All God’s Children Got Keys

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:

This article is the third 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. 

Living with approximately 25 roommates in an intentional community can be exhausting socially, especially for an introvert like me. In a given day at the Open Door, you might encounter over 100 people in the soup kitchen and dozens more on the streets and sidewalks around the house. Understandably, it is often necessary to manage your alone time with occasional walks around the neighborhood.

In one of the early weeks of my three-month stay at the Open Door, I took a walk after an especially draining day of hospitality with soup kitchens, showers, and socializing. Of course, I had a hard time being alone on the streets in a city of five million people. Privacy on the streets is nearly nonexistent, and while I saw this daily when friends would come use our public bathroom on the side of our house that they may “pee for free with dignity”, I didn’t fully connect the pieces until this moment. All the stories I had heard from friends on the streets about their tents and camps being raided by cops, of being robbed in their sleep, of being told to “move along” after they catch a break from walking by resting on a bench—they all came together in my head as a flowing, troubling picture of how peace, quiet, and alone time on the streets is a rarity.

Of course, alone time can also be a curse. Our life at the Open Door is not only marked with solidarity with our sisters and brothers on the streets, but also with those who live lives in prison. Around 80,000 prisoners in the United States live these lives in solitary confinement against their will . More stories and reports of people going insane in solitary swam around my mind, and I recalled my friends back at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Tennessee, where many of the prisoners spend 23 hours a day inside an 8×10 cell– alone.

As I mentioned in a previous article “The Breakdown of Community”, I believe the streets and prisons are inextricably connected. While on the streets one can go insane because of the lack of privacy, prisoners in solitary go insane for the lack of human interaction. Streets and prisons are opposite sides of the same coin where the basic human right to control one’s seclusion and inclusion in community is stolen. While people on the streets may dream for the right to use and have their own set of keys, others in prison may dream of having the right to control the sets of locks used against them. While those on the streets may dream of being able to undo the locks of buildings, businesses, and people’s hearts that keep them locked out, those in prison may wish for the right to roam streets freely without threat of being locked in a cage. Whether we are forced inside, forced outside, forced into having no privacy, or forced to a life of torturous loneliness, all situations rob these children of God of their basic human rights to control what their involvement in a healthy community looks like.

Being able to control the keys and locks in our life is a matter of intense privilege, where it needs to be a right. Everyone deserves the right to run away from people every now and then and rest in silence and solitude, to recharge from the hard work of community. Everyone deserves the right to join in supportive, loving communities of people where we can be challenged, love one another, and find God. At the Open Door Community, we pray frequently that “all homeless people may get a key,” and I would like to add to the prayer that all prisoners may get a key out of their cells and into whatever form of healing, rehabilitation, and community is appropriate for them.

At the Open Door, we sing old spirituals and one of my favorites is sometimes known as “I Got a Robe” or “Gonna Shout All Over God’s Heaven”, in which different everyday items that African-American slaves were deprived of are lifted up as items they will receive in heaven, such as shoes and robes. I would like to close this article with my own verse to add to the spiritual, that it may become the prayer of our hearts and hands, for us and our brothers and sisters on the streets and in prisons:

“I got a key, you got a key, all God’s children got keys, when I get to heaven gonna take up my key, gonna un-lock all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven…”

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