by Jeannie Alexander
It has been just over 24 hours since I left last night’s town hall meeting at Living Word Community Church in Antioch. As I sat on the stage for three hours with Doug Sanders my friend and brother in Christ, I found myself struck dumb at times by the words of anger, outrage, and fear that I heard echoed almost continuously for the entire period of community comments, which lasted for two hours. I am still trying to process what occurred as I write this post. For the crime of moving homeless displaced victims of the flood onto 2 acres of land in the middle of an unused 120-acre tract of land in Antioch, we received the following rebukes and accusations from the angry crowd:
“I’ve known homeless people and they chose to be homeless because that’s where the liquor was.”
“We can’t help what’s going on in the world—this isn’t our problem. You’ve forced charity on us and shoved it down our throats!” (In truth we never asked for charity from the community, only that our friends be allowed to stay temporarily in peace on private property that they have permission to occupy.)
“How many of you have heard ‘Hickory Harlem’ and that the area is trash and dirty? We are trying to bring businesses and schools to Antioch. It’s Antioch together to unite around a common purpose… No more bringing anything to Antioch that is not positive! No more bringing anything to Antioch! The gates of Antioch’s charity are closed!” (These comments were made by Pastor Rodney Beard of Living Word Community Church.)
“I work in a service station and these people steal ice. They don’t buy food; they buy junk and candy… Nashville has a bad reputation for being soft on the homeless. My community is in danger. We don’t want them here…if you want them, you take them!”
“I’m not offended because people are homeless, I am offended because you did not ask us to help but shoved it down our throats. Why is it our issue to be solved instead of yours?”
“I take it personal when you come in here self-righteous and have an attitude about how to care for the homeless… You’re dumping on the people here. For 13 years I’ve watched this neighborhood go down. You pick on Antioch… Now you have Tent City behind Target and if they stay any amount of time Target may move out and then Home Depot.”
“What made you think you had the right to violate codes and sneak in here under the cover of night and dump this on us? What made you think you could dump this on us without permission?”
“And you—that reverend lady with your ‘Jesus Was Homeless’ t-shirt. Jesus was not homeless, he had a mission, his father made him a kingdom… the dome of the sky.” (Our people, too, sleep under the dome of the sky.)
“Jesus was not homeless, he had 12 disciples and a treasurer so he wasn’t poor either.” (Birds have nests and foxes have dens but the son of man has no where to lay his head.)
“I know that you have said temporary, temporary, temporary, but can you assure us that once you move them off you will not rezone and then move them back?”
“You’re trying to play on my compassionate side… When the news reported that they had been flooded out, you (Councilman Coleman) should have been on pins and needles expecting them to land here!”
Over and over again we heard echoes of words spoken on the evening news a few nights before: “Now they’re here on I-24 advertising: come to the dumping ground!” “We’ve been dumped on.” “This problem has been dumped on us!” “We are not a dumping ground!” As if garbage had been brought to Antioch after the flood instead of beautiful wounded human creatures created in the image of God seeking temporary sanctuary—a sanctuary out of sight so they would not offend. Because oh how they have learned that the sight of their poverty offends. But the good people of Antioch (and this could have been any community in the Metro area) have taught us something new, and that is that the very thought of homeless people is offensive whether they be seen or unseen. The majority of the people of Antioch who attended last night’s meeting made it clear that they simply cannot countenance the very existence of such people in their community. They choked on the very thought.
The language of last night’s meeting was the language of hate, fear, and segregation—segregation every bit as vile as the segregation the civil rights movement sought to defeat. Here lies Dr. King’s dream, broken and shattered. And now, as then, pathetic attempts are made to cloak racism (now classism) in the terminology of “codes violations,” “city ordinances,” “property values,” and “bad for business.” We have lived this sin before; we have heard the lies and the fear; simply substitute the term ‘black’ or ‘Negro’ for ‘homeless’ and your hypocrisy and shame lies bare.
Perhaps most heartbreaking of all was a pastor claiming that he was “for the homeless” and then whipping the crowd into a clapping and shouting frenzy as he yelled, “No more bringing anything to Antioch! The gates of Antioch’s charity are closed!” And why are the gates of charity closed? Because as the pastor informs us, “We are about bringing business to Antioch…and property value.” I do not know the value of your property, but I do know the value of a human life. And while I may not know all of your zoning laws and codes, I know that God hears the cries of the poor. I may not know how many businesses have opened or closed in your community, but I know the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ that tells us everyone is invited to the table and that we are to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, nurse the sick, and the gospel of counterfeit Christianity which substitutes the good news of Jesus Christ (good news to the poor) for the false idols of capitalism and American nationalism. I know apostasy when I hear it and I know what the love of mammon over the love of God looks like, and I know it afresh today because of what I experienced last night.
While the dominant tone of the evening was that of fear and anger, there were also a few voices of love, compassion, and even joy over the opportunity to serve. I pray that you will heed the words of a young man who spoke eloquently and told you, “If you knew the heart of God, you would know the heart of God is in these homeless people and that they can change your life. This is a great opportunity to serve and know the heart of God… You have 30 days to know the heart of God, you are wasting your chance to know the heart of God.”
You cannot hide an ideology of fear, intolerance, and hate behind the words “I am a Christian.” Such words ring hollow and are rendered meaningless when the actions that proceed and follow such words betray your true meaning. You are not “for the poor,” you are not “for the homeless,” you are for profit and the sense of false security that such profit provides. So yes, Antioch, we will go, we will be gone in 30 days, for we are a people of faith following a God of liberation, citizens of a beloved community preaching an offensive gospel. But be wary of the path you tread: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom; she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (Ezekiel 16:49, 50). We shake the dust from our feet and leave you with the kingdom of man.