Dr. David Gushee’s tribute to Rev. Dr. James Cone. Gushee remembered from a class he took from Dr. Cone at Union seminary. There was a discussion about violence. Cone, Gushee wrote, “essentially said the following: ‘In situations of oppression, violence is a daily reality. It is often invisible to the oppressor but certainly not to those who are being trampled upon. In such situations a response must be made. Whether or not that response is or should be violent is a matter for discussion. But let no one suggest that it is the oppressed who is introducing violence into that situation.’”

It is helpful for me to remember that the violence of the streets is not primarily evident in whether or not some guests carry sticks. Certainly that is troublesome, and sticks are incompatible with Manna House remaining a place of hospitality.

But the very reason we try to create a space of hospitality at Manna House is because the violence of the streets is first of all coming from the deadly damage homelessness does to human dignity and human health. We need to offer hospitality because the structural violence of homelessness does deadly harm to people. The structural violence of homelessness prevents our guests from meeting their basic human needs for housing, healthcare, healthy food, and all of those things that all of us need for human dignity.

So for now, I am sure we will continue to see some sticks show up in the hands of guests at Manna House. And, I am sure, we will continue to ask guests to leave their sticks outside the gate. But even more, we will continue to work for a world in which good overcomes evil, including structural evil, a world without an uptick in sticks.

“Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord cares for me” (Psalm 27:10).

She is somebody’s child. Walking in the rain. Clothes soaked and dirty. She is somebody’s child.

He crosses Union Ave; shouts at the sky with arm raised and fist clenched. He is somebody’s child.

Leg’s crossed, she smokes at the bus stop. Her head is down low, almost touching her knees. The weight of a life gone south. She is someone’s child lost long ago.

He moves crablike as he sits in a wheelchair while his legs churn as he moves across Poplar. Still wearing his hospital gown; still somebody’s child.

She sleeps in the doorway of an abandoned store. A flattened cardboard box is her bed. Her head is covered with an old blanket. Somebody’s child.

A woman passes on the street. The stream of profanities she loudly shouts clears her path. People look on amused or amazed or terrified. Somebody’s child.

I heard at Manna House two weeks ago that she died alone in an abandoned apartment building. I wondered if she ever said, like my child said last week “I want to paint a rainbow Daddy.”

My phone rang yesterday. A mother and daughter are coming to look for their son on the streets of Memphis.

“He just up and left three years ago. He went from acting strange sometimes to being strange all the time. We followed leads and we think he’s here.”

He is somebody’s child.

People of faith commonly assert that “We are all children of God.” Some of us might have even sung as children,

“Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world…”

And some of us might even have come across Shane Bertou’s version of this song that does not use racial categories and racist language like “Yellow” and “Red.”

“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.
Every color, shape and size, they are precious in his eyes.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

When I sing this song as an adult I know that it is not just about “the little children of the world” but all of us. Jesus loves all of us. And Jesus himself taught, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).
Yet here we are. Somebody’s child, God’s child—God’s children, are abandoned on the streets. This got me thinking about something else Jesus said, something about his identification with children, including those abandoned on the street. It is a call from Jesus. And it is not an easy one. It is a call that demands hospitality to be sure, but also the struggle for justice, for housing as a human right, so that all God’s children have a home.

“’If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’
Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me’” (Mark 9:30-37).

Praise God, all you angels (Psalm 148:9)

The Feast of the Apparition of St. Michael was Tuesday, May 8. I came across this obscure feast as I prayed in preparation for opening Manna House.  In my morning prayer book, I read about St. Michael the Archangel, “St. Michael’s weapons were truth, humility, and love, and with these he vanquished the devil.” Sitting in the Manna House kitchen listening to the coffee percolate, I got to thinking about angels and spiritual warfare in relation to offering hospitality.

We have a special relationship with angels as Manna House. They come to us every morning we are open. We stand on the biblical promise, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). We know Abraham and Sarah entertained angels disguised as strangers (Genesis 18). We even know Jesus comes among us in our guests as he promised, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (See Matthew 25:31-46).

There are lots of stories about angels in the Bible. Angels are usually messengers from God.  They say interesting things, like telling Mary she’s pregnant with Jesus even though she has not had sex with Joseph.

But in the Book of Revelation angels are not so much fun. They appear as warriors. Michael the archangel is portrayed as a warrior against the devil (Revelation 12:7 and you can also check out Isaiah 14:12-15 and Ezekiel 28:13-19). Angels are the soldiers in spiritual warfare.

Hospitality and spiritual warfare—how are the two connected? Manna House has been open thirteen years. There is a deep joy in this work as the angelic guests share their lives with us. These angels evangelize us as we hear their amazing stories of resilience, of continuing to hope and to cope in the midst of poverty, illness, loss of family members and friends. They are truly messengers from God.

But the angels also bring messages that reveal evil deep within our society. The power of sin is death, and death is a way of life in our nation. As Dr. James Cone pointed out in “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” the purpose of both the cross and the lynching tree “was to strike terror in the subject community.” Evil uses terror to threaten or impose death. Death is the major weapon evil uses in spiritual warfare. Evil is not reducible to individual human decisions and actions; it is systemic, seductive, slippery, and sophisticated. And to resist that evil, to struggle against it, requires that we be spiritually grounded and socially engaged.

The power of evil uses homelessness to kill other human beings and to strike terror in our hearts. Homelessness is a death sentence. Over 100 guests have died since we opened thirteen years ago. Two more have died just in the past month, Demarco Woods and Carolyn Bates.  Homelessness enforces our tenuous place in this ultra-competitive and individualistic society. Our souls quake, because we know homelessness is the tip of the iceberg called “poverty.” And none of us, except perhaps the very wealthy, are immune from the possibility of poverty.

This is how spiritual warfare wages around us. The powers that be try to discipline us by our fear of falling into poverty and homelessness. We are encouraged to hate the bodies of our brothers and sisters on the streets (in Memphis, mostly black bodies) because they represent our deepest anxieties and fears about living in a society in which we are all expendable. Much of that hatred is an attempt to cast them further from us. The seductive promise is made, “You can be safe if ‘the homeless’ are regarded as a different kind of being to whom we owe nothing but our disdain. They, like immigrants, are “animals.”

Hospitality enters this spiritual warfare as hospitality rejects this terror and the fears it tries to put into our lives. Hospitality rejects the crucifixion of the poor. Hospitality affirms our shared humanity.       In “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” James Cone does not just name the power of evil to kill. He also names the power of God to bring new life, to create and sustain human flourishing. Cone wrote, “God took the evil of the cross and lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine.” That transformation requires repentance and resistance grounded in faith in resurrection. As Angela Davis said, “We know that the road to freedom has always been stalked by death.” And St. Paul wrote, “I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6).

This is the resistance as we wield the spiritual weapon of hospitality against the power of evil. We come to listen to the stories. We come to stand in solidarity. We come to welcome people by name. We come to offer a cup of coffee, a shower, and a change of clothes. We come to entertain angels, and to learn from the warrior angels how God’s resurrection power takes on the power of death. And in this spiritual warfare in which we fight with the weapon of hospitality we remember that, “St. Michael’s weapons were truth, humility, and love, and with these he vanquished the devil.”

We are All Born So Beautiful


“we are all born / so beautiful / the greatest tragedy is / being convinced we are not”– Rupi Kaur


“Did you hear Demarco is dead?”

I stood in stunned silence. The question floated in the air for a few seconds. On the front steps and the porch the usual chatter and bustle of a Monday morning continued. The unusually cold morning was softened by the clear skies and sun warming the brick patio of Manna House. Death seemed out of place.

I had not seen Demarco for four or five months. The last time he was at Manna House he was fresh out of prison, but full of hope. Sadly, it was only in prison that he had finally found some stability, and regular meds for his depression. He had said he felt “together.” He was ready to get started with some program that he was confident would keep him on a good path.

“What happened?” I asked. “What do you know about his death?”

The guest did not know much more than that Demarco had been found in one of the abandoned apartments a block away from Manna House.

I went inside to share the news with Kathleen and to see if she or Ashley might be able to uncover anything more. A call to the morgue confirmed that he was indeed dead. He had died on April 1st, Easter Sunday. We heard on Easter Sunday, “O death where is your sting?”  My answer, “It is right here today.”

I went back outside and starting talking with another guest. He grew up here in Memphis; went to Manassas High School. “The old one” he said, “not the new building. Really I went to school high, not high school. I never finished.”

“Did you ever finish?” I asked.

“Yes, in prison. Got my G.E.D.”

“You ever think about going on for more education?”

“I haven’t. You think I could?”

“You’re smart. I hear the community college is free now. Why not start with one class and see what happens?”

“I might. I can’t work anymore like I used to with this busted up arm.”

This afternoon, I came across this line of poetry today from rupi kaur, “we are all born / so beautiful / the greatest tragedy is / being convinced we are not.”

I wonder sometimes about what a guest was like when he or she was a child. Did she know her parents’ love? Were his parents excited and happy when he was born? Did they hold her with love and pride? Did someone read books to him before he went to bed? Did she have enough to eat? Did he go to good schools where teachers cared about him? Did she have a stable home and not have to move every year or every six months? Was he always treated with respect?

The main work of Manna House is telling our guests, showing our guests, serving our guests in such a way that they know they are loved and that they are beautiful. They come to us convinced that they are not.

At the end of the day, Kathleen texted me a photo she had found on her phone of Demarco. He was beautiful. And he was loved.