by Peter Gathje
A guest this morning asked me how long I had known him. I said that I’d known him ever since he started coming to Manna House.
“But how long is that? How long has Manna House been open?”
“It will be nine years this fall.”
We talked a bit about how he happened to come to Manna House. Another guest had told him, “You need to check this place out.” So he did.
This got me thinking about our “history.”
So here’s a little reflection.
When we first opened we didn’t offer showers, we didn’t even offer socks and hygiene. We only offered coffee, and occasionally a sweet roll or cookies. On our first day, Mary Katherine, one of Kathleen’s daughters, stood on our front porch with a sign that said, “Free Coffee” and she loudly proclaimed to every passerby, “Free coffee for sale!”
A few curious folks came in and found the coffee to be hot and strong. And before long the house was filling up. In a couple of months we had enough donations to start offering socks, a few travel size hygiene items, and a shirt. During December, we had some renovations done so that in January we could start offering showers.
We were just a few people who had come together, and then talked with some folks on the streets that we knew to find out what kind of place they would like and find helpful. Then we got a house, and with the help of some shared resources among us, we opened, and began the incredible journey into offering hospitality.
Our vision of hospitality came from the Catholic Worker Movement of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and the Open Door Community in Atlanta, which stands in the tradition of the Catholic Worker. We wanted to offer hospitality which respects the dignity of each guest as Christ who comes as the stranger, the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick (Matthew 25:31-46). Since we were welcoming Christ in the stranger, we did not seek to impose some agenda on our guests, other than to offer them hospitality. We still don’t. For us, hospitality is about loving those who come as they are.
From the beginning, like the Catholic Worker Movement, we were clear that we did not seek and would not accept government funding. In the spirit of Catholic Worker personalism, we wanted to offer ourselves in loving hospitality, and not become a social service agency or bureaucracy. We don't ask guests for identification or have them fill our forms. We just get to know them and they get to know us. We embraced the Catholic Worker approach of start small and stay small, of “little by little” rather than envisioning or seeking to become some large scale program. We also take seriously that efficiency is demonic and that too much structure is oppressive. We like the Christian anarchism of the Catholic Worker.
We take seriously that we are a place of sanctuary, a refuge from the harshness and harassment of the streets. In that spirit, we have not allowed the police to come and go freely at Manna House since unfortunately our guests have all too frequently experienced the police as problematic in their lives. In order to have sanctuary, we have also been careful about maintaining boundaries in which we expect guests to be respectful with each other and us. We’ve asked guests to leave who engage in language or other behaviors that are disrespectful, violent, denigrating or demeaning.
Like the Catholic Worker, we also see connections between poverty, war, and the way the criminal justice system works. So we’ve worked with other organizations such as the MidSouth Peace and Justice Center, H.O.P.E., the Workers Interfaith Network, and Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty to try and create a world in which it is “easier to be good” (in the words of Peter Maurin). A few of us have gone to jail in protest of war, or because of our stance in resistance to police harassment of people on the streets. It is helpful to go to jail; you learn a lot about a society by seeing who is in jail and who isn’t, and how jail works to dehumanize those who are jailed. You also learn to never serve bologna sandwiches because that is jail food.
Along the way we have made many mistakes, and we have had to painfully learn how to be better at hospitality. We’ve also prayed together and laughed together and cried together.
Offering hospitality requires a kind of vulnerability, the willingness to share the hurt of our guests, to get angry at how they are so often treated on the streets, to celebrate their joys with them, and to mourn together when a guest dies. We’ve done too much of that mourning this past year.
We’re grateful for all of the support along the way in prayers, donations, volunteers. It really is pretty amazing how it has all worked out so far.
Follow Pete on Twitter @petegath