Poverty Stinks

Poverty stinks, literally and metaphorically. Being in poverty and on the streets doubly stinks. A shower and a change of clothes helps with the literal stench. For a day or so, the stench of homelessness and poverty are kept at bay. A shower, followed by putting on freshly laundered clothing, and some deodorant, is a small but significant act of resistance. Still, sleeping in one’s clothes, not having a change of clothes, and not having access to a bathroom, will inevitably lead to the odiferous return of poverty and homelessness.

I did the laundry today at Manna House. I do not have a very strong sense of smell. It is a helpful characteristic as I sort the clothes from the men who showered. But the pungent smell of human shit penetrated my nostrils as I lifted a pair of jeans out of the dirty clothes bucket. Clearly the man who had been wearing these pants had not made it to a bathroom in time.

Most likely he shit in his pants because he was denied access to a bathroom in a store or restaurant. I am sure you have seen the signs, “Bathrooms for Customers Only.” Many places go even further and keep their restrooms locked. To enter the restroom you have to ask for the key. If your clothing looks tattered, or you are dirty and disheveled, and you also happen to be Black, your chances of getting that key are severely diminished. One way poverty and homelessness stink is the systemic denial of access to bathrooms. The system stinks.

Another set of clothes in the laundry bucket gave off a systemic stink. There was a discarded blue paper suit.  You get those when you are discharged from a hospital, or sometimes from jail, and you do not own any clothes.  Last night and this morning was unseasonably cool. A paper suit is not much protection against the cold. I am sure the hot water of the shower was helpful in thawing out the man who was given a paper suit. The clothes we gave him to put on after his shower must have helped as well.

Slightly over twenty men showered this morning at Manna House. There are already seven women signed up for tomorrow’s showers. Another twenty plus men will sign up for showers on Thursday. They will be different than the men who showered today. Men, like the women, have access to a shower once a week at Manna House.

Manna House is a small place with two shower stalls. We practice hospitality, which means we do not want to become big. We know that size and efficiency are enemies of hospitality, of personal relationships, of knowing people by their names, and welcoming people with dignity. We encourage others to open houses of hospitality that are also sized for welcome.

We know that hospitality does not remove the systemic stench of poverty even as it helps a few remove that stench temporarily with a shower and a change of clothes. For the men that showered this morning that was no small thing. But they know and we know this hospitality is not ending poverty or homelessness. Ending poverty and homelessness requires systemic change, change to our economics and to our politics.

Such change is not on the horizon. I read in this morning’s paper that the President is proposing a budget that will bring severe cuts to a number of programs designed to help people in poverty. Provisions for food, housing, and medical care for people already in poverty will all be cut. The stench of poverty will be made worse by these shitty policies.

I doubt that the President or his advisors, along with members of Congress have ever smelt the shit left in the pants of a man made homeless by our economic and political system. I also doubt that they have spent the night outside in a thin paper suit. Maybe if they did, they would make policies that reduced instead of increased the stink of poverty. Maybe.

While we engage in the struggle against policies that stink, we will continue with hospitality. The stench in my nostrils from this morning’s laundry keeps me focused on both hospitality and justice. Both are about reducing the stink.  I think that is what Jeremiah was talking about when he gave a vision of a society justly ordered, of a time in which the stink is gone.

“They will come home and sing songs of joy on the heights of Jerusalem. They will be radiant because of the Lord’s good gifts–the abundant crops of grain, new wine, and olive oil, and the healthy flocks and herds. Their life will be like a watered garden, and all their sorrows will be gone” (Jeremiah 31:12, New Living Translation).

In such a time, Jeremiah tells us, everyone comes home. The abundant goods of the earth will be shared. And we will flourish from showers that do more than remove stench, they will lead to abundant life.

Ten Rules for Addressing Panhandlers and Panhandling

Ten Rules for Addressing Panhandlers and Panhandling
1. Give or don’t give. It is really your choice. But always look the person in the eye who is asking, and say “Hi” and then maybe add, “Sorry I can’t help today” OR “Here you go.” Always treat the person with respect.
2. If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants to do
3. If you don’t give that is ok. Panhandlers expect most people not to give. One said to me, “It’s like cold calling in sales. I expect to get turned down most of the time and it doesn’t bother me. Just treat me with respect.” (See Rule #1 above).
4. If you feel unsafe or the person is being aggressive or threatening, leave the area and don’t give. As one said to me, “There are assholes in every line of life. Don’t reward them.”
5. Sometimes give more than you are being asked for. So, if someone asks for a dollar give them five… just for fun!
6. Set a limit or a boundary to your giving. Mine is $5 per day. Once I’ve given out my $5 then I respond to anyone who asks, “I’ve given out already what I give each day.” I consider this my “street tax.”
7. There are people out there who aren’t homeless who panhandle. They are simply poor. So, again, give if you want, or don’t if you don’t want to, but treat everyone with respect. (See Rule #1 above).
8. Feeling awkward or uncomfortable when you see a panhandler is ok. It means you have a conscience and some compassion.
9. If you have time, and are so inclined, volunteer with an organization that works with people on the streets offering food, or shelter, or medical care etc. You’ll get to know some really interesting people, and they’ll get to know you. And you might just see them on the streets from time to time, and you can wave and yell “Hi!”
10. If you really want to help people who are homeless, then advocate for housing for all homeless people. Support organizations in your area that practice a “housing first” approach to homelessness. Also resist all efforts to dehumanize, disrespect, and criminalize people who are on the streets with laws like “No panhandling.” (See Rule #1 above).

The Liberal Soul Shall be Made Fat

The talk Thursday morning was about Ben Carson’s view of shelters, and about the impending Health Care bill. The usual banter about the NBA or NFL was muted. Guests raised their fears that things are getting worse. Then a guest shared with me his “Word for the Day.”

“Do you know this verse?” he asked, “The liberal soul shall be made fat.” Though I’ve lived in the Bible Belt now over twenty years, I had to confess I was not familiar with that verse.

“Where in the Bible does it say that?”

“Somewhere in Proverbs.”

I got out my phone and did a search. Proverbs 11:25 (King James Version of course), “The liberal soul shall be made fat; and that watereth shall be watered also himself.” Or in more contemporary English, “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (NIV).

“So stingy people will become emaciated?” I asked.

I thought of Scrooge. He’s never portrayed as a fat man. Same for Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons.”

Santa Claus on the other hand offers a rotund picture of robust giving.

For misers there is never enough. The deadly sin of avarice or greed feeds upon fears of not enough.

The guest shook his head, “Ain’t no telling a rich man that he’s gonna go hungry. He just won’t listen.”

“God is fat” a guest said.

I showed my age, “Is that with an ‘f’ or a “phat?’”

The other old guys around me laughed.

We came back to the smug comment Ben Carson made the other day.  As he toured a homeless shelter he was pleased to find it not very hospitable. Carson said, “A comfortable setting… would make somebody want to say: ‘I’ll just stay here. They will take care of me.’”

“He ought to stay in a shelter. Then he might shut up.”

“He’s clueless. He don’t know us. And he don’t care.”

“He’s got a skinny soul.”

I have seen the liberal souls of our guests. They share the wisdom of the streets. They’ll tell new people what they need to know in order to survive. They share cigarettes, socks, food, catholes, blankets. They share out of their deep knowledge that they are in this struggle together.

Carson well represents a soul that is not liberal, not generous. And he represents a president whose soul is avaricious and thus also vicious. Trump has called poor people “morons.” Trump’s proposed budget would slash or abolish programs that have helped people below the poverty line, including affordable housing, banking, weatherizing homes, job training, paying home heating bills, and obtaining legal counsel in civil matters.

Trump will cut the very resources that in the past month or so have gotten a number of our most regular guests into housing. After years on the streets they now have a place to call “home.” Most have moved into modest apartments, some into rooming houses. When they get their place they proudly come around to Manna House and show us their keys. Trump with his emaciated soul wants to end this. He says it creates “dependency.” This comes from a man whose own wealth was inherited and has been rewarded by a financial system that pampers the wealthiest while punishing the poor.

At Manna House we try to be the “liberal soul.” So we believe that treating people with respect, welcoming them with hospitality, not only enriches the lives of our guests but our souls as well. Hospitality provides the space for wholeness, for seeing our bonds with each other, our interdependence, for nurturing the desire to seek a life consistent with the respect and welcome shared.

A former guest came by the other day to thank us, “You all believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You made me feel like a human being again. It made me think, ‘I don’t have to just take this. I can try again.’” He is now housed and working.

Another guest said, “I feel like for every step forward I take two steps back. Ain’t gonna stop trying though. You haven’t given up on me and I’m not giving up either.”

The problem with misers is that with their illiberal soul they only see deficiency. They do not believe that there is enough for everybody. Scarcity stalks their souls. Hence all of the worry about being taken advantage of by people in poverty, “welfare cheats,” “foodstamp fraud.” So Trump speaks about “how taxpayers are being shaken down by this outrageously mismanaged government program.”

The Gospel for this Sunday is about the Good Shepherd, a “liberal soul.” Jesus says his life and work is that of a good shepherd. He shares his life generously. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He points out that thieves and bandits threaten the sheep. In doing so he recalls the prophet Ezekiel’s description of avaricious political and economics leaders.

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Woe to you shepherds of the nation who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally’” (Ezekiel 34:2-5).

Ezekiel gives an accurate picture of illiberal and greedy shepherds. Ezekiel then speaks of the divine judgment that leaves the greedy shepherds emaciated and the starving sheep fattened and healthy.

“’I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord.  I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice’” (Ezekiel 34:14-16).

“They’re just mean,” a guest added to our conversation on this morning. “They hate us. They want us to die. I’m not giving them the pleasure.”

“Keep living,” I said, “We love you.”

This is How They Crucify

I was reading the New Testament aloud on the front porch. The text sounds different when I read it into this space with Manna House guests listening.

“Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

“Who are the rulers of this age?” a guest who was listening asked.

Another standing by jumped in quickly to answer, “Trump, the wealthiest, the powerful politicians.”

“Those rulers, they still crucifying every day,” yet another added, “Getting worse every day.”

Conversations that begin like this have a tendency to jump around from biblical text to biblical text. I wondered where we might land.

“What about the beast in Revelation?” the standing guest wanted to know. “Sounds to me like a ruler of this age. Go to that book.”

So I went to Revelation 13, “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. “

Porch commentary commenced again. A guest asked, “That’s the 666 beast, right?”

I thought about all the speculation that has been done over the centuries of Christianity regarding this beast.

One of the guests who loves this kind of apocalyptic stuff urged me on. “Find where it talks about 666.”

I jumped down a few verses, “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (Revelation 13:18).

Then I jumped back up again, “they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’ The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven” (Revelation 13:4-6)

“I guess Trump’s only got 42 months” a guest laughed, “He can’t last. Bible says so.”

I kept going and read, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (Revelation 13:10).

Just then a guest walked up the steps of the porch, handed me a penny, and kept on walking into the house.

“We got real worship now. Preacher just got a tithe!”

“Widow’s mite! Widow’s mite” shouted another guest, referencing the story in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was watching rich people putting their gifts into the Temple treasury, and “he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on’” (Luke 21:1-3).

“Are we supposed to give until we got nothing?” a guest asked me after I told that story.

“Do you think Jesus was happy that the Temple Treasury was taking the last money of a poor person?” I answered his question with a question.

“Doesn’t seem like Jesus would be” he came back. “Beast wants us to think Jesus would.”

Another guest brought us full circle. “Remember those ‘rulers of this age?’ This is how they crucify.”

Some Day the Rising is Gonna Come

I had not seen him at Manna House for several weeks. His symptoms of mental illness had been worsening before he disappeared. This morning he arrived wearing the telltale signs of a stay in the country jail, 201 Poplar. On his feet were jail issue brown flip-flops. His clothing consisted of loose fitting greyish-white sweatpants and a white t-shirt. His socks matched the sweatpants. They had once been white but were now grey from the dust and dirt of the streets. He did not carry any other belongings.

Most noticeable were the tremors in his arms and hands. Coffee spilled from the sides of his shaking cup. The tremors were likely from antipsychotic drugs administrated while he was in jail. A guest saw the tremors and said to me, “Chemical control. Bet he was heavily sedated in jail.”

I felt like I was watching a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—an old movie that gave a horrific look at the inside of a state mental hospital. Nurse Ratched must work at 201 Poplar. A little research reveals that “Fewer than 55,000 Americans currently receive treatment in psychiatric hospitals. Meanwhile, almost 10 times that number — nearly 500,000 — mentally ill men and women are serving time in U.S. jails and prisons” (“The New Asylums,” FRONTLINE, May 10, 2005).

The National Alliance for the Mental Ill (NAMI) reports that, “An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.” Additionally, “Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have ‘a recent history’ of a mental health condition.”

Another guest had arrived at Manna House after a stay in jail. He came to me looking for a place where he might get treatment for his mental illness.

“I have severe depression. I’ve known it for years. I’ve gone the route of trying to ignore it, or trying to cover it up by drugs and drinking. I need help. I heard about this place. Can you look them up and give me a phone number?”

I looked it up. I gave him the number. A few days later I saw him again at Manna House and I asked him, “Did you call that place?”

“I did. They don’t have any room for me.”

“What’s next?”

“Same old, same old, I guess.”

On any given morning at Manna House somewhere around thirty or forty percent of our guests exhibit symptoms of mental illness noticeable to even our untrained eyes. I say “untrained eyes” because none of us are psychologists or psychiatrists. We are just ordinary people trying to offer some hospitality, a place where people can feel welcome and be safe and be treated with respect.

The hospitality we offer at Manna House insists on the human dignity of each guest, including our guests with mental illness. Mental illness continues to carry a kind of moral stigma, as if persons with mental illness are somehow morally at fault for their illness. And, of course, homelessness carries a moral stigma too. “Homeless persons” our culture says “are dirty, dangerous, disgusting, different, and damn lazy.” Add in that many of our guests with mental illness who are homeless are also Black, and you get a triple stigma. No wonder prison becomes the preferred societal way of treating people who are housing deprived, Black, and mentally ill.

Hospitality rejects that stigmatizing and instead affirms the sacred dignity of each person, made in the image of God. We not only believe, we also know that our guests with mental illness are not defined by their illness. They are persons with good days and bad, gifts and liabilities, and they bring the very presence of God into Manna House.

Another guest comes from across the street. I can not only see him coming, I can also hear him coming. He speaks with a loud voice, gesticulating wildly, speaking into the air, looking upward as he walks. When he comes upon onto the front porch he gets up close to my face. His eyes are intense. I feel like he is staring into my soul. He is a tall man and he towers over me. “Pete” he says with eyes that now take on a conspiratorial wink, “Jesus rose from the dead. They’re a lot of dead people out there” and he points to the streets, “But some day the rising is gonna come.”

Old Wounds

I asked a guest the other day, “Why are you so quiet?” He’s usually quite outgoing and engaged, but this morning he sat on a bench seemingly in a different world.

“I’m holding my tears in” he said. Then he explained, “I fractured this arm a few years ago. On cold days like this one it aches. My old broken bone hurts.”

“Those hurts from the past never really go away, do they?” I said.

“Nope. Not in the body. Not in the heart.”

We reminisced a bit about old wounds that never go away.

“You see this scar on my finger?” I offered, “I nearly cut this off in a mower.”

“It still tingle?” the guest asked and then continued, “I about smashed this finger between two I-beams when I was working construction. That sucker still don’t feel right.”

As I age, I am more aware of the old wounds I carry in my body. Those who come to Manna House as guests seem to carry more than their fair share of old bodily wounds. I think of one guest who each day slowly and methodically walks up our ramp (he avoids the stairs), leaning heavily on a walking stick. Another guest always takes the stairs, but he shouldn’t. He’s fallen there a few times. His legs and hips are stiff from the ravages of time and accidents. And we have several guests who just are not right in the head, and almost always I find out they had some severe head injury in their past.

Beyond these old physical wounds (and sometimes connected with them), I have yet to meet a guest (or a volunteer for that matter) who does not ache from some old spiritual wound, a broken heart, a fractured soul. We all have those memories by the time we get to a certain age—memories of loved ones lost to death, memories of a crucial relationship ended, memories of betrayal. We get cracked open, laid bare in our souls, and we are left wondering if life is worth living.

Most of our guests at Manna House carry old wounds that come from even deeper cuts. Orphaned at an early age and passed from foster home to foster home before ending up on the streets. Tossed out by family for being gay or transgendered. Mental illness left untreated, or treated only sporadically because of poverty. The memories of the wounds of poverty: hunger, constantly being evicted and moving from one place to another, never really having a home or a neighborhood to call one’s own, battles with vermin, violence and violence threatened, poor schooling. And once on the streets the wounds of constant harassment, physical violence, rape, addictions, abuse, imprisonment, always looking for work but never finding steady employment, standing in lines, bad food, hearing the judging yells from passing cars. These are wounds that cut deep in the soul.

Just like old physical wounds flare up from time to time, so, too, do old spiritual wounds. Cold damp weather makes my bones or joints ache. Those old spiritual wounds open up less predictably. Sometimes I catch a whiff of cigarette smoke and the hole left by my Dad’s death opens up. I hear a song and I feel the hurt of a relationship that ended. I reach out to make a phone call and catch myself remembering the ache from the loss of a friend who died.

Feeling old wounds present me with a choice about how to live. Psalm 56 tells me, “O God, You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” God takes in our tears from our old wounds and draws us to compassion. For what is God but the Promise of love being stronger than death; of life continuing beyond this earthly time?

I can become embittered by those old wounds. I can rage against the past and how it distorts the present. I can seek to avoid any suffering in the future by closing myself off from the risk of love and relationship. Or in this faith in a loving God, I can find in these old wounds the seeds for a continual growth in compassion. This latter choice, to respond to the wounds in our lives by seeing in them my connection with God and my solidarity with the wounds in others, leads me in faith to reach out in compassion. This is how God is most life-giving.

A few days ago Kathleen told me about one morning two weeks ago when a faithful donor came in with some clothes as part of her generous donation. The donor started to explain that the clothes were from her husband. He had died last fall. She explained that she is finally getting around to saying goodbye to his clothes. A volunteer, who had lost her husband two years ago, came out of the clothing room into the living room.

“I heard what you said. I didn’t mean to listen in, but as one widow to another I just wanted to give you a hug.”

They embraced in tears. The old wounds watered compassion.

Healing Waters

I came across an old letter yesterday while sorting through papers on my desk at home. This past August, my good friend Louise Wolf Novak had sent what she called a “healing waters” donation for Manna House. She had included her donation in one of her typically wonderful letters, full of family news and questions, along with various ruminations that emerged from her compassionate and thoughtful faith. At the time, she was in the midst of treatment for cancer. Kathleen and I had visited her and her husband Tom earlier in the summer, and we had introduced Nevaeh to them.

In her letter, Louise shared how a friend of hers had written to her of his trip to Lourdes in France. Like so many others, Louise’s friend had gone in faithful desperation, hoping that by bathing in the healing waters of Lourdes, he might be healed as so many others have before. He wrote Louise that he was healed.

Louise wrote to me, “It almost made me think I should pack up and head to Lourdes!” But she continued in her letter, “Tom said something about it being ‘reserved for those who could afford the trip,’ which I had to agree with. I had to agree that healing can’t be restricted like that. So without elaborating, I’m sending a donation to Manna House for its Healing Waters.”

Louise died a week ago Sunday, on February 12, 2017. She continued in her August letter, “I hope I’m not required to go to Lourdes for healing. Any pilgrimage I make will be small. But it is a good opportunity to acknowledge the blessing of warm water at Manna House… Perhaps I’ll make a pilgrimage to Manna House.”

Re-reading Louise’ letter now, I am left wondering about healing. I know the waters at Manna House heal. More than one guest has come out of the shower room testifying, “I’m alive again!” But I also know how many of our guests have died over the years. Death comes in many ways, seizures, heart attacks, hit by a car, falling off a wall, overdose. And we have two volunteers these days also facing serious battles with cancer.

Louise had a deep faith that did not depend upon miracles or special trips to far away places. Her faith and her healing were not restricted in those ways. Instead, as she showed over and over again in her life, her faith depended upon gracious relationships, loving family and friends and loving strangers. That was the unrestricted “healing water” she faithfully shared in her life. This is the healing water referred to in Psalm 23 (so often prayed at funerals), “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Death seeks to dry up those waters. Death seeks to create a drought of love in our lives. Death tempts us to think it is stronger than the loving healing waters of relationships in which we live and move and experience God’s presence. Louise never gave up on that healing water. Even in the midst of her wrestling with death, she shared her faith in the “healing waters” by sharing to make sure those waters would continue to flow at Manna House.

Tomorrow, as we always do on Monday mornings, we will offer the healing waters of showers at Manna House. And when I hear the water in showers flowing, I will remember Louise for the way she shared “healing waters.” My prayer will be that the healing that comes with love will touch us all, our guests, our volunteers, and especially in this time, Louise, her husband Tom, and their children.

Sanctuary

From the beginning of Manna House we have sought to provide sanctuary for those who come for rest, for showers, for clothes, for coffee, for conversation. We welcome our guests, recognizing their sacred dignity. They bring to us the very presence of Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). Some may even be angels in disguise. (Genesis 18, Hebrews 13:1-2).

To offer sanctuary means we provide a place where our guests are welcomed and treated with respect. It also means we do our best to make sure our guests will not be harassed by drug dealers or by the police or by anyone else who might seek to violate the hospitality we offer.

In our early years we had a number of incidents in which we politely but firmly told police that they were not welcome to come in and look around Manna House to see who was there. The police were astounded that we held our ground. We simply stated that unless they had a warrant they could not come in. Apparently they had free reign at other “homeless service providers” and could not understand why we were different. Biblical sanctuary guided us, the stranger is to be welcomed and protected as part of hospitality.

At one point our insistence on sanctuary led a few officers to try intimidating our guests and us. One officer told us to “watch our backs.” Another parked across the street, facing Manna House, keeping us all under surveillance. We offered the officer coffee (which he refused) and then, our patience wearing thin after weeks of this harassment, we organized a call in to the Mayor’s office. The surveillance stopped. Then there was the incident in which two volunteers were arrested for videoing officers harassing a guest down the street from Manna House. Perhaps the embarrassment for these wrongful arrests finally led to the end of the harassment.

In addition to safety from harassment, sanctuary also means that we never ask any of our guests for identification. We welcome whoever comes seeking sanctuary. So, our insistence on being a sanctuary has always meant that we welcome undocumented people. Many of our guests are without documentation. They have no government ID, no driver’s license. Some of these guests are what you might call “internal refugees.” They are the flotsam of our society, discarded, drifting, hoping for welcome, for work, for a place to live. Other guests are “external refugees.” These undocumented guests come from other countries. They arrive in the U.S. seeking safety, hoping for refuge from intolerable economic and/or political situations. Whether internal or external refugees, they are welcome at Manna House.

These days there is a demonic spirit loose in the U.S. This demonic spirit deems undocumented people from other countries expendable, imprisonable and deportable. This demonic spirit separates families, takes sick people out of hospitals and imprisons them, puts children in shackles, and warehouses people in inhumane conditions so private corporations can make money from their misery. It is a spirit generated by fear and and hatred. It is anti-Christ in its rejection of welcoming the stranger.

Manna House, in offering sanctuary, will continue to stand for a different spirit, a Holy Spirit. We will seek to be faithful to the Spirit that spoke in Jesus who said, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

 

 

Bread and Redemption

The knock on the front door at Manna House came just before 8am. Was it a late arriving volunteer? A guest who was growing impatient? I opened the door. Two men, one white, one black, stood there in their MLGW uniforms. I could see their truck parked on the street. The black man introduced himself, while his white co-worker stood silently holding four loaves of bread. I asked, “How can I help you?”

“Would you take this food? We’ve got meat and cheese and bread.” He put forth one large tray covered with tinfoil and a small sack carrying chicken salad in store containers.

I was inclined to say “no.” Normally we do not accept food donations. The St. Vincent de Paul Food Mission is just a couple of blocks away and they serve a meal every day starting at 9:30am. No need to duplicate what they do. And unless the donation is enough for the 120 or so people who come each morning to Manna House, it is not practical to distribute without creating tensions. This little amount of bread and fixings would not be nearly enough to serve everyone.

The man standing there with the tray added, “My son died. This is left-over from my son’s funeral repast.”

Suddenly there was something more here at stake than the amount of food being offered.

“I’m very sorry about your son,” I said. “Thank you. We will serve this food in his honor.”

We shook hands and the two men turned and left.

A quick consultation led to the decision to wait until later in the morning to serve this offering. That way we would have time to prepare the sandwiches and also have enough to serve those still in the house. Thankfully, we had a group of nursing students from the University of Memphis with us this morning, so we had plenty of help to do those extra jobs.

Around 10am the sandwiches were distributed, fresh bread, plenty of fixings. For the guests who remained the sandwiches were a delight. Somehow we had enough that even a few of us volunteers enjoyed a sandwich.

Later in the day I returned to the Gospel for today in the lectionary.

“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, ‘Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread.”

As was often the case, the disciples were wrong. Jesus reminded them of the time he fed five thousand with just five loaves, and four thousand with seven loaves, and both times there were abundant leftovers. And then he asked them, “Do you still not understand?” (See Mark 8:14-21).

I wondered about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. What leaven could they possibly have in common? What is Jesus warning his disciples about and warning me about if I’m trying to be a disciple?

I had to dig into some commentaries. There were, of course, a variety of interpretations. The one that hit home was their leaven being a refusal to trust in Jesus and his way of life as the bread of life. Those who trust in the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod have their lives rise on a calculation of control and power, which often includes the conviction that there is not enough, that there is scarcity.

Jesus’ way of life rises on a different leaven, on a commitment to compassion and justice. It is the leaven of abundance and generosity.

Jesus’ leaven brought two men to the front door of Manna House with a simple offer of compassionate sharing.

The leaven of the Pharisees and Herod was ready to turn them away. But the bread was marked with suffering and grief, the redemption of Jesus was in there. And the Bread of Life saved me from turning them away.

Apocalyptic Angela

She had not been to Manna House in months. I could not remember her name. She came into the quiet of a slow Tuesday morning loudly going on about the anti-Christ and an accompanying gleeful anticipation of, as she put it over and over again, “The fall of the fall of Babylon.” Finally, a guest irritated by the commotion asked, “Who is that?”

Her name, we learned from Ashley, was “Angela.”

Angela, that is, “angel, messenger of God.” Suddenly John’s vision recorded in the Book of Revelation rushed into the living room of Manna House.

“After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority; and the earth was made bright with the angel’s splendor. The angel called out with a mighty voice,

‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.

For all the nations have drunk
of the wine of the wrath of her fornication,
and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her

luxury.’” (Revelation 18:1-3)

“Babylon is going down, and I couldn’t be happier,” Angela said, “It deserves nothing but destruction.”

“Is Trump the anti-Christ?” a guest asked.

“His first name does have six letters,” I responded, knowing this way of seeking connection between biblical text and contemporary character. “But does anyone know his middle name? His last name only has five letters.”

We were aiming for 666, but with “Trump” we were at least one digit short. And none of us knew his middle name. I looked it up later. His middle name is “John.” No easy figuring here like with Ronald (6) Wilson (6) Reagan (6). No doubt someone will come up with a way to figure that Trump translates into 666. But this was missing Angela’s point and the seriousness of the next question.

“Is this really the end?” another guest asked, “Things out here look bad.”

Angela responded, “Babylon is falling, the falling of Babylon will be great. Great will be Babylon’s fall.”

It is an interesting fact that neither Luther nor Calvin thought highly of the Book of Revelation. Luther thought it should be excluded from the Scripture. He wrote, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” Calvin wrote commentaries on all of the books of the Bible, except Revelation. Revelation makes scant appearances in the lectionary, the ordered readings of mainline churches.

Angela’s cry was a reminder: Revelation is dangerous. Apocalypse rejects the reigning order. There is no compromise possible. We are to give our all to a different vision of human life, where “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” … and where, there flows the river of life with nearby trees producing abundant fruit and leaves that “are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 21:4, 22:2-3).

Revelation is a book favored by those with little or no investment in the present order, like Angela coming in from the streets. It is favored in store front churches that have long names like “Apostolic and Spirit Anointed Church of the Holy People of God,” and by wild-eyed street preachers carrying banners and handing out tracts about the end times.

Such social locations for Revelation sometimes leads to a disdainful dismissal by sophisticated liberal Christians. Revelation gets safely placed within “apocalyptic literature” that dealt with the Roman Empire, a passing moment in Church history before a more rational Christianity emerged reconciled to the existing order. Equally trivializing is the reduction of Revelation to a divine bus schedule in which those who do not know the proper turn of events will be “left behind.”

Angela’s announcement came from a deeper place, of wound and hurt and disgust known on the streets of Babylon. “This will not last. This is not God’s way,” as she said.

I wondered as Angela wandered down the street, where do I put my hope?

Revelation repeats several times, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus” (Rev 14:12, see also 13:10, 1:9, 2:2, 2:10, 3:10-11) along with this call, “Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins” (Rev 18:4). Patient persistence in faithful resistance. And as another angel(a) put it not that long ago at Christmastime, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:30, 2:10, Matthew 1:20).