The Breakdown of Community

This post, written by Amos House Community member Autumn Dennis, was originally posted on the Ministry With* the Poor blog. The original post can be accessed here: http://www.ministrywith.org/blog/view/209/. This article is the first in a series of reflections on Autumn’s experience this summer living and working at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. The Open Door Community is a residential Protestant Catholic Worker community. They seek to dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, abolish the death penalty, and proclaim the Beloved Community through loving relationships with some of the most neglected and outcast of God’s children: the homeless and our sisters and brothers who are in prison. 

Even when I was new to the Open Door, I wasn’t new to the work of wrestling with the streets and prisons. Previously, I had done internships with relational homeless outreach work and had shadowed the chaplain of Tennessee’s death row in my hometown of Nashville. I spend most of my waking moments opposing the death penalty and struggling with systematic poverty in the form of homelessness, however most of my friends and family couldn’t see a connection between the streets and prisons. I had a hard time articulating it myself, honestly. However, I had an innate sense that there was a deep connection between the streets and prisons, a sense that led me to the Open Door Community.

 My past outreach experience had taught me that homelessness, especially in the context of Nashville, Tennessee, is a result of a breakdown of community. Most of the time, our friends lose their safety net of family and friends, cannot get access to affordable and decent mental health care and substance recovery, or cannot get connected to social services or resources, to name a few factors. My experience visiting classes on death row showed me a picture of the unintentional communities that form in the midst of desperate circumstances, and is often torn apart by solitary confinement; the stories of prisoners showed me that many of them ended up behind bars because of a similar breakdown of community with lack of meaningful education, jobs, resources, mental healthcare, and supportive family environments.

 However, I was not able to make the connection between the streets and prisons as being the result of the breakdown of community until I was a member of the Open Door Community. While I had taken much of my concepts about community from a sociological perspective, the Open Door challenged me to think about community theologically. The Open Door tends to shy away from the language of the “Kingdom of God”, preferring to instead imagine it as the Beloved Community. At the Open Door, I understood the Trinity in a way I didn’t in theology class. I didn’t think of the Trinity much until Mary Catherine Johnson, a staff member, told me the funny story of how she came to the Open Door as a Unitarian and was converted in the process: “When [co-founder] Ed Loring heard I was a Unitarian, he teased me every chance he got.  For Ed, whose faith and activism are so deeply rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus, as well as the belief that the Holy Spirit is responsible for grace in our lives, it is almost unfathomable that a person of faith could only see God as one-dimensional.  If he happened to be preaching or teaching about the Trinitarian nature of God, and I was in the room, he never lost an opportunity to single me out with a wisecrack like, ‘But Mary Catherine would not understand that, since she’s a Unitarian.’”

ImageOver time I learned from people like Mary Catherine and Ed that God is a community of three persons creating, redeeming, and sustaining each other and working together to create, redeem and sustain the world. Thus, when we live in community, we are living out how we were made in God’s image as we create, redeem and sustain one another. I understand this more fully through some of Martin Buber’s concepts of how we interact with God through deep, critical relationships. If we encounter the Divine You through “I-Thou” relationships, then community becomes a space for us to see the face of God through each other.

How does this connect to ministry with the poor? The Open Door takes the position that any old community will not do; life is to be lived in proximity with the poor where we actively reduce the distance with the “least of these”. Jean Vanier says in Community and Growth, “Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus.”

While supportive and dynamic communities allow us to engage with God, streets and prisons attempt to destroy the image of God in people by robbing our sisters and brothers of their dignity and by separating them from their communities. Nobody ends up on the streets or in prisons by accident- truly it is a breakdown of community that abandons them there. In pockets here and there, on cell blocks and street blocks, one can see glimpses of desperate communities being formed between individuals seeking ways to combat the loneliness that pervades these environments.

 Truly this is the connection between all forms of brokenness, that community was destroyed in Eden when we sought to be independent instead of interdependent. When we challenge the damnation of the streets and prisons and seek to build and restore community, we are working alongside the Triune God to build the Beloved Community “on Earth as it is in Heaven”. When we create, redeem and sustain one another through our communities, we are vehicles for God to answer each other’s prayers, we interact with God through each other, and we love God by loving our neighbor. When we seek to live our lives with the poor and restore broken community between all people, we are seeing Christ who comes in the guise of the poor stranger. In order for any ministry with the poor to be both effective and faithful, it has to begin and end with rebuilding and restoring community so that nobody slips through the cracks. Shalom.

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