The expectant homeless mother had pondered the birth of her child for weeks. Where would he be born? Would he be safe? Where would she take him? Who would help her? Where on earth would they go? Her partner, equally anxious, had taken the woman as his wife months earlier, knowing that the child growing inside of her was not his own. He had promised to care for them, but they were sojourners, strangers in a strange land. The time of census approached, and so they set off across the country, mostly on foot, toward the town of his birth. Unsure of the future, but hoping for the best, they prayed for guidance and safe passage.
Throughout their journey the lonely couple strove to avoid the authorities and bandits alike. The woman’s increasingly fragile state made them vulnerable to attack, and their very existence made them a target for the authorities, for they were marginalized people not of the dominant ruling class. Apart from their own people they were considered dirty and suspect, their customs strange.
Finally the beleaguered pair arrived in the bustling town, a town that looked to hold so much promise and prospects for the future. Weary and burdened by the pronounced heaviness of her belly, the woman longed for refuge and a safe warm place to birth her child. They began to search patiently at first for a home or temporary housing, but as time wore on fear and anxiety set in and they became frantic in their search for sanctuary.
Alone and afraid in the cold of 3:00 a.m., during the dark time of the year, the couple had to face the fact that there was no room at any inn. A sharp cry cracked open the night, and beneath a star, out-of-doors, a child was born.
Are you familiar with this story? Have you heard it your whole life long? You know it better than you think; it is closer than you know. For you see, this is our story. Unto us a child was born, and unto us, an opportunity was given.
Early in the morning during the first week of November, a child was born on the streets of Nashville; directly onto the rat infested, stinking, filthy, street of Second Avenue in downtown Nashville. The couple and the journey described above are not the beloved Joseph and Mary of 2,000 years ago, it is the story of a homeless couple in our time, at this moment, in Nashville, the city too busy to care.
The poor couple waited for months for subsidized housing. They jumped through every hoop, made every appointment, obtained every document, and still they waited. The woman was assured that she would be housed rapidly because she was great with child. (How could she know that the waiting list is over 3,000 broken souls long?). But the weeks turned into months, and during that time they stayed in cheap, bed bug infested motels when they could, and slept under bridges when they could not.
Of course, they tried other avenues, other organizations, but instead of open doors and warm beds, they found themselves at the end of even more waiting lists, or were told that they “did not meet criteria.” Ah criteria, the word that allows us to shed our responsibilities toward other human beings.
Along the way, the couple and the developing child did find help, people who genuinely care, people to help guide them to each resource, each resource that closed the door. And the help even raised funds to keep them in motels for a time, but it was never enough, no matter how hard the help tried, and the couple slipped through the cracks, a sieve of social services.
They were harassed by the police (who are often from marginalized backgrounds themselves and forced to act upon orders from above), given citations and arrested for the crime of being homeless and afraid. Arrested for the crime of poverty in a city of wealth. Arrested for so-called “quality of life” ordinances, the effect of which is to ensure that those with the poorest quality of life in the city are further dehumanized and persecuted with the hopes of driving them out so that those who enjoy the highest standards of living don’t have to look upon such untouchables.
The man and woman were forever being told to move along, move along, move along. Move along to where no one could say, as long as they moved along and stayed out of sight. And so they moved along until the woman could move no more.
Unto us a child was born, and unto us an opportunity was given: an opportunity to show love instead of hate, open doors and compassion instead of jail cells and disdain, justice and mercy instead of the damndable torture of hell-twisted minds that choose the most dangerous path of all—indifference. And so we failed. I failed, you failed, and thus this city failed, and a child was born homeless, a child was born screaming in the night onto streets of death. Did you hear? Could you hear the cries of one so small: Nashville’s newest, youngest, homeless person?
A babe born three blocks away from where, one week earlier, a sleeping, homeless black man was murdered. Edward “Maxine” Matthews, shot in the face, like another black man eight months before. Oh what a fine welcome to the world, baby. Welcome to our nightmare.
What gifts shall we bring the child? Clean sheets, a warm bed, food and a blanket, a home? No. What this baby really needs is a new convention center.
What, you say you did not know, you did not hear, you did not see? Oh you stiff-necked people; below the windows of your overpriced lofts and condos ,“success lives here,” people live and love, and fight, and scream, and beg, and shit on the streets. They defecate in alleys because they have no bathroom and they sleep on concrete, wrapped in plastic and sheets like so many corpses, because they have no bed, and you know they exist. You stare sometimes and when they look up you look away. Did you think that none of the 6,000 or so of the unhoused humans in Nashville were pregnant women or children? There are dozens of pregnant women living unsheltered in Nashville today. How many more children have to be born on to our streets?
This city needs a day of atonement, an opportunity to confess and sin no more. You know the words, or do you? I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…. God is a God of justice, God is a God of mercy, God is a God of love, and God hears the cry of the poor. God hears the cries of babies born on the streets, and in the woods, and under bridges. God is present in the bleeding cracked hands and feet of the poor and homeless of this city, and still you bar the door and hoard your wealth leaving little or nothing to glean.
The crime and the sin are to be found in the true reality of the state of housing in Nashville. Simply put, there is no housing available. There isn’t a lack of housing; there is a lack of funding for housing and so housing is kept out of reach for thousands of bleeding, begging, crying, dying people. Our brothers and sisters living on the streets of Nashville are people of dignity, people of worth, people who have a right to the basic necessity of housing, but lack the ability to pay $158,000 for “affordable” housing. And so they die and are born on streets below vacant housing, housing that the city deems too good for them to live in.
The better part of over 2,000 new units of housing sit vacant in this city, much of it downtown, or very close thereto. Rolling Mill Hills, “upscale” lofts and condos, sits vacant, reclaimed by weeds, while waiting below in its taunting shadow, people hope for housing in the largest homeless encampment in the city.
What can you do, you ask? Repent and transform your congregations from the Constantinian whores of the state that they have become to Acts 2 communities, communities of the living God where “all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all as anyone had need.” (Acts 2:44, 45) Never mind our local government that has been bought and sold by special interests a thousand times over from the beginning of time; as Rome goes so goes the American Empire. If local congregations, of which there are more than 750, were to share their God-given responsibility of caring for their brothers, sisters, and children on the streets, each congregations’ share would be a mere eight persons. Eight persons to love, to house, to stand with in the healing of body and mind, so that those congregations, too, in an act of co-liberation, will be healed and made whole again in the image of the early church and the living Christ.
We lie to ourselves and choose profit over life, and so we tithe to the god of death, the great deceiver. Nashville, you paint a lovely shining face for the world, but inside, your soul is a soul of decay. So drink up you “cows of [the Gulch] who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands ‘bring wine, let us drink.’” Laugh loudly and drown out the cries of newborn babies while you can, and though you try to forget that God is a God of justice, the clock ticks.
Oh Nashville, are you to be as the Jerusalem of old? There is time for you—repent! Transform and hear the voices of those crying in the wilderness, in the streets, outside your door. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were unwilling! Behold, your house will be abandoned, ” (Lk 13:34, 35) and when it is, some of us will move in waiting mothers, fathers, and children.
Those wishing to help end the nightmare of children being born on our streets may take small but real steps toward doing so by making tax deductible donations to The Mercy Fund, a fund of Amos House Community, where 100% of the donations go toward providing housing, medical care, and all necessities for homeless pregnant women, homeless children, and the parents of homeless children. Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 54 Old Hickory, TN 37138.
(Published in The Contributor, Issue 21, December 2009)