Ministry With* Our Senses

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/213/

This article is the fourth 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. 

The Open Door Community seeks to reduce the distance between ourselves and the poor in every aspect of our lives. We do this directly by living in intentional poverty, holding all possession in common, and by making efforts to shed excessive luxuries that our friends on the streets or in prisons may not enjoy. For example, we do not have air conditioning, eat sweets, watch television, or have our own cars. All of the clothes we wear are from donations, all the food we eat is donated and is from the same soup kitchen meals we serve to our homeless friends, and we all live on a meager stipend of $11.50 a week. We are mendicants of Christ as we live our lives day in and day out with disinherited, poor children of God. There are, however, indirect ways that we live our lives with the poor, most notably through our senses. The five senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—are all engaged fully at the Open Door, in a way I have never experienced in any other form of ministry.

Living at the Open Door, I definitely “saw some things.” A man with cuts from the corners of his lips extending to his ears would come through the soup kitchen line; a woman covered in disfiguring moles would come on another day for showers. Sometimes it was men with brutal head injuries from violence on the streets, or swollen diabetic feet wobbling their way around our living room. Women covered in scars following men with unique, dance-like limps in an endless line of hungry bellies and souls welcomed in through our front door…these friends are the “new lepers” we are called to comfort.

I definitely smelled some things, too. The Open Door has a wonderful public bathroom on the side of the house that is accessible from the outside. The community has struggled with the city of Atlanta to provide public restrooms for the past twenty years, and eventually decided to take a personalist ethic and provide one themselves. This being the case, the public restroom has to be cleaned at least once daily, which was often my job. The bathroom is partially sunken underground and has a bit of a dungeon-like atmosphere, though I would often be reminded that this dank and smelly room was often a sanctuary for our friends so that they could “pee for free with dignity.” Each time I scrubbed the toilets, scoured the sinks and mopped the floors, I would be greeted with smells and stenches I had no idea existed on this Earth. This wasn’t the only time I smelled smelly smells—other days I would do laundry shifts where you take eight hours doing the laundry of the clothes that come down the chute from our public showers. As I would delicately wash the clothes that some of our friends had worn for weeks on end, my stomach would churn at the same time my soul would sing at the simple, holy act of laundry for a homeless friend.

I mentioned earlier that we live without air conditioning, and my term at the Open Door was from mid-May to mid-August. Therefore, it was probably 90+ degrees Fahrenheit indoor at all times. In order to combat this stifling heat, we keep the windows open and fans running at all times. As a result, the sounds of the streets and alleys were constantly wafting in our windows: fighting, urination, sex, crying, shouting, mumbled conversations, singing. Whenever a fire truck or an ambulance would come whizzing down Ponce de Leon Avenue, the sounds of the sirens would reverberate throughout the halls of our looming house, and I felt it was a chilling reminder that our friends on the streets live in a perpetual state of emergency. However, no sirens wail for them.

As for taste, I mentioned earlier that all the food we eat is donated to the community and we eat all the same food that we serve in our soup kitchen lines. After our Tuesday and Wednesday soup kitchens wrap up where we serve over 100 people, the community and outside volunteers circle up the tables in our large dining room to share a meal together of the leftovers of whatever was served that day. As we all slurp the same soup together, we are united. Every meal table is an extension of the Communion table at the Open Door Community, and we share the same food and taste the same things as our friends. When fasting makes an appearance in the spiritual disciplines of the community, the fast is often broken together by celebrating the Eucharist together followed by a common meal. In such moments, common things that you’ve tasted all your life become moments of vibrant illumination for your senses.

And lastly, the sense of touch is the most special of all. Handshakes are marks of dignity and respect, and there have been many times where I have seen friends from the streets and prisons get surprised when someone wants to shake their hand. Of course, handshakes don’t get people nearly as emotional as hugs do, and it’s hard to shake the beautiful memories of Georgia prisoners lining up for concentric circles of hugs and “Peace be with you”s after bible study on a hot summer evening. In hugs, sometimes you smell things, sometimes you see things a lot closer than you did previously; however you always feel things, such as hearts being warmed with compassion and friendship. And lastly, there’s the never-ending prayer circles of hands joining hands joining hands, a staple of the life and beauty of the Open Door Community’s spiritual disciplines and life together. When hands touch hands, we say, “I don’t know where you’ve been or what these hands have done in the past, but we’re here together now and you are welcomed into this circle.”

Many of the writings of the Open Door Community call for society to “reduce the distance” between ourselves and the poor, the imprisoned, the outcast, and the marginalized. In so doing, we reduce the distance between us and Christ. The strongest place where we are reminded of the need to reduce the distance is with our senses. Our senses is where we are most easily offended by the ugliness that comes along with these dirty, human bodies, but also is where we are reminded that God proclaimed these broken bodies “good” in the image of God. Through using our senses and honoring each other’s broken bodies, we remember the broken body of Christ and become one with another. I invite you to go reacquaint yourself with your senses as you make your way to the margins and reduce the distance between yourself and the least of these.

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