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

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“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

Besides,
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.

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.