What is the Crisis at Hand?: Further Reflections on a Town Hall Meeting

by Andrew Krinks

It has become all too clear in recent days that we now find ourselves, once again, at a moment of crisis in our work with the homeless community in our city. But perhaps that is somewhat of an understatement. For indeed, the last month has consisted of one crisis after another after another. First came the floods of May 1st and 2nd—a crisis for many thousands of people in Middle Tennessee. As for those of us trying to walk alongside our brothers and sisters trapped on the underside of a system that they struggle to survive in, we have seen firsthand the crisis of displacement—displacement after displacement after displacement.

After the Red Cross shelter at Lipscomb University closed; after the week-long shelter of motel rooms and gracious churches expired; after driving those Tent City residents left with no other place to go out to Otter Creek Church to wait and scramble for another plan to come through so that our friends would not be abandoned, we found ourselves taking up the offer of the only landowner willing to help us out. And as we all know by now, that final move led to the crisis of a vehement people. Crisis after crisis, displacement after displacement—a familiar rhythm for people without homes or adequate community.

But the crisis I want to talk about is not the crisis of the flood itself. Neither is it the crisis of finding temporary shelter for our homeless brothers and sisters in its wake—whether hotel room, church building, or 124-acre plot of land. Neither is it the crisis of being accused of acting as scheming, manipulative connivers for refusing to abandon our friends, and for moving them to the only place we had left without first asking for permission from area residents (permission that surely would never have been granted, which we only now realize after the fact). To be sure, these are the crises that ring in our ears at such a high pitch these days that it’s hard to sleep at night, hard to keep from feeling exhausted, enraged, and ever at a loss for words. And indeed, we remain awestruck in the wake of the Town Hall meeting in Antioch in which the empty refrain was repeated over and over again: “We love the homeless, but…”

The crisis I want to talk about is the one that confronts us, much like these other crises, generation after generation—a crisis that seems to grow like a weed in our world, never squelched no matter how hard we try. It is a crisis I wrestle with as if it were another person—and one could even say that it is. What is the crisis? It is the crisis of trying to discern how best to love—to be reconciled with—“the people of Antioch”. Why is it a crisis at all? Why should I even care? Because, as Christ says, we find God in “the least of these.” For Amos House and our friends and partners, we are ever finding God in society’s “least”. But as Southern Baptist bootleg-preacher Will Campbell has recently reminded me, if the people who appear the most detestable to me are “the least” then, according to scripture, that’s where I meet God. And to be quite honest, the people who incite the most fury in me these days are those who spewed so much vitriol from the microphone at Living Word Church last Thursday night. And when I contemplate whether or not this could possibly be true, that God resides in them, I feel a rope wringing itself into a knot right in the center of my chest.

If there are no flesh-and-blood enemies in God’s kingdom, then those people of Antioch who are denying the Christ in their poorest neighbors are as family to me. So I guess that means I’m angry with my brothers, upset with my sisters. But they are family, beloved, which means that they lie within the fold of God’s love.

So what, then, is the task at hand? For those of us who have refused to abandon our friends at Tent City, it is to learn to put on the gaze of God—to see in our most-misguided brothers and sisters from Antioch the very presence of God, and in so doing, to seek new ways to bring the good news, and to do so in ways that don’t demonize or diminish. For many of the people of Antioch, the task lies in learning to see in Amos House, in Jeannie Alexander, in Doug Sanders, not conniving, self-righteous bastards who have “dumped” garbage on them, but rather people seeking to be ministers of the God who takes the shape of those cast out from society. Nothing more, nothing less. Brothers and sisters. Their task also lies in walking out of their houses, into Tent City, not with burning anger or clenched fists, but with open hands and hearts willing to go beyond what they have so long considered their charitable way of being. This is an invitation.

Let me clear. This is not some sorry attempt at utopian diplomacy. Nor is it, I pray, merely a fear of confrontation speaking through my words. For if there is no confrontation in Antioch now, if we hear no complaints for our actions, then maybe we are the misguided ones. (Jesus makes clear, after all, that this sort of work will not always be welcomed.) No, on the contrary, what I am interested in is learning the sort of persistent patience that would not dismiss “the people of Antioch” as a homogenous monolith that has struck out and lost their chance to do good. For indeed, we have seen how they are anything but homogenous: many Antioch residents have even come down to Tent City to donate time and resources to those living in the camp. Indeed, there were even those few exceptional men and women who sought to offer more compassionate perspectives on the situation from the microphone at Living Word Church. I even overheard a couple outside of the town hall meeting offer their genuine support to a Tent City resident in need of work, promising to keep in touch about it, even promising to come visit the camp. And whether they ever went to the camp or not, I am here making it known that “the people of Antioch” is anything but a monolithic beast of hatefulness that we “righteous” ones have come to condemn. It is a people—colorful, diverse, lost, found, beloved.

Clearly, this does not mean that I have overlooked the poisonous speech that made up the majority of the town hall meeting last Thursday. Indeed, I believe there were many a captive mind, false allegiance, and demon-possessed imagination in that room. But driving home from the meeting, in between fits of frustration, I felt a deep sadness, a heavy pity, a longing to see transformation take place in Antioch. And this, precisely, is the reason I even venture to put these thoughts before you at all. As Will Campbell says, echoing Jesus of Nazareth, prisoners are prisoners; it is our vocation to set them free. Whether an actual prison, or the prison of poverty, our vocation is to help liberate, and in so doing find liberation ourselves. But what is truly scandalous about this vocation is that we are even called to help liberate those held captive in ideologies that oppress, in lifestyles that insulate from strangers and “others”, those lost along those ways of being that mistake safety and property value for the tenets of a meaningful existence.

If we are to find God—the God who has reconciled us to himself, and all peoples to one another—then we should begin by using our imaginations to find new ways to welcome the “people of Antioch” into further reflection and action and community. Yes, many proved that they will refuse to listen, to think critically enough to realize their doublespeak regarding their Christian-ness and good citizenry. For those lost children of God, we offer our prayers tonight. If their hearts remain hard, we will, as my sister Jeannie (and the gospel) says, shake the dust from our feet and move on. But, as ungodly as they have proven themselves to be, I don’t believe God gives up on people, even when they deny him in the guise of a poor stranger. It is for this very reason that we shouldn’t give up on them either. If the grace of God has, and continues, to transform me—a gift I do not deserve—then by all means, I ought to extend that gift to others, to extend the table that has been extended to me by God and by God-in-my-homeless-brothers-and-sisters time and time again. For I have been given a gift from those living on the margins of our city. Therefore, in trying to continually receive this gift, and to receive it well, it is my desire to share it—to share it, especially, with the people of Antioch.

To reference once more that one-of-a-kind prophet and pastor of our time, Will Campbell, unless those who, whether they realize it or not, hold up those systems and structures that dominate and oppress—unless they are enlisted in the communal effort to dismantle the powers of death, then our work might accomplish some good things, and we’ll move on with the people of Tent City to whatever place we can find, but there will still be people in Antioch in dire need of liberation. And so, once again, let this be an invitation. For we have discovered God, the God of freedom, through our communion with the cast-aside and oppressed of our city, and we invite you to do the same.

I don’t presume that these words speak for God or that they encapsulate the heart of what’s true. Indeed, no naïve romance has accompanied the writing of these words, only genuine fear and trembling, and great uncertainty—which makes me wonder if there isn’t something here worthy of being said. But I could also be wrong. In the end, all that I am confident of is that we desperately need the fire of prophetic witness, but not the fire of prophetic witness alone. For if that fire is not leavened with the equally scandalous fire of radical reconciliation—reconciliation that resists that part of our nature that would cast out those men and women who spewed false witness in Antioch—then our holy anger lies in danger of turning sour, dull, incapable of bearing faithful witness. For the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against those powers—powers that hold imaginations captive—that possess those beloved children of God who live in Antioch and have made their voice heard in such a sad way. Indeed, it is my conviction that such foolishness as this, such reconciliation, is, in fact, prophetic in and of itself.

May the people of Antioch—may we all—be liberated into the freedom of God wherein the words “rich” and “poor” lose all their meaning in the wake of radical hospitality, reconciliation, and resistance to those systems and structures that know not what it means to love those deemed unlovable. Let us have the courage, and the faith, to be surprised, shocked, thrown off our “safe” courses-of-action by genuine encounters with those “others” who exist on the far side of our failure to love and be truly reconciled.

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7 comments

  1. Even I agree with the “more or less”. But if you so feel moved to reveal what is more and what is less, amen-worthy and not, I’d be honored. It really is wrestling…

  2. Dear Andrew,
    First, a disclaimer: I’m not the author of the “amen. more or less.” post. I’m just a resident of Cane Ridge for whom the arrival of the tent city in my community has been an eye-opener and a mirror reflecting my own complacency towards the varied individuals generally lumped together under the term the homeless. I am not a Christian nor indeed a follower of any religion. I do have a conscience with a belief that sharing the abundance I’ve been given with the less fortunate is the right thing to do, which I no doubt acquired from my Catholic upbringing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and for which I am grateful. I also share some of the concerns of my fellow Antioch/Cane Ridge residents and support the removal of the encampment from our community. Make of that what you will. I met you and your lovely bride at the town hall meeting. I spoke for awhile with three tent city residents after the meeting and I’m one of those locals you mentioned above who has visited the encampment. I thank you all for awakening in me a desire to investigate what I might do to effect a positive change in the government system that has failed the homeless folks that it has been mandated to help.

    I’ve been intrigued by the terms “prophetic witness” on this website and “Christian anarchist” used by Jeannie to describe herself on another website; I’ve been researching these terms on the internet. I don’t think you would disagree that these are extreme philosophies, that seems to be a point of pride. In my 59 years, I have come to value the concept of balance but I’m not saying you should share that point of view. However, and here I’m in danger of sounding condescending and meddlesome, please pardon me and do not take offense if I point out that in your essay you sound in danger of being physically and emotionally burned out, specifically in this passage, “To be sure, these are the crises that ring in our ears at such a high pitch these days that it’s hard to sleep at night, hard to keep from feeling exhausted, enraged, and ever at a loss for words.” Please take care of yourself because you cannot be there for others if you do not.

    You say above that you are wrestling with “ . . . the crisis of trying to discern how best to love—to be reconciled with—“the people of Antioch”. Why is it a crisis at all?” I would say it’s a crisis because it must be very difficult to follow the path of Amos House as stated on the About Us/Theology page on this website: “We seek to embody the spiritual and corporal works of mercy every day by our words and actions: Spiritual works of mercy: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, to be devoted to prayer, and to love our enemies.” Difficult, admirable and a life’s work. Blessings on you. Mary C.

  3. Mary,

    Thank you for your words, of both admonition and encouragement alike. It was a pleasure to meet you outside of the meeting. To echo what I’ve already said, I thank you for responding in the way you have. It’s refreshing to be in touch with someone so willing to reach out to others, especially when you might not agree on every issue. So thanks for that, and for your visits to the camp as well.

    Let me see if I can respond to a few of the points you raise.

    First, “prophetic witness”. I confess I’m somewhat curious about what you’ve discovered in your research on the term. But allow me to try and explain where we’re coming from when we employ it.

    As people who locate ourselves within the biblical tradition, we see “prophetic witness” as integral to our faith as Christ-followers. (Thanks for being clear that you don’t find yourself in this tradition. But since this is where we are, I hope you’ll understand that it’s the deepest place we have to speak from, to make sense of everything. So it goes without saying that none of what follows is “preaching”…only explaining.)

    We don’t think of prophecy in terms of seeing into the future, as is often the understanding. (If prophecy projects into the future, then it’s only to warn, only by way of looking long and hard at the present situation.) Rather, we understand it as a sort of calling to attention, a public act or speech that reminds people of their humanity, a way of being that causes others to check themselves on the ways they’re living or not living up to what God calls us to–or to what their humanity calls them to.

    To be specific, there is the prophet Amos (our namesake) who called out the people of God (Israel) for their complacency, their false righteousness (another word for “justice”), for forgetting to care for the poor. He did so like this (from Amos 5):

    “You trample on the poor
    and force him to give you grain.
    Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
    you will not live in them;
    though you have planted lush vineyards,
    you will not drink their wine.

    For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.
    You oppress the righteous and take bribes
    and you deprive the poor of justice in the courts.”

    Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah scolds the people of God, the supposed righteous ones, because they (in essence) talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk: they build fancy homes with the finest materials and yet pay their workers so meager a wage that they suffer and don’t have enough to get by on. The prophet Isaiah also admonishes the people of God for singing praises and pretty songs, all the while not caring for each other in a more thoroughgoing way.

    Jesus also falls into this line as well, turning tables in the temple, and turning everything on its head, really (loving the unlovable, cast-aside, poor), and thereby calling the religious and political leaders to task for the ways they’re forgetting to live out God’s imperative to be concerned for others before ourselves. That, in part, is why he was crucified. Because that sort of thing does not fall in line with the ways of power and prestige and even what we think of as good old-fashioned decency and sound behavior.

    We at Amos House hope to find ourselves in this tradition as well.

    As for “Christian anarchism”, it is an even more loaded term, and one wrought with much historical and cultural baggage. (You might ask yourself, “Aren’t anarchists the ones who want to overthrow the government by force?”) The answer is, some who called themselves anarchists have argued for such things, but that’s not the stream of the tradition any of us see value in. We at Amos House vary on our emphasis on the term, but we all do see some value in aspects of it, at the very least. The idea is this. An- (“without”) arch- (in this case, something like “rulers”): we, and those who promote the tradition called “Christian anarchism”, see Jesus’ social ethic, his way of being, as one to be emulated in the public sphere. In other words, the low are lifted up, the weak are made strong, death leads to life–and in tangible, social ways; likewise, those who are powerful will be made to understand that their power is not real power, that it is actually illusory. In other words, you can coerce masses of people, effectively control and manage peoples, even use death or the threat thereof to manipulate–but that’s not real power, or at least so says the gospel as we interpret it. And along with this, we don’t believe in trying to convince the government to do anything for us (“without” “rulers”), because we believe that it comes down to people interacting with people, not institutions interacting with people. You can only do so much through institutions. That’s why we’ve been at Tent City even though Metro government hasn’t.

    In the end, Jesus’ kingdom (the one we seek to inhabit here on earth) is an upside down one. So for those of us who claim to follow him, chances are, we’ll look backward, extreme, maybe even radical (which simply means getting to the “root” of things). There’s a reason Jesus was killed (he was a troublemaker, a person whose actions were so backward that he was deemed a threat). Likewise, there’s a reason the Old Testament prophets of Israel were run out of town at first before anyone would listen.

    People like MLK, Jr. and Gandhi also fit the “prophetic witness” terminology. And they might even be viewed within anarchistic thought because they questioned the legitimacy of the various powers of the world, and stressed that we couldn’t wait along while the powers get their act together and actually help people.

    In short, you’re right to call it “extreme”, because the prophet is one who says, “What you believe to be sane, is actually insane. What you believe is up is actually down.” Thus, prophetic witness will always be unwelcomed, but our attempts to live into that tradition find us within a long tradition of others who have tried, against all sensible behavior, to do likewise. But I hope you also notice that my words witness to the fact that what’s important is not the fire of prophetic speech alone, but the accompanied desire to be reconciled with those who we feel are misguided, those we try to call to attention.

    As for my being burnt out, there is some truth to that, and I appreciate your candid wisdom. But I would also add that, since Jesus asks us to “take up our crosses” and “follow him”, we (Christ-followers) are not promised pure bliss until some distant pearly gates, some sort of “Your Best Life Now” prosperity gospel, which means that there will be trial and difficulty, and even some staying up at night wrestling. On other hand, we seek (and we even talked last night about doing better with this) to ground our work in a sense of not being the ones responsible for saving the world, but rather that we ought to seek to be the “hands and feet” of God, who became flesh in one who served others and suffered at the hands of the State. That’s what real “kingship” looks like–it comes from the bottom and stays at the bottom, and that gets messy and painful sometimes. So you’re absolutely right that it’s “difficult and a life’s work.”

    So thanks for your wise counsel. We are indeed, trying our damnest to obey the command to “observe the sabbath”, to find rest, and not to fool ourselves into thinking we’re saviors ourselves.

    My deep apologies for such a long-winded response. I couldn’t help but to give serious attention to such a thoughtful comment.

    Thanks again Mary. We look forward to being in some sort of communion with you in the days ahead, and hopefully beyond that.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Andrew

    1. Kevin, the link didn’t work for me. But I’d love to see the verses if you can get it to work.

  4. I went to http://www.biblegateway.com and did a search and some interesting verses came up… such as, John 12:47 As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. And John 15:18 If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. etc.

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