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.