by Jeannie Alexander, published in the October 2010 issue of The Contributor
“Lucinda” lives out her life on the benches of downtown Nashville; she smiles at passersby, most of whom pretend not to notice her. But it is hard not to notice Lucinda, a large black woman with bittersweet chocolate skin that remains youthful and luminous in spite of constant exposure to the elements. Despite years of torment and abuse, smiles come quickly and naturally to Lucinda’s lips, great wide smiles that reach her eyes and reveal a shining daughter of God. Buried beneath the degradation, pain and rejection, there is an eternity of beauty and peace that exists in the mind and soul of this divine creation. The presence of God surrounds Lucinda as she waits patiently, swathed in blankets, rocking slowly back and forth. Christ comes to us through Lucinda.
In the summer she tries unsuccessfully to sleep through the afternoon heat. She hides sometimes, seeking privacy by pulling her skirt or a blanket over her head. Sitting a few feet away waiting for her to emerge from her hiding place, I have heard some of you laugh at her as you walk by. In the winter she wraps herself in blankets and zips herself up tight in the cocoon of a sleeping bag. Did you see her this past January on the bench next to Downtown Presbyterian Church, her sleeping bag covered by the snow? Lucinda spends weeks at a time on a single bench or perched on the side of a building until the inevitable occurs. The police stop by her bench, ask her if she is OK, and she, knowing the real reason they have stopped, responds, “Why are you asking me if I’m OK? Leave me alone, go away—I don’t want nothing to do with you!” Her agitation escalates and she is arrested. This happens to Lucinda multiple times during a single month. And so she moves from one area of downtown, to another, and back again to where she started. MTA has trespass waivers for each of their benches, trespass waivers which have resulted in over 40 arrests for Lucinda in the past several years.
For those of you who think the police are doing Lucinda a favor by arresting her and getting her off the street for a few days or a week, think again. Lucinda hates jail, and she hates the “humiliation of being arrested in public all the time.” Plagued by severe and persistent mental illness, housing is difficult for Lucinda to maintain, especially in the absence of a true Housing First program in Nashville. I have walked with Lucinda more than once through the steps necessary to obtain housing, and on each occasion she was back on the streets within one week. At one point in time Lucinda was a client of Nashville’s “Housing First” program, but she “graduated” within seven months and found herself back on the streets in a matter of weeks. But what does that matter? She served her purpose of remaining in housing long enough to count as a success story.
Lucinda seeks sanctuary on the streets of downtown Nashville. She seeks a safe place to rest, to sleep, to dream without having to worry about when she will next be arrested, without having to worry about the next moment of humiliation. She seeks an overhang or a porch as shelter from the rain, and a doorway at night to block the wind. “Oh the indignity,” you cry! “We must do better than this!” And in principle I agree, but the reality is such that until basic housing for the poorest of the poor is a priority for the citizens of Nashville we will continue to build convention centers, luxury hotels, and plan water parks for greenways. Because collectively we believe that it is more important to acquire additional luxuries for ourselves than to meet the basic needs of others. And so people like Lucinda, for she has hundreds of homeless brothers and sisters negotiating the same precariousness, need a place of safety and sanctuary until they can be housed—a place to sleep where they will not be arrested for the crime of being visible, for the crime of daring to be poor in the midst of affluence, for the crime of existing and momentarily arousing our guilt.
Other cities have such a place, a place that has existed for hundreds, no, thousands of years. The poor have always been able to find sanctuary at the house of God. Church is holy asylum for the beaten, the broken, and the damned. Even after most churches ceased the practice of keeping their sanctuaries open 24/7 they continued to allow the poor to sleep on their steps. Historically, churches have served not just as houses of liturgical worship, but also as refuge for the marginalized, whether they are individuals wanted by the law, the poor who have nowhere else to go, or undocumented workers seeking to avoid deportation.
The sanctuary church movement of the 1980s included churches of various denominations, and both Protestant and Catholic churches served as safe havens for undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Central American countries. More recently you may recall the Chicago church that served as sanctuary for a young immigrant mother who would be ripped apart from her son if her deportation was allowed to proceed. The United Methodist Church in the Chicago case had the courage to stand against law enforcement and assert the unique protection accorded to churches for hundreds of years, protection which recognizes that a church stands for something different and apart from secular institutions and businesses, something holy.
Even the federal government recognizes the unique position of churches as sanctuary. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) passed by Congress in July of 2000, codifies the centuries old recognition that property owned by a congregation is different from property owned by a secular organization and may serve as sanctuary for groups and individuals, and may be used differently than other properties zoned in a similar fashion. Churches in New York, California, and Washington have successfully asserted their rights as places of sanctuary under RLUIPA in order to maintain ministries to the homeless wherein homeless individuals are permitted to sleep on church steps in violation of quality of life ordinances. In essence, church as sanctuary stands for a place of safety and peace for individuals being pursued or harassed under otherwise hostile conditions.
If you are in D.C., Atlanta, New York, or Los Angeles look to the steps of the churches at night and there you will find the huddled masses.
But do not expect to find Lucinda or any of her homeless brothers and sisters on the steps or in the doorways of any churches located in downtown Nashville. Nashville is unique. You see, it holds the shameful distinction of being one of the only major American cities where every downtown church, with the exception of one (thank you First Lutheran Nashville!), has signed a trespass waiver that not only permits but invites the police, armed agents of the state, to enter church property, and with the threat of imminent violence, arrest the poor on any given night. By the stroke of a pen, holy sacred ground becomes a place of lament and sorrow where those seeking mercy and compassion receive rejection and betrayal.
The Six Sorrows who have the poor removed from their property under threat of violence are the following downtown churches: McKendree United Methodist, Christ Church Cathedral, First Baptist Church Nashville, Central Church of Christ, Saint Mary of the Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, and Downtown Presbyterian Church. According to the Central Precinct, as of mid-August, all of these churches have active trespass waivers on file.
Currently Downtown Presbyterian Church and McKendree United Methodist are in the process of conducting internal discussions to determine the future of their church’s trespass waiver, and whether or not to revoke their waivers. Earlier this year McKendree’s pastor, Stephen Handy, told me that McKendree did not have a trespass waiver, and never would. I saw surprise and hurt in the eyes of this man of God, a man who I know to be faithful, when I told him that according to the Downtown Precinct, McKendree does indeed have an active trespass waiver on file. I pray for his congregation to have the courage to support their pastor and revoke McKendree’s trespass waiver. As for the other congregations, if there has been a change in leadership in recent years, there is a good chance that current leadership is not even aware that the church has a trespass waiver on file. Furthermore, chances are very few members are aware that their church has a waiver either.
A number of individuals, myself among them, feel called to come to you, downtown churches, through our Sanctuary Campaign to help you reclaim your position as not only houses of worship but holy centers of sanctuary. We seek to come to you out of love and with real compassion for where you are, and we want to come to you as brothers and sisters in Christ in order to help you to form a faithful plan that will allow the poor to safely find sanctuary on your steps, while recognizing your need for cleanliness and safety. This is not difficult. There are many whom we know, living on the streets of downtown, who would gladly clean up church property and maintain self-imposed order in exchange for not being arrested for the crime of seeking a safe place to sleep for the night. We have volunteers from other congregations waiting to partner with you to address your fears and needs. But please understand that there is no safe place for many of our brothers and sisters to sleep at night. Please understand that there is no place left downtown where our brothers and sisters—your brothers and sisters—are not harassed and arrested by the police. Please understand that even when the shelters are full there are over 2,000 men, women and children with no place to lay their head. And please, for the love of God, understand that you are to be a light in the world that offers a radically different possibility from the path that the world chooses to follow. You are not called to be respectable and reasonable; you are called to be faithful.
And please understand that just as you are called to be faithful, we are called to be faithful. If you are not interested in our offers of assistance, and if you persist in having the poor arrested, then there are those of us who, with the deepest humility and out of respect for what the church in the world should be, must act as faithful witnesses by using our own bodies to absorb the violence otherwise directed against the poorest of the poor through your trespass waivers. On Friday, August 13th, two of us who are members of Amos House Community, along with two ministers from California, were arrested while praying on the steps of Downtown Presbyterian Church. We will continue to be arrested for the crime of praying on your church steps, and some of us will fast while under arrest. We will continue to engage in this action of witness and civil disobedience until downtown churches revoke their trespass waivers and no longer commit acts of violence against the poor.
We do not do this because we think ourselves to be perfect examples of Christians fit to instruct your congregations in the ethic of Christianity. We do this because we know that we are as broken as the men and women who would sleep on your steps. We do this because we recognize that when one single human is treated unjustly and thrown into a jail of the state, then we are all treated unjustly and thrown into the jail along with her.
We do this because what is done to the least of these is done to our God, and we seek to follow our God wherever that path may lead.
When we come to you in peace, you will recognize us as members of your own congregation, local ministers, and students, businessmen and mothers, and we will come to you seeking mercy. Know this: we do not come as enemies; we come as servants. We come on behalf of our brothers and sisters who up until now have borne disproportionately the violence of the system. We come on behalf of Lucinda who lives, and children who have died. We come on behalf of the old and the young; the voiceless, and those who refuse to be broken. We come on behalf of the mothers, brothers, grandfathers, daughters, and husbands who have been arrested under your trespass waivers. But most of all, we come seeking sanctuary.
When we come to you seeking sanctuary, please try to understand that it is because, in contrast to a place of hallowed ground which offers its protection to all who seek it, even against the arms of the state, the innocuous trespass waiver has the perverse consequence of maintaining a constant open door for law enforcement, inviting the state to enter upon once holy ground to arrest all who seek the sanctuary of church steps, alleyways, doorways, and exterior passages, regardless of the circumstances, thus transforming your church into a place of violence and hypocrisy.
Tell us churches, you Six Sorrows of Nashville, who lied to you and told you that it is acceptable to guard yourselves against the poor? By what trickery were you deceived? Have you not heard it said: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these you did for me”? “But it was just a trespass waiver,” you say. “Its purpose is simply to maintain the integrity of the building and protect us from the liability of having unauthorized persons on our property after dark.” Do you not see that its effect has robbed you of all integrity? You maintain your building at the cost of your moral authority, at the cost of your soul. Pray tell, exactly who is an unauthorized person at the House of God? If before you signed the trespass waiver you heard five simple words proceeding from the Christ you profess you follow—“you did this to me”—would you have signed the waiver? The beauty and power of Christianity is found in the grace and vulnerability of having an open table where everyone is invited. Which poor soul sleeping on the steps would Jesus arrest first?
By the simple action of signing a trespass waiver you have chosen to be a friend of the world rather than a servant of outcasts. Don’t you know that “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4)? “Liability,” “building integrity,” “sanitary conditions”—do you think that these are what you have bought with your trespass waivers? But these words which hold such value for the world act as euphemisms to cover up the reality of your blasphemy. How many of your congregations would agree to the trespass waiver if they knew the truth? Would your congregation agree, McKendree, if they knew that perhaps it meant an old man dying of cancer seeking shelter from the rains under your eaves one Saturday night was arrested and thrown in jail until the following Tuesday for trying to stay dry? Would your congregation agree to sign the warrant, First Baptist (you who are dedicated to Loving God, Loving People), if they knew that perhaps a woman exhausted from cleaning LP Field seeking simply to curl against your building to steal two hours of sleep before going to work at a nearby café would be arrested and thrown into jail, thereby losing her job and her hope for moving out of a homeless encampment? And would your congregation, St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows, agree to the waiver if they knew that a young woman of 18, homeless, pregnant, and scared could be bound and arrested at the point of a gun for the crime of daring to seek sanctuary on your precious historical steps for one night? Holy Mother protect us against this church and its cruel gated iron face. Would your congregations sign the waiver? Because if they would then you have made them twice a son of hell as you are.
I know downtown congregations that you have active ministries that serve the poor. There are many in your congregations who strive to be the servants Christ calls us to be. The least of these are hungry and you provide them with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They are naked and you provide them with clothes. When the poor are sick you care for them by giving the mobile medical clinic space to park and by filling their prescriptions. For those without identification you provide them with the means of obtaining identification. And you even invite them in to spend the night sometimes in the winter when you host Room In The Inn. But are you blind that you cannot see the irony and cruelty of telling the poorest of the poor that they are the beloved children of God, feed them, clothe them, spending time with them, telling them that you care, and then turning around and employing the violence of the state against these poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, when they simply seek to come back to that place of holy safety and sleep on your steps or in your alley? Oh bitter vile hypocrisy. “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.” In the midst of all of your ministries you refuse to do the very least you could do, you refuse the very smallest of mercies by simply refusing to allow the poor to do what the poor have always done: sleep on your steps—and then you compound that refusal with violence.
And if you doubt that arrest is violence than I invite you to the Civil Rights exhibit located on the second floor of the downtown library. You need not look beyond the history of our own city to see and understand that discrimination and arrest are acts of violence. The acts of violence perpetuated by trespass waivers place even greater burdens on the shoulders of those already burdened. Every arrest puts housing further and further out of reach. During arrests ID’s and medications are often lost, and backpacks and blankets are often never to be seen again. The consequences of a single arrest are far greater than you will ever know, primarily because you do not have to know. Once you sign the waiver, society allows you to abdicate your responsibility and you never have to know the human wreckage left behind.
A trespass waiver will not prevent either litter or defecation from finding their way onto church property. It only allows you to become a “white washed tomb full of dead men’s bones.” But there is an alternative—your hearts are stronger than this. Your alternative is love, justice, and mercy. Your alternative is to take your responsibility as a place of holy sanctuary seriously and to once again allow Lazarus to lie at your gate. Even the rich man did not have Lazarus arrested for daring to mar the appearance of his property.
You have a choice to make: you can serve God or mammon. You can be servants of the poor, agents of co-liberation in the pursuit of justice and mercy, or you can sell out to the Central Precinct in order to become respectable and relevant by the world’s standards. You can choose to live under law, or to live under grace, but you must choose. Presently, downtown congregations have chosen to live under law, but it is not too late to transform and live under grace. Reconcile, transform, live under grace, and be blessed.