This summer I have been able to work at many agencies across Memphis. One of my favorites is The Manna House. People in the community can go in the morning to the Manna house and drink coffee, play board games, and maybe take showers or get a new pair of socks. The youth get to connect with people who have lived lives very different than us. Two people I had the pleasure of meeting were Paul and Otis*.
Paul has always lived in Memphis. After completing his associate’s, he had plans of returning to school for his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. Unfortunately, before this was ever able to happen, Paul lost his job and has been homeless ever since. He keeps journals and books with him, including a bible in which he said he read in its entirety over the course of nine months.
Otis was very open telling me about how he has struggled with crack addiction for many years now. He clearly recognizes the damage it causes his life. He shared with me that after a drug deal went wrong in his hometown of Little Rock, a church bought him a bus ticket to Memphis so he could escape those who wanted to kill him. He first was incarcerated at the age of 15 and started using hard drugs soon thereafter.
Memphis has a rich history in the civil rights movement. Naturally, this history seeps into our program. We talk about the roles religious leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference played in desegregation. Many churches at the time supported segregation as they believed in separating “us” from “them.” Although segregation might be a thing of the past, it’s not difficult to see how we might still have an “us” and “them” mindset.
For example, it can be easy to tell stories and advocate for people like Paul while ignoring the “Otises” of society. Someone’s struggles become something we think we can judge as “more” or “less” Christian. We tend to believe that God exists only in perfection, not the cracks in life. This mindset is easy to fall into, but is the opposite of what we as christians are called to do by many biblical passages such as Proverbs 31:8-9. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Of course Otis is able to speak, but he doesn’t have the same opportunity to speak to our friends and congregations as we do. While there are struggles the majority of us do not face, we as christians are called to address them in our world.
This is the final week of MYM this summer and I spoke to Otis and Peter at the manna house for the last time. Since I last saw Peter, he picked up a job teaching Sunday school at a church. He prayed with some people at the Manna House and said Otis was one of his good friends. He even gave him some money to go get lunch.
(*Names have been changed for privacy.)