by Peter Gathje
Some mornings at Manna House are mostly ordinary. I arrive at 6:40a.m., and Montrell is there waiting at the front gate to greet me. He’s always there earlier than me and he always jokes that I’m late. After I get the gate open and get into the house, there is more routine: plug in the coffee pots, unlock all the interior doors, open a few shut windows, open blinds, check laundry, sit and read, reflect and pray until 7:30a.m., fill sugar containers, set out other items for serving coffee, start to let early arriving volunteers into the house, and then, at 7:45a.m., take the list for showers and “socks and hygiene.”
Once we do job assignments with volunteers, we pray, then we open the gate to the backyard at 8:00a.m., pray with our guests, and the morning begins: serving coffee, offering showers with a change of clothes, offering “socks and hygiene.” Hospitality isn’t that complicated, at least on a mostly ordinary day.
There are a few “special requests” to be addressed. One guest needs a pair of shoes, another needs a Bible, yet another is seeking a “letter of homelessness” for a rehabilitation program. There is nothing really that special about those requests, except that they don’t happen every day.
I don’t mind mostly ordinary mornings at Manna House. Hospitality moves along with a kind of organized chaos. There are no serious conflicts or fights. There is instead a lot of laughter as stories and jokes get shared. There’s a lot of sugar and creamer served with the coffee. There’s a lot of laundry to be done. There’s a lot of sorting of donations to get through.
In the midst of this mostly ordinary morning, though, we learn that a guest has lost his twenty two year old son to a drug overdose. The guest is weeping in the backyard. Some of us long term volunteers take turns listening, consoling, just sitting with him. His heart is broken. He’s lost three other family members in the past year. He’s a man of many sorrows.
Meanwhile, in the house, a new guest arrives. He looks lost and he is lost. “I’m from Atlanta. I don’t know where to go or what to do.” Byron takes him aside to fill him in on what’s available at Manna House and in Memphis.
Still, the ordinary steadily goes on. A few guests share hopes about job prospects. Another guest shares a hope about getting into some housing. There’s a chess game that is played with friendly intensity. As the morning draws to a close, floors get swept and mopped. Toilets and showers get cleaned. Coffee pots and sugar dispensers get washed. Laundry gets started.
At reflection time, after we’ve closed and are done cleaning up, we have a few moments to share thoughts from the morning. The Germantown United Methodist Youth Group has returned to volunteer every Monday, as they have done for many past summers. One of the youth in the group asks about Sarah. “She wasn’t here today. I remember her from last summer. Does she still come?” I have to let this young person know that Sarah died this past December.
Hospitality isn’t that complicated on a mostly ordinary day. There is joy and there is sorrow. There’s sharing of our lives in ways that keep us going, guests and volunteers alike.
I guess in some ways hospitality is like a sacrament, at least if we go with the definition from the Baltimore Catechismthat I’m old enough to remember: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” Jesus instituted hospitality for his disciples by telling them a story about the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and imprisoned, and then telling them, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Mt 25:40). The grace comes in sharing hospitality; it is mostly the ordinary grace of sharing a welcome, some time together, and a few other goods. And ordinary or not, this grace changes our hearts and our lives, and brings us a little closer to God’s Beloved Community.
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