This morning brought thunderstorms with heavy rain, thunder, and lightening. We opened Manna House early to let guests in from the pouring rain. Several had been huddled across the street, seeking shelter at the front of a building that has a small overhang. We were all wet by the time I got the front gate and front door of Manna House open. As others straggled in they were more than just wet, they were thoroughly soaked.
I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 57:1:
“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, for in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, till the storms of destruction pass by.”
Our guests from the streets are vulnerable to “storms of destruction,” not only of bad weather, but also job loss, racism, poverty, police harassment, and imprisonment.
As the morning passed, a number of guests got hot showers and dry clothes, many more got dry socks, and some got dry shoes. Many of our regular guests never made it to Manna House today. They had likely made the hard choice to stay in whatever shelter they might have rather than risk getting caught in the rain.
The weather did clear temporarily by the time we opened at
, and we were able to set up and serve coffee on the front porch for an hour or so. Then another storm rolled in and we all retreated into the house for the rest of the morning. Sitting around, waiting for storms to pass, there were, as usual, a number of conversations about the news of the day.
High on the list of topics was the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers and his racist statements. “He probably thought he was immune from criticism, having all that money,” John stated, “But he’s finding out different. He should lose that team now.” “I couldn’t work for the man, no way, knowing what he said,” said Bill with many shaking their heads in agreement. “I don’t know how the NBA players on the Clippers are continuing to work” observed Sam. To which William quickly responded, “Well, they didn’t work very well last night because they lost.” Jerry took the conversation to another level when he said, “The NBA, it’s a high priced plantation.”
At this, the talk about the owner of the Clippers drifted into a discussion of Nathan Bedford Forrest. A question was raised about when Forrest had died. A quick internet search revealed that he died in 1877. A few other details from his life then got shared. Before the Civil War he had been a slave trader. He also had some role in the Fort Pillow massacre of African American and white Union soldiers who had been prisoners, as troops under his leadership conducted this slaughter. And of course his leadership in starting the Ku Klux Klan came up.
But then I learned something new about Forrest. After the war, with the slave trade gone, Forrest struggled financially. After a failed business venture, he spent his final years running a prison work farm on President’s Island, here in Memphis. "You mean he ran a plantation" said Larry.
Yes, in essence, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s supervision of a prison work farm meant that he ended his days as a slave holder once again. For after the war, when Reconstruction ended, Southern states moved quickly to pass legislation known as “Black Codes” that had the intent and the effect of restricting the freedom of former slaves, and to force them to work without pay or for extremely low wages. The central feature of the Black Codes was anti-vagrancy laws which allowed local authorities to arrest freed slaves and commit them to involuntary labor. In Tennessee, for example, in 1865, as a result of the enforcement of such laws, African Americans went from one fiftieth to one third of the state’s prison population.
Of course many of these anti-vagrancy laws are still on the books (check out the signs posted around Overton Square that state “No panhandling”), and are still used to imprison/enslave poor people. As one guest said, “Working in prison for nothing is slavery.” Another observed, “People shouldn’t be arrested because they are out of work or homeless.”
As often happens in Manna House, people drift in and out of conversations as names get called for showers or “socks and hygiene” or folks just have other places to get to before the morning is over. I was left thinking again about “storms of destruction” that our guests face, not only the occasional stormy morning, but also the ongoing storms of racism and poverty and imprisonment. Our guests at Manna House, who have so much first hand experience with these storms, bring a perspective that is very helpful for understanding how our society works. They are excellent teachers, if we but listen.
Follow Peter on Twitter @petegath