by Lindsey Krinks (published in the May 2010 issue of The Contributor)
It is easy to find stories of loss, despair, and devastation on the streets. Such stories are as endless as the countless faces of the men, women, and children who stand daily in breadlines across the world. And such stories are important, for they bear witness to the atrocities that happen in the margins—atrocities which often go unnoticed. Yes, on the streets, funerals abound and loneliness descends like a plague. We are broken people living in a broken society. But in the midst of such brokenness, there are glimpses of hope, hospitality, and community. “There is a crack in everything,” croons poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.” Let this be a tribute to the light that seeps through the cracks, to the brief moments of beauty, clarity, and renewal that overcome the dark, grueling chaos of the streets.
Hope against all odds
Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter in the Christian tradition, was, for first century disciples, a day of mourning, uncertainty, and “standing in the void” between death and life. This year on Holy Saturday, a group of us spent the day on the streets with our brothers and sisters in a period of contemplation and reverence. While we were waiting in line for food at the Jefferson Street Bridge, we mingled with our friends and listened to their stories. In the middle of a conversation, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and heard a voice ask, “Lindsey, is that you?” I turned around to see a tall, handsome man in his fifties and it took only a second for me to realize who he was. “Indiana!” I shouted, as I hugged him. My eyes filled with tears—I was utterly stunned to see him.
Indiana was one of the first people that I truly connected with on the streets, and for nearly a year, I have wondered about him. I’ve wondered if he was dead, locked away in jail, or roaming the streets of some distant city. I met him on a cool, rainy day last March, and we connected instantly. He was filthy, soiled, and toothless, but he had a twinkle in his brown eyes that I will never forget. Every few days, he stumbled to our office reeking of mouthwash, his pants saturated in his own urine, barely able to stand. Because of his poor health, he had to lean on a crutch or a shopping cart to get around. My coworkers and I worked with him for months and months and nothing changed. He was an old hippie—an ex-member of “The Rainbow Family”—and thus highly skeptical of institutions. He wasn’t ready to get the help he needed, but we continued to build a relationship with him, give him clean, dry pants, and help him down to the shower. We watched him cycle in and out of jail and the hospital, and finally, finally, he agreed to try treatment. “You got a life,” he said to me one day, “and just like you got one, I want one, too. I want mine back.”
I still remember the day I drove him out to the VA in Murfreesboro for detox and treatment—we listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to calm his nerves. After treatment, he got into a local transitional housing facility and shortly thereafter he left and we lost track of him. I figured he had relapsed and hitchhiked back to Indiana, but there he stood before me: alive, articulate, sober, healthy, and smiling with a new set of teeth. He stood before me resurrected, and I was as astounded as doubting Thomas. He told me that he thinks of us often and is thankful for us. “Do you remember what you ladies told me before I left?” he asked. “You said when I was sober and in housing, you would take me out to eat. Well, I want to take you guys out to eat!” he beamed. Yes, on Holy Saturday, life seemed devastating, bleak, and confusing. But even today, in the midst of darkness and uncertainty, resurrection is happening all around us, if we only have eyes to see.
Hospitality in the margins
“Until we find each other, we are alone,” writes poet Adrienne Rich, and who knows this better than the marginalized, forgotten, and overlooked members of our community? Through my work with Nashville’s homeless community, I’ve often seen more faith and hospitality on the streets than I’ve seen in many of our churches. Over the last two years, there have been a handful of vulnerable homeless individuals we’ve worked with that no service providers would take because these individuals “didn’t fit criteria”: the elderly, uninsured man with Alzheimer’s; the gnomish, schizophrenic 54-year-old with the mental capacity of an eight-year-old who wasn’t “sick” or “violent” enough for a state hospital but not “well” enough for other service providers; the nearly blind, chronically ill, mentally disabled man who was told he was a “fire hazard” by the only transitional shelter in town that almost accepted him. My coworkers and I spent countless hours with each of these individuals trying to locate the services they desperately needed, and were turned down by almost every service provider in Nashville. We were frustrated, burnt out, and utterly sick at the subtle violence of a system that cannot grasp mercy because the barriers of “criteria” and “policy” have grown too thick, too high.
Each time, after we failed to locate resources for our vulnerable friends, the only place we found hospitality was in the margins—specifically in Tent City. You see, when we visit with our friends at Tent City, they often ask us how things are going. Sometimes, we recount frustrating circumstances with them (while observing HIPPA, of course). With each of the three circumstances above, residents of Tent City offered to make space in their camp for our vulnerable friends. Two such residents even said of the 54-year-old, “He can stay in our ‘hospital wing’ and we’ll make sure he’s safe. We can share our Food Stamps with him and since church groups come to feed all the time, he’ll be okay.” Indeed, they had a hospital wing in their camp where they once cared for a man who was uninsured and had a broken back and two broken arms. Other residents of Tent City cared for the man with Alzheimer’s when no one else in our city would. Maybe those of us who feel compelled to bring Jesus to the “least of these” should consider that, perhaps, he is already there in the margins with them.
Community and commitment
For every person and congregation in Nashville who is disconnected from the lives and stories of the poor, there are also people and congregations who are engaged. The engaged and committed groups are those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and realize that people are not problems to be fixed; they are brothers and sisters to be loved and journeyed with.
Ethos Church is a fairly new church in Nashville whose mission is simply to love God and love people. They have about 600 members and hold services at the Cannery Ballroom on 8th Avenue every Sunday night. They don’t meet at the Cannery because it’s a trendy music venue; they meet there because it’s close to the heart of the city and accessible to their members who are homeless. Ethos has embraced the countless members of Nashville’s homeless community and invited them into their lives and homes. A little over a year ago, Popcorn joined their church. Popcorn was homeless, African-American, endearingly flamboyant, and HIV positive. Last fall, the doctors told Popcorn his “T cell” count was dangerously low and that he only had a couple of months to live. Immediately, Ethos raised the money to keep Popcorn in housing and helped to make provisions for hospice care.
As Thanksgiving and Christmas approached, Popcorn’s body grew weaker, but his spirits remained high. His friends from Ethos visited him, brought him food, and prayed and laughed with him. The week of his death, Popcorn was surrounded by his closest friends and family members around the clock. Despite his young, tragic death, Popcorn lived and loved with everything he had, and there was no doubt that he was loved by many. When the time came for funeral preparations, Ethos stepped up again. Their members generously funded the funeral and invited Popcorn’s family to a potluck dinner afterward.
The memorial service was held on a chilly night in January and the room was packed with a mosaic of African-American members of Popcorn’s family and members of Ethos who are primarily white and in their 20s. Tears, laughter, hugs, and memories were shared and it was clear that this was a glimpse of the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about so eloquently. Afterward, everyone gathered together for a huge meal where there was singing, storytelling, and more laughter and tears. Members from Popcorn’s family were deeply moved and told Ethos, “We’ll see you at your church on Sunday!”
Earlier this week, I received a call from a librarian, “Francis,” in Sumner County. She told me that she had recently taken in a homeless couple. “The guy is 23 and the girl is 20 and nine months pregnant,” she said. “Both are mentally handicapped.” Francis is a single mother with three children, two of whom are living at home. Her family has embraced the couple and converted their living room into a nursery. I asked Francis what we could do to help. “Well, we have all of the baby things they need, I signed them up for Food Stamps, WIC, and TennCare, and we’ve been watching videos about birthing, nursing, and parenting. The 23-year-old has been looking for work and has applied at Goodwill, but we are taking care of them and they are welcome to stay at the house right now. I want to eventually help them get back on their feet, but the baby is due any day, so we’re taking it one step at a time.” I was stunned. A librarian who is also a single mother and probably struggles financially herself, had taken in a pregnant handicapped couple in need. We talked for some time, going over resources, housing possibilities, and their situation. Francis said she wants the couple to have support and thinks this might be the first time they’ve been in a trusting, healthy relationship with someone else. She explained that she was just doing what needed to be done. I told her that we would support them any way we could and we talked about how one of the “common denominators” of homelessness is, to use a Wendell Berry term, “community disintegration.” If a falling away of community contributes to someone becoming homeless, then part of the solution must be building community back around the person.
Ethos didn’t see Popcorn as a “problem to be fixed,” and Francis didn’t see the homeless couple as a charity project. Both Ethos and Francis fully embraced these individuals and committed to journeying with them through thick and thin. Popcorn passed away and there is no telling what is in store for the soon-to-be-parents, but true mercy and love are never contingent on outcomes and results. In other words, if we glue together all the cracks of the world, how will the light get in?
Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of the capitol of El Salvador, was fiercely committed to standing beside the impoverished and oppressed and even publically condemned his country’s corrupt government and military from the pulpit. He was finally assassinated by government allies in 1980 while celebrating Mass. The “Romero Prayer” was later composed in his memory and reads, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
May we all have the courage to take a step in the direction of embracing others, living among the cracks, and rejoicing in the glimpses of hope, hospitality, and community discovered therein.