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.

I’ve Been to the Mountain Top Fifty Years Later

April 3, 2018. Fifty years after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech at Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, I am spending the morning at Manna House.
It is women’s shower day. A small African American woman comes to shower. She was a guest with us many years. She got housing and I had not seen her for a while. Today she tells us she is fresh out of the hospital. She has had another stroke. A hospital ID band is on her wrist. She can barely walk. Her speech is slurred. A volunteer gently helps her select clothes and then guides her into the shower room, steadying her as she walks.
I head out to the front porch. It is an unseasonably warm day. Thunderstorms are in the forecast and strong winds are already starting to blow, much like the weather fifty years ago. An older African American man comes up the steps. He carefully measures each placement of his feet. He makes it into the house. A few minutes later he comes out with a cup of coffee.
“Take my arm. Help me down the steps,” he says to me. “I can’t see so good with this glaucoma.”
I do what he says. With our arms intertwined, we carefully make it down the steps. Then he slowly moves down the street until he is out of sight. He was a new guest. One of the many who arrive today that I do not recognize. There is never a shortage of new people who come, for a cup of coffee, some conversation, a shower, or with greater needs.
“Can I get some underwear and a pair of pants? I’m just out of jail. All I have is these clothes, and they stink.” He, too, is a newcomer. I take him into the clothing room and the volunteers running the showers get him set up.
Another guest arrives. He’s wearing an orthopedic boot. I recognize him as a guest from many years ago who has not been to Manna House in quite some time.
“Mr. Pigues! How are you? Where have you been?” He is a tall slender African American man.
“I’ve been here and there. I got run over by a car. I can’t move so fast and I don’t see so good and drivers don’t care.” He explains that he has no sight in one eye now and the other eye is working at about thirty percent.
Another guest arrives with disturbing but not entirely surprising news. “The police are moving people out of the parks downtown. Squirrel Park and that one where Jefferson Davis used to stand. I got run out because I had a backpack. That’s how they say you’re homeless.”
“The big people are in town for this Martin Luther King thing. They don’t want us to be seen” says another guest.
Given the city leadership’s apparent failure to know anything about Dr. King, I start asking guests, “What does Martin Luther King mean to you?
“He means freedom and equality. As black people we aren’t treated like equals even now. He was killed because he challenged that in America.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”
“He was a civil rights pioneer.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “We are determined to be people. We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children.”
“He means I’m alive. Just to survive as a black man is resistance.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
“He was a modern-day prophet. He spoke God’s truth that judged this nation and all the wrong it was doing and is doing.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, ‘When God speaks who can but prophesy?’ Again with Amos, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me,’ and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.”
“I remember people in my church who were upset that he came in here. ‘He’s just causing trouble, stirring things up. People forget now that he wasn’t popular then because they don’t pay attention to what he said.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
“He came to Memphis and lost his life. When they killed him, they brought the National Guard in. I was a little boy. I remember the green trucks and the men with bayonets. It was a troubling time. My Momma said, ‘Stay low. If they can kill Dr. King, they can kill you.’”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “- the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’”
“I wasn’t born yet. But I think I miss his personality. I wonder what he would have become. I wonder how he would have stayed in the struggle. We need leaders like him today, with his courage to confront evil.”
Fifty years ago, Dr. King said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

God’s Children

“I didn’t have books when I was young,” a guest said. An African American man, in his fifties, held a children’s book in his hands, “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.” I recognized the author’s name, “Beatrix Potter.” She is the one responsible for the many times I have been called “Peter Rabbit.”

“I never had stories at home,” the guest continued. “I only had text books when I got to school. Nothing held my interest. I didn’t last long there. But I still enjoy a good story.”

My heart sank when I heard he had no stories read to him as a child. My favorite time of day is reading to my daughter at bedtime. She has a bookshelf full of stories. Each night she chooses three. She has taken to memorizing especially favorite parts of books.

“Not having stories makes life hard,” I said to the guest. He shook his head in agreement. And I thought of his hard life. He has many physical ailments. He struggles with a rage that consumes him from time to time. He’s been asked to leave Manna House on a number of different occasions. Most recently he had been asked to be gone for a month after making some verbal threats to a volunteer. He came back ready to try again, and we welcomed him back.

“You want to read it?” he asked me holding out this children’s book.

“Sure, let me have a look.” I was curious. I did not know this story. I started reading “a tale about a tail” that includes a number of characters, including the main protagonists Nutkin the squirrel, his brother Twinkleberry, and Old Brown the owl. Nutkin is mischievous and crosses Old Brown several times. Eventually Old Brown’s ire is raised, and Nuktin almost loses his life, barely escaping.

“That Nutkin is lucky he didn’t lose more than he did,” the guest said. I nodded in agreement.

“I’m keeping this book. I’m gonna read it again. I like this story.” The guest put this children’s book in his worn backpack.

I wondered what this guest was like when he was a child. What is it like to be a child with no stories?

I know the statistics that most people deprived of housing and living on the streets begin their lives in poverty, or near poverty. This guest, like most of our guests from the streets, grew up in Memphis.

I know from Dr. Elena Delavega’s “The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK” that childhood poverty rates for both African American and whites are higher in our city now than in 1980. The childhood poverty rate for African American children is more than four times greater than that for whites. This guest came from poverty. He was a child of poverty.

But this man’s love for stories reveals he is also more than a child of poverty. He has an unquenched desire for stories, for life not bound by the streets, or poverty, or racism, or harshness and suffering.

So many of our guests have this desire, and they take to books, novels, biographies, histories, stories. Books go out from our free shelf almost as fast as they come in. Deep in our God given humanity is a need for stories, for sharing stories, for having a story.

This might start to explain why a particular book with quite a collection of stories is so popular with many Manna House guests. The Bible addresses our divinely built in need for stories and invites us into a story we need to hear and share.

In light of the Bible, I thought about this guest today, who held “Squirrel Nutkin,” and whose desire for story not only survived a childhood without stories, but also an adulthood where he is often told his story is not important. The Bible tells a story that confirms his dignity. “’And I will be your Parent, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ Says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). Children of God, we all need that story.

George’s Ancestors

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —

I, too, am America. –– Langston Hughes


George was missing from Manna House. For the last six months there was no sign of him. No one knew why he had stopped coming. Was he dead? Sick? Imprisoned? Did he move away? He had been such a regular guest. Every day that we were open he would arrive in his beat up SUV. He would slowly get out, and leaning heavily on his cane walk up to the front door. His dreadlocks and ready smile were well known by both guests and volunteers. Then he disappeared.

Until Tuesday, when he showed back up at Manna House.

“Where have you been George?”

“Had a flat tire and my vehicle wouldn’t start. Didn’t have the money to get that all fixed. Until now.”

“We missed you. We were worried about you.”

“Nothing to worry about. I am fine.”

And to underscore that George is fine, he showed up at Manna House again today. But now he came bearing a book.

“I have my family history here. One of my aunties wrote it. Thought you might want to have a look. You can order it on Amazon. It’s a real book.”

He handed me the book, “Pillars of Strength: Our Ancestors’ Stories,” by Hazel Alice Moore. I started to look through it as I stood on the front porch. Usually our guests give small bits and pieces of their family histories. A story is told one day, then another maybe a few months later. Memories get shared. Favorite times or tragic times are recalled, maybe embellished a little bit or straightened out to be more acceptable. With this book, George was offering me much more.

On the opening page was a long quotation from Sojourner Truth which explained how she got her name. “When I left house of bondage I left everything behind. I wasn’t going to keep nothing of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And he gave me Sojourner because I was to travel up and down the land showing the people their sins and bein’ a sign upon them. I told the Lord I wanted two names ‘cause everybody else had two, and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.”

I turned the page and there was a family tree. “George” I said, “you have ancestors that were born into slavery.”

“Still true today,” he said, “We’re still born into slavery.”

I kept reading. What unfolded before me was a tour of that slavery. George had an ancestor who fought with the Union Army. The author observed laconically, “He served on the side that promised him freedom which made joining the army less difficult.” That he received less wages than white soldiers was duly noted.

George had ancestors sentenced to jail who ended up enslaved in the coal mines around Birmingham. See the book, “Slavery by Another Name.”

George had an ancestor who was part of the infamous Tuskegee Study that left rural Black men untreated for syphilis while claiming to give them free health care. He died of syphilis.

George had several ancestors who were bootleggers. “Officers who knew the family were not too interested in stopping the distribution because they were supplied with the product themselves.”

Then the stories of George’s ancestors connected with Manna House. George’s relatives in recent years have lived in Atoka and Munford, and they worship at St. Mark African American Episcopal Church. A long-time volunteer and supporter of Manna House, Rev. Dave Adams pastors that church.

“Thanks George,” I said, “You have a long and beautiful history.”

“Yes, I do. Don’t I?”

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.