Manna House, Martin, and Mourning Sheley Thompson

For several weeks I have reflected on and prayed about the confluence of the Martin Luther King holiday (January 15), Sheley Thompson freezing to death on a bench in front of the Memphis City Hall, and Mayor Strickland’s response, “She wasn’t homeless. She had a fit and left her home” (January 17).

I keep a quotation from Dr. King in one of my prayer books at Manna House.

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged.
I choose to identify with the poor.
I choose to give my life for the hungry.
I choose to give my life for those who have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity.
I choose to live for and with those who find themselves seeing life as a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign.

This is the way I’m going.
If it means suffering a little bit, I’m going that way.
If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way.
If it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because
I heard a voice saying, ‘Do something for others.’”

When I read these words from Reverend Dr. King, I hear echoes of a central scripture passage for those of us who offer hospitality to people in poverty and/or homelessness. Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 states his identification with people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, or in jail, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”

Sheley Thompson was one of “the least of these.” So are those who found their way to Manna House during those days of bitter cold and snow. So are those who found their way to Room in the Inn and other shelters during those days. So are those who had unheated apartments or homes because they could not afford their MLGW bill. So are those who went without food or went to soup kitchens because they paid their bill, but then had no money left for food. When 27% of the Memphis population is below the poverty line there are plenty of “least of these” in our city.

I am middle class. I am white. I am male. The only thing I have in common with Sheley Thompson is our humanity.

Sometimes a new volunteer at Manna House will share at the end of the morning, “I was surprised. The guests were just ordinary human beings.” Yes, we have to patiently respond using a line from Brad Watkins, “People on the streets are not from the planet ‘homelessness.’”

Dr. King and Jesus in their different ways remind me of this basic truth. We have a shared humanity. And that shared humanity is the basis for our identification with people different from us in terms of social class, or race, or sexual orientation, or physical or mental health, and for our compassion and work for justice.

Mayor Strickland apparently forgot this basic truth of shared humanity when he said in his response to Sheley Thompson’s death, “She had a fit and left her home.”

Mayor Loeb did the same thing during the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in 1968.

I know the temptation to forget our shared humanity. I feel it just about every day at Manna House. My whiteness, my middle class standing, my having a job as the Academic Dean at a seminary, my straightness, my maleness, can all distance me from our guests.

So, I have to engage in spiritual disciplines to remind myself on a daily basis of this shared humanity. One of those disciplines is listening with respect to our guests.

For this reason, on Dr. Martin Luther King Day, I listened to guests as they talked about Dr. King and the Sanitation Workers Strike and Dr. King’s assassination.

One of them said, “King wasn’t killed until he tried to get into the white man’s wallet. You mess with that and they kill you.”

Another offered, “Those were hard times. I remember the tension, the fear; the sense that something bad could happen at any time. And it did.”

Then a new volunteer, an African American man, joined in the conversation.

“My Dad never stood up for nothing. He was like most folks I knew. They just took what was dealt them and laid low. They were trying to survive. Then when that ‘I am a Man’ sign appeared my Dad went one day to a march. He carried that sign. He stood up. I’ll never forget that. He stood up and so did the whole community. We stood up. We weren’t going back. No way.”

A guest added, “That sign meant dignity. The strike meant dignity.”

Sheley Thompson’s dignity was denied as she died alone in front of the Memphis City Hall two days after the King Holiday. Her dignity was denied again when Mayor Strickland sought to distance himself from her and any responsibility for her death.

Sheley Thompson’s dignity was affirmed when a group gathered in front of the Memphis City Hall last week to remember her, to lift up her name, to call for a recognition of our shared humanity by working harder for places of shelter and housing for people. Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality (H.O.P.E.) organized this gathering. H.O.P.E. is made up of people who have known the sting of the denial of dignity that comes with homelessness. Sheley Thompson’ dignity will also be affirmed when a free woman’s shelter is available in this city.

Poverty, and the deaths that come from poverty, denied her dignity and deny the dignity that Dr. King and the Sanitation Workers fought for in Memphis. Dr. King’s way of dignity, like Jesus’ way of dignity, requires we recognize our shared humanity as the basis for compassion and justice. His way of dignity, like Jesus’ way of dignity calls us to grieve together when a person dies alone, frozen to death on the streets. But more, this way of dignity calls those of us with too much to give up our excessive wealth, and to struggle for the creation of just structures that will inhibit the concentration of wealth and favor the distribution of wealth. That puts me on the hook as much as it does Mayor Strickland for the death of Sheley Thompson.

Prayer at Manna House

Prayer is commonplace at Manna House. I pray when I come early in the morning to start the coffee. I cherish the time alone in the house, listening to the coffee percolate, praying the psalms.

All of us who volunteer to offer hospitality at Manna House pray together before we open. Then we go out onto the porch and volunteers and guests pray together. Before the first cup of coffee is served or the first name for the showers is called, we stand together, hand in hand, and pray. This prayer with the guests is voluntary. Guests initiated this prayer on the porch. They saw volunteers praying and said, “What about us? We want to pray too.” And so it began.

Sometimes prayer also takes place while Manna House is open. A guest will approach me, or another volunteer, and ask for prayers. We might pray for a sick parent, or in thanksgiving for a new job, or to lift spirits, or because a family member or close friend has died.

Prayer also completes the morning at Manna House. After we close and after all the cleaning and preparing for the next day is completed, we reflect together for a few minutes (or longer), and then we pray. We come full circle as we hold hands again and finish the morning with prayer.

All of this shard prayer is short and simple, and most of the time not even particularly pious sounding. We ask God to bless the work of hospitality and give us patience and a sense of humor. On the porch with the guests it is the same. We give thanks for things like a sunny and warmer day after a week of bitter cold, or that the rain has ended, or for the beauty of each person present made in God’s image. And we ask that God be with us, with those who are sick or in prison or are hurting. Our prayer lasts but a few minutes.

We do become a bit more “high church,” however, with our set liturgical end to of this time of prayer. The prayer leader intones, “God bless our coffee.” The congregation responds, “Make it hot!” And this is followed by two more invocations and responses.

“God bless the sugar.” “Make it sweet!”

And, “God bless the creamer.” “May it take all life’s bitterness away.”

Why all this prayer? Why not just open and serve people without cluttering it up with prayer? I am sure people come to prayer for all sorts of different reasons, so I cannot speak for every volunteer or guest. But I know I come to prayer at Manna House because I could not offer hospitality if I did not pray. Without prayer I would forget or neglect or deny what makes my hospitality possible, namely, God’s hospitality to me, to other volunteers, and to our guests.

I came across some wisdom from Thomas Aquinas as I was reflecting on prayer. Aquinas wrote, “We need to pray to God, not in order to make known to God our needs or desires but that we ourselves may be reminded of the necessity of having recourse to God’s help in these matters (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2). Prayer is where I set aside time and space to remember and to be renewed by the reality that God is graciously and transformatively hospitable in my life. In prayer I attend to God’s loving work of gracious welcome in my life (and in the lives of others and the creation as a whole). As Aquinas affirms, it is in prayer “that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God and that we may recognize in him the author of our goods” (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2).

Hospitality means making room in my heart for people who I first know as strangers. These strangers come with some need, some vulnerability, and I can only offer healing hospitality if I am also vulnerable. Opening the door to strangers renders me vulnerable, but even more, I have to open my heart, take the risk of compassion, of knowing the suffering and injustice the guests embody as they come. I am strengthened to be open in this way because God is open in this way to me.

Hospitality is risky for our guests too. They have the double vulnerability of need and entering a stranger’s house asking for help. They do not know how they will be received and how they will be treated. No wonder our guests asked us to pray with them; it was a way for our guests to assess our trustworthiness. Would we share our faith, our prayer, and our lives with them? Or would we stand off and offer a kind of distancing charity from above? In our shared prayer, we attend to God who helps us draw near with each other, as God draws near to us and says, “Come in. You are welcome here.”

Heal me!

He’s been coming to Manna House for many years. When he came in on Tuesday I noticed the hospital ID bracelet on his wrist. He told me the doctors thought there was something wrong in his head. Depression. “I don’t trust them,” he said.

He had found his own medication, crack. The words poured out in a frenzied manner as explained that he tried again and again to not use it, but he always went back. He came up to me and said, “Heal me!”

“Heal me!” he insisted.

“I can’t heal you. I’m not Jesus. I’m not a doctor.”

“Heal me.”

He took my arm and raised it up, placing my hand on his head. I envisioned TV preachers, hucksters, fakes.

I remembered my uncle Mose who once reclined in an easy chair as his mother (my grandmother, a woman of deep faith) watched one of those TV preachers. The TV preacher extended his arm, hand on head, and shouted to a man with an ailing back, “Be healed!” The man shouted in response, “I’m healed! I’m healed!”

At that same moment my uncle Mose felt his back tighten up and spasm and he came up out of his chair shouting, “That son-of-a-bitch gave it to me!”

What should I do with this guest demanding that I heal him?

“I cannot heal you. I can pray for you.”

“Then pray. Pray that I be healed and never use crack again.”

So I prayed. “Lord Jesus this man wants to be free from his addiction. Give him the strength to find the help that he needs. Help him to find healing and wholeness. Be in his life. Abide in him. Heal him. Amen.”

The guest smiled and thanked me and became less agitated. He sat down.

I have spent the last few days wondering about prayer, again. And wondering about the power of addiction, again. And wondering again about the insufficiency of places and programs that tell people, “If you’d just give your live to Jesus, you wouldn’t be an addict anymore.”

I know Jesus healed people. I know people who after doctors had told them there was no hope for them were healed, and those people testify that it was God, in prayer, that healed them. But I also know people of deep faith and prayer who have not been healed. They prayed for healing and they were not physically healed. They died.

So I also know healing is more than physical or even psychological well-being. I know healing can be spiritual. I know people who prayed for physical healing who died faithfully accepting their death.

I am left with this guest and his addiction and his mental illness and his suffering on the streets. And I am left with still praying, for him, for healing.

It is still the season of Christmas, a season in which I celebrate with other disciples of Jesus, his coming into the world. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is described as the Light that “shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:5).

Most days I feel like I am in the dark. But maybe this guest asking to be healed is where the Light comes in. Maybe the Light comes in when in hope and in faith and with love he asks for healing.

Deep in me as I prayed, with my hand on his head, standing in the living room of Manna House, surrounded by others,  I felt this possibility, that the Light resides in our shared unquenchable desire for healing, for a loving touch, for salvation.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, Street Version

A guest named Emmanuel inspired me to sing the other day.


O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And shower now for free at Manna House.

Remove that grit and grime and slime,

And get so clean that you will brightly shine.


Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall shower for free at Manna House.

O come, though homeless from the streets,

To share with us some coffee and sweet treats.

May we share this place with you,

That we about the streets may get a clue.


O come, Thou with the staff of life,

And leave the streets and their nasty strife.

From the depths of hell thy people save,

And give them victory over the grave.


O come, Thou Person of Divine Light,

And raise our spirits in this dark night.

Disperse the clouds of despair and hate,

And knock down all the walls and closed gates.


O come, Thou Key of David come,

And open wide a warm place to stay;

Make safe the way that leads on high,

And close the path to misery.


O come, O come, great Lord of might,

And to the powers that be give fright.

In this time give us true law,

In cloud and majesty and awe.


O come, Thou Ruler with majesty,

Be a sign that all people should be free.

Before Thee rulers silent fall;

All peoples on Thy mercy call.


O come, fulfill our deepest hopes,

Help us against the dealers of dope.

Bid all our struggles cease,

And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Come All You Who Are Thirsty

I occasionally like to paraphrase Scripture. The word for the day was Isaiah 55:1, “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters for coffee and showers; and you who have no money come, enjoy the free coffee! Come buy showers, clothes, socks, and hygiene items without money and without cost!”

Or as a very young volunteer shouted from our front porch twelve years ago when we first opened, “Free coffee for sale!”

This is God’s economy, where there is more than enough for everybody, if we share. It runs completely counter to most, if not all, human economies, where there is not enough for everybody. And since there is not enough for everybody, we must incessantly compete with one another, and hoard against shortages in order to survive.

It is hard for both guests and volunteers, including myself, to believe in God’s economy, even as we share hospitality premised upon that economy. Manna House could not exist without people sharing their presence and their goods. Without donors who give from their abundance, we could not offer hospitality to the hundred plus people who show up every day that we are open. And although Manna House did not participate in “Giving Tuesday,” we certainly do rely completely upon donations to stay open, and to share freely coffee, showers, and clothing, and on Monday nights, a meal.

Yet, that freedom in God’s economy, that free giving, is challenged by the gods of not enough. These gods of not enough urge us to prioritize control over compassion, and domination over the dignity of each person.

I see the worship of the gods of not enough in the current tax bill being proposed by the ruling party in Washington, D.C. I see this worship of the gods of not enough in the fear and even loathing of immigrants and any who are defined as “other”—Muslims, African Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ people, and people in poverty. The gods of not enough encourage a vision of scarcity, of fighting over a shrinking pie. These gods love when we get possessed by possessiveness, and we become more concerned about what is mine, rather than recognizing the divine call to share what we have been given by God—life, and every good gift we have.

So it was that a guest at Manna House erupted in anger and a volley of foul language accusing two other guests of stealing her cigarettes. Years of not having enough, of being denied the basic necessities of life, of scraping and struggling to survive, burst forth in a cry from the heart of betrayal and loss and grief. There was no consoling of her, no reasoning that could reach her, no words of comfort that could pierce her sense of loss. Not even another guest’s offering to her of some cigarettes could calm her. She finally left, vowing revenge upon those whom she accused of the theft; both of whom denied any role in the matter.

So it is when as a volunteer I fear being taken advantage of by a guest who comes in asking for a coat or shoes (two of the more desired items these days). So it is when I fear I am being too soft in adding a fifty-second person to the “socks and hygiene” list when we normally are to take only fifty-one.

So it is when twenty people are arrested at a Memphis business and taken away because of the Trump administration’s crackdown on “illegals”—that is undocumented immigrants. So it is when fake videos of “evil Muslims” are spread by a president who plays upon fears and divisions.

The gods of not enough are gathering more adherents, and the God of Jesus Christ who urges us to see God in “the least of these” is mocked, denied, crucified.

I have to hold to the Word of that God, a Word that affirms there is plenty, that God is a God of abundance and not scarcity, of grace and not harsh judgment. Better yet, I have to be held by that Word, transformed, and gifted to see that I am invited, that we are invited, to a feast, free and without charge. “Come all you who are thirsty.”


“The gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:2)

Two weeks ago, I got word that William Hogan, a long time guest at Manna House, and friend of Door of Hope, died of a heart attack. His funeral was this past Saturday. William was a gentle soul who came faithfully to Manna House for coffee, rarely said a word, and whose lightness of being lifted spirits simply by his presence. His death was unexpected, and I will miss seeing him, not only at Manna House, but walking around Midtown, which he constantly did.

This past Saturday I went with Kathleen to help with Room in the Inn. A video is shown to guests before they leave for the various churches that will host them. The video is a bit dated. As I watched, I suddenly saw Twin, a Manna House guest who died two years ago. My heart hurt. As big of a pain in the ass as he could be, I miss him.

Seeing Twin so shortly after William’s death made me think about so many of our guests who have died. I miss Gregory’s wit and smile. I miss Donald in the chair in the corner of the Manna House living room arguing about the Dallas Cowboys. I miss Abe’s amiable curmudgeonly comments. I miss Mike B. sitting quietly reading on the front porch waiting for us to open. I miss Sarah, and her one legged and then no legged humor. I miss Eleana, and the way she said to Kathleen, “Hey lady!” I miss Tyler, Toney, Willie, and on and on.

Death at Manna House is all too frequent. In the twelve years we have been open, well over one hundred guests have died. And those are only the ones we know of; others simply disappear and we are never sure of their fate. William was fifty eight years old when he died. Quite young, but not so young when fifty is the average age of death for homeless persons.

Meanwhile, for the past several months, I have been working with other Board Members of Outreach, Housing, and Community (OHC) to bring this organization to a close. There’s grief in realizing that an organization that did so much good in helping people to move from the streets into housing has died from lack of resources. And the grief is compounded by knowing June Averyt was the founder and chief inspiration of OHC, and there’s no doubt she would have kept it going. But she died nearly two years ago.

All this death conspires with the season and the liturgical calendar to keep death daily before my eyes.  Mortality is in the air as leaves and temperatures start to fall, albeit slowly here in the South, and winter draws near. In the liturgical year, the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd called people of the Christian faith to commemorate of all of those who have died, “the faithfully departed.” And this followed All Saints’ Day, which remembered all the saints, known and unknown. The Church recognizes the need at this time of year to connect us spiritually with the waning light and growing cold by bringing into our hearts those who have died.

Death is in the air, but so, too, in those feasts of faith, is the Manna House word for the day, “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). Paul had a faith deeply shaped by resurrection, by his experience of the risen Christ. Jesus died maligned and damned by the powers that be, much like Manna House guests are crucified by life on the streets. But this horrible reality is not the last word about their lives, God’s gifts and call in their lives are not defeated by death.

I think this is why, when we have a memorial service at Manna House for a guest who has died, we tell stories, and we sometimes begin with this question, “How was the life of our friend a blessing to us at Manna House and to this neighborhood?”

Despite the harsh realities of the streets and in the lives of our guests, they persist in being blessings to us and to each other. They resist the powers of death. They show how the gifts and call of God are irrevocable. Or as one guest frequently tells me, stating his resistance, “I’m standing up; not covered up. I’m up at Manna House; not locked up. It is a good day.”

Penitentiary Quiet

“It is penitentiary quiet.”

A guest had noticed that though guests filled the back yard at Manna House, little conversation was going on.

“In prison that’s what we called it when it got so quiet, usually before some trouble happened.”

“I’m hoping for no trouble this morning. I think it is quiet because people are tired,” I responded.

“I’m tired of these streets,” another guest sitting nearby said with a sigh.

“I’m tired of being poor,” said another guest who was listening in.

“You know I’ve never been homeless,” the first guest continued to talk as he sat in his wheelchair. “At Manna House I have a place to be, to belong. You might think not much is going on with people who come here; that nothing is changing. But I’ve seen changes in people coming here. I listen and I hear. Changes are happening.”

We were in the chapel area of the backyard. A simple wooden statue of St. Francis stood nearby. And a large crucifix is attached to the corrugated metal wall; a silver-toned Jesus nailed to the wood of the cross. I wondered for a moment if Francis and Jesus were listening in.

Then trouble started. I heard sharp words between two guests. I walked out of the chapel area as the words escalated into shoving.

I moved toward the two combatants and told them, “Not here. Not this morning. Stop or you both go.”

“We were just playing.”

“Play somewhere else. Not here.”

They sat down together at a picnic table and began to play checkers. No more threatening words. No more shoving. Maybe they were just playing as they shoved. But on occasion I have seen such “play” quickly move into a real fight.

The violence of the streets is hard to leave behind sometimes. Just like in a prison, on the streets there are so many threats and a struggle for scarce resources.  Just like in prison, standing in lines and being treated like a number rather than a person with a name, gets old fast. Just like in prison, the stronger ones on the streets try to impose their will on the weaker. And just like in prison, some places that “serve” people on the streets take in the bullies and put them in charge of keeping order.

I shared a Bible verse with the guests who asked for the Word of the Day, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:15). I had come across this verse in the days following the mass murder in Las Vegas. I had kept pondering what it might mean and thought Manna House guests might have some insight. They did.

“God must not be listening to many prayers in this country these days.”

“I hear that. God wants love in us, not tearing each other down.”

“I’ve been bloodied on the streets. I’ve been bled dry.”

“I hope God can still hear my prayers. I have blood on my hands.”

As we talked, another of the bloodied guests walked by. I had seen her earlier when she first arrived at Manna House. She had come through the gate into the backyard with a blackened eye and bruises on her face. She told me she had been beaten by the man she’s been living with. Every woman from the streets that I have known at Manna House has suffered from assaults by men. For women, homelessness often begins with fleeing from abuse. Patriarchy is yet another form of violence running through our society.

I do not know if God heard our prayers this morning when we opened at Manna House. None of us can claim righteousness. We are all implicated in various degrees in this blood soaked culture.

We prayed,

“Bless each person in this circle.

Blesse those standing outside the circle.

Bless those still on their way.

Bless those who have come with heavy burdens.

Bless those who are weighed down with suffering.

Bless those who have come seeking refuge.

Help us to welcome one another here as you God welcome us.”

And to close our prayer we immediately followed with our familiar call and response prayer:

“Bless our coffee, make it hot.

Bless our sugar, make it sweet.

Bless our creamer, may it take all life’s bitterness away.”

At the end of the prayer, for a few moments, it was penitentiary quiet.

God hear our prayer.

The Mysticism of Hospitality

Manna House was quiet when I arrived Tuesday morning to start the coffee. There was not even one guest waiting for me at the gate. I entered the house, plugged in the coffee, and sat down in the kitchen for forty minutes of reading, reflecting, and praying. I have done the same thing for some twelve years now.

I first read the “Saint of the Day” from Robert Ellsberg’s fine book, “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time.” Then I turn to my “Benedictine Daily Prayer: A Short Breviary” for the daily psalms with scripture and prayers. Somedays this rich feast of saints and psalms leads me to write. On other days, I simply sit in silence, listening to the birds, the passing traffic, the arrival of guests, and letting all of that abide in the Word of God I have just read and prayed over.

I am convinced that hospitality cannot last without returning faithfully to prayer. There is a mysticism inherent to Christian hospitality. The mysticism is in the vision of guests as Christ. This mystic vision forms the practice of hospitality as sacramental. The guests are outward signs of the invisible reality of the presence of Christ. In the guests, Christ resides, just as much as Christ resides in the Eucharistic bread and wine shared on a Sunday morning. The guests are sacred, and this reality is grounded in Christ’s own institution of this sacrament of hospitality, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46).

Without prayer I would find it hard to maintain the mystical vision of seeing Christ in our guests. The temptation I struggle with first of all is to lapse into seeing our guests as the larger society sees them: as despicable, disgusting, and dangerous. This temptation casts the guests as beggars to whom I can give any old “charity” because “beggars can’t be choosy.” In this temptation, guests are seen as instance of the larger species called “the poor” who are not to be trusted, who are to be rigorously tested to make sure they are not getting anything for “free,” who are to be forced to jump through myriad bureaucratic hoops to get a few scraps from the master’s table. This is the view of the poor urged these days by Tennessee Governor Haslam and his henchmen. They are happily proposing yet further requirements for the poor to meet in order to receive a few measly dollars of government support.

But as I point that finger at politicians and others, four fingers also point back at me. I know how easy it is to slip into viewing a guest with suspicion, or wishing that a particular guest would just go away and never come back, or being short tempered with a guest who is consistently demanding. “Christ comes in the stranger’s guise” I learned long ago at the Open Door Community in Atlanta (now in Baltimore). But I can easily lapse into seeing guests as just plain strange.

Without prayer and the mystic vision of Christ in the guests there is another temptation I easily slip into: trying to save the guests who come. Like the “charity” of the “beggars can’t be choosy” variety, this second temptation is another form of control. In this case, the control I seek is that of the souls of the guests. I seek to remodel guests into my image, rather than respecting that they are already made in the image of God. Hospitality is not about reforming people, it is about sharing together God’s redemptive grace known in love. Father Gregory Boyle puts it this way, “The intentionality of what we do is really not about trying to change folks or save them, but to savor and cherish them.”

To welcome guests in a way that savors and cherishes them, welcoming them in God’s grace as I am welcomed by them in God’s grace, I need to pray to nourish the mystic vision of the guests as Christ. I need to make the time and the space in which God’s gracious hospitality receives me in my strangeness, my brokenness. In this prayer, I am joined to Christ, welcomed as Christ by God. In prayer I am able to welcome guests knowing, how in them, God has welcomed me.

God Don’t Play Favorites

Nearly ten years ago, I went to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. I saw Nogales, a town divided by a wall erected by the U.S. government. For years the people in Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona moved freely back and forth, going to work, to church, to visit with family, for social events. Then the wall went up. It divided the land, the town, and the people.

I went to the border with students from Memphis Theological Seminary to learn about immigration. Our class was called, “Faith at the Borders.” In addition to going to Nogales, we went to other towns near the border. And we went to Tucson, Arizona, where a number of groups sought to respond to the humanitarian crisis caused by closed borders and a wall.

We talked with people on both sides of that wall who were active in issues related to immigration. We saw the poverty on the Mexican side of the wall, and the factories run by U.S. companies that profited from cheap Mexican labor with attempts at unionization blocked by law and by violent force. We learned about how the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) destroyed local economies in Mexico and caused people to head north in search of work.

We went further into Mexico, away from the wall. We walked in the desert. We followed the path of those who sought a place beyond the wall to cross the border into the United States. We saw the “coyotes” who take people across the border for a price. We saw their weapons and learned of their connection to the drug trade. We spoke with border guards and immigration officials both in Mexico and in the U.S.

In Tucson, we saw the mass deportation of undocumented people. They had made it into the United States, and lived here for years. But now they were bound in chains, pushed through a perfunctory hearing, and then transported to the border. There they were tossed out on the Mexican side with no resources. I spoke with one man wearing a New York Yankees ball cap. He had been brought to the U.S. when he was a child, four years old. Now he was dumped into Mexico with no family, no connections, no place to go, and not even able to speak Spanish.

On both sides of the wall we saw people of faith offering hospitality. On the Mexican side of the wall, this hospitality welcomed the people thrown out of the United States. On the U.S. side of the wall, this hospitality welcomed people who survived the desert and the “coyotes” and made it across the border.

At the time of this class, I was just a few years into the work of hospitality at Manna House. But, then as now, I saw the connections between my experiences on the border and my experiences with our guests from the streets.

Both our guests, and the undocumented who come to this country from other lands, are refugees. Both are pushed from their homes by economic and political powers beyond their control. Both are on the move in search of jobs, and safe places to stay. Both are vulnerable to powerful people who will exploit them in their poverty and desperation. Both are hounded by policies enforced by the police or other government agents that focus on the “crime” of being poor. Both thus suffer from a presumed criminality that makes their lives legally tenuous and culturally suspect.

I thought about these connections as I shared the Word of the Day with our guests at Manna House over the past few days. “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism” (James 4:1).

The refugees from the streets drew direct conclusions from this passage.

“God don’t play favorites.”

“If you believe in Jesus, you can’t favor some people over other people.”

“Ain’t nobody better than anyone else.”

“There’s something of God in everyone; you gotta respect that.”

But they also drew contrasts between this Word of the Day and their experienced realities.

“Trump, our commander in grief, doesn’t believe that.”

“That ain’t the way the world works.”

“People see me as homeless and say, ‘You’re not legit.’”

“Must not be very many believers in that glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

I see our guests at Manna House as faith-filled realists. As people of faith, they know the meaning of this biblical passage is clear. If we are followers of Christ, then we must not play favorites. We must treat everyone with dignity. We must welcome the stranger. But as realists they see this nation for what it is. The rich are favored over the poor. The white are favored over the black and the brown. People without homes or shelter are “not legit,” they are condemned as “illegals.”

The contrast between faith and reality is where the work of discipleship takes place. Like Jesus, disciples must be agitators, unsatisfied with the way things are, inspired by a vision of the way things ought to be. At Manna House, we first try to live the vision by practicing hospitality. We welcome and affirm the dignity of those pushed around and judged as “not legit.”

But we are also called to live this vision in a second way. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has eliminated the dividing wall between us (Ephesians 2:14). If we are in Christ, then we cannot practice favoritism. We have to fearlessly advocate for those persons displaced by greed and fear and walls. So we agitate for public policy that tears down the walls that separate us in the name of playing favorites. We agitate for a society that builds up every one as persons made in the image of God. God don’t play favorites.

I Heard the Voice of the Lord

A guest I had seen once or twice before waited for me in the parking lot. When I got out of my car to cross the street to Manna House, I heard her say with intensity, “God has appointed me to be your special guardian angel today.”

God’s messengers are always a bit startling, and I was startled. I managed to say “Thank you.”

I crossed the street. What did this divine herald of the new day mean? What else might I hear from God this morning?  But before I had any clear answer, the guests waiting for me to open the gate, gave their “Good mornings!” accompanied by a few questions easier to answer.
“Can I get on the list?”

“Yes, I’ll be back out to take the list at seven forty-five.”

“What time is it now?”

“Six forty-five.”

I went inside Manna House and plugged in the coffee pots. Three hundred cups would be ready for consumption in little more than an hour.

Then I sat down to begin my morning prayer. The angel was still on my mind as I prayed Psalm 95: “Today, listen to the voice of the Lord.”

An angel is a messenger, one who brings the voice of the Lord. I remembered something I was told a long time ago at the Open Door Community, when I first began this journey of hospitality with people on the streets and in prison, “Go to the listening posts. Go to the people who are in pain. Go to where the suffering is palpable. Go to the broken and the brokenhearted. Go and listen.”

Or as Jesus urged, go to the least of these. “ For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”

The words from my guardian angel coalesced through the rest of the morning with the questions I heard.

I heard the voice of the Lord say, “When’s that meal you all have here?” Feed the hungry.

I heard the voice of the Lord say, “When do you start serving coffee?” Give drink to the thirsty.

I heard the voice of the Lord say, “I’m new to the streets, what’s this place all about?” Invite in the stranger.

I heard the voice of the Lord say, “Can I get a hat today so that I won’t get a sunburned head?” Clothe the naked.

I heard the voice of the Lord say, “Some guys jumped me. They beat me bad, broken shoulder, broken ribs. I’m healing but need your prayers.” Visit the sick.

I heard the voice of the Lord say, “I’m just out of jail. Can I get a shower?” Visit those in prison.

The Feast of the Transfiguration is on the horizon. Jesus takes a few of his disciples up a mountain. There they have a vision of him standing with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. And then, “In a resplendent cloud the Holy Spirit appeared. The Father’s voice was heard: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Some days, Manna House is the place where I hear him most clearly.