A Time to Stay and a Time to Leave: An Open Letter to the UMC

This letter by Amos House Community member Autumn Dennis was originally posted on the Reconciling Ministries Network blog at http://www.rmnblog.org/2013/12/a-time-to-stay-and-a-time-to-leave-an-open-letter-to-the-umc.html.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”

With all due respect to Ecclesiastes 3, I feel there is one line missing that I would like to add: “There is a time to stay, and a time to leave.” I was not raised in the United Methodist Church, or in any church for that matter. My interest in the Divine emerged at the same time I was realizing I was gay, at the ripe age of twelve. My first experience with church was at a Baptist megachurch in Tennessee, where I have vivid memories of crying in the pews as I was told I was going to hell. The next few years were marked with me trying to pretend I wasn’t interested in God, because clearly this God hated people like me! These feelings drove me into an intense depression with strong suicidal thoughts. I admit that when I came to the United Methodist Church at sixteen, it was only because the girl I had a crush on invited me. However, the reason I stayed was because this particular church contained the first Christians I had ever met who didn’t immediately tell me I was going to hell. Instead, I found a safe space in their youth group where I was free to be who I was and to ask questions about God. Through my involvement in this church, I got a full scholarship to a great Methodist college.

As I was welcomed into the Methodist church, my campus ministry and local Tennessee Conference connection fostered my gifts and my budding call to homeless and prison ministry. However, I wouldn’t allow myself to consider a call to ordination, even though I felt one—I knew what the church said about people like me, so why even try? Whenever I had pastor friends affirming my gifts, graces, and fruits for ministry, I heard the institutional church say, “You are incompatible with Christian teaching” (Paragraph 161F of the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline). When my campus minister suggested I consider ordination as a deacon, I heard the institutional church say, “You will not be accepted as minister” (Paragraph 304.3). However, God’s calling soon overwhelmed the dirge of condemnation from the institutional church: “Yes, I am already ordaining you, you are not incompatible with me, and I will accept you as a minister.” When the Church reduced me to a faceless “homosexual”, I knew God saw me as more.

I decided to enroll in the candidacy process anyway. I began skating through the requirements set by my Tennessee Conference, believing that being ordained through the United Methodist Church could give me a greater voice for change in the church. I was proud to be a representative of the UMC. I felt that I was giving my church an opportunity to recognize what God was already doing in my life, ordaining me as a minister to the margins. However, over time, the pressure I felt from the UMC to hide who I was grew and grew. I began to be paranoid about who was a “safe” Methodist and who was an “unsafe” Methodist. I watched many of the Methodists that had first welcomed me into the church fight to uphold the same discriminatory passages of the Book of Discipline that were ruining my life. I watched cases like Amy DeLong’s, Mary Ann Barclay’s, and Frank Schaefer’s, wondering, “Who will rat me out?” Living a half life, I was stressed over whether or not the conference physicians and psychologists would ask me about my sexuality, worried about if I was dressing feminine enough for when I visited the Conference offices, and wondered if my voice was high-pitched enough for when I visited the head of the Board of Ordained Ministry. Pretty soon, I couldn’t focus on my call from God at all anymore; instead, I felt like I was in a perpetual den of Methodist lions.

The stress of this paranoia compared with the indescribable pain of recent events in the life of the Church became too much for me to handle: seeing the inflammatory language against me from the Book of Discipline in my candidacy guidebooks, witnessing General Conference refuse to even “agree to disagree”, observing the Council of Bishops condemn Bishop Melvin Talbert’s presiding over the marriage of Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince, having my classmates and professors speaking insensitively about “the gay issue in the UMC” as if I weren’t in the room, and others. One of the most harmful things to me was seeing the open letter from my own Bishop Bill McAlilly condemning Bishop Talbert, upholding an idolatrous clergy covenant over God’s truth of inclusion (http://bishopbillmcalilly.com/2013/10/24/please-pray-and-display-christ-like-spirit-in-midst-of-our-disagreement/). I began to think about leaving the ordination process.

I decided to postpone my decision until I attended Exploration, the biannual event for United Methodist young adults considering ordination. During this event, the Council of Bishops sent us a video with President Bishop Rosemarie Wenner saying, “The Church needs you!” In my head I finished her sentence: “…Unless you’re gay.” More than ever, I felt like the church was repeating over and over a hollow lie. I felt like the church needed me to support its broken bureaucracy, but when I needed the Church, it wasn’t there for me. It threw me the bone of “Sacred Worth” and threw me away. As soon as I returned home, I saw the Internet explode with new stories of how Rev. Frank Schaefer was given a guilty verdict for presiding over his son’s wedding to his partner of the same sex. I felt like I could no longer go on rationalizing the state of the United Methodist Church; this was the last straw.

When I began the ordination process, I figured I would “see how far I got before the church kicked me out.” Never did I expect that the church would push me out before my District Committee even had the chance to expel me from the process. It is with immense pain in my heart that I confess to you, my beloved United Methodist Church, that I have to leave the ordination process in order to follow God. I cannot represent an institution whose idol is the Book of Discipline. I cannot pledge to uphold that abusive Book which has long since stopped being a source of illumination in how we connect with each other and God, but now is a glorified bludgeoning tool. I cannot join an order of ministry that is complicit in injustice. I cannot lie my way into an abusive clergy covenant or lie my way through the Historic Questions. I cannot pretend that my church has “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” when it does not. I cannot lie about who I am or what the Church is any longer.

However, there are “Reasons I Stay.” For all the ways that the United Methodist Church is incredibly broken, you are my dysfunctional family that I cannot leave. I still believe in the Church that welcomed me when no one else did, and I believe much more in that Church than I do in the same Church that is pushing me away. I still believe that our Methodist connection is something mystical and holy—something I wouldn’t exchange for the world. If I left this church totally, I would just be a Methodist sitting in another denomination. I need to be here to see this Church change. I need to be one of the people joining hands with all the other Reconcilers as we proclaim, “Love Prevails! Draw the circle wider still!” My liberation is bound up with yours, UMC.

(Oh, and one last thing—I’m still being ordained by God and I will find another church to recognize it. If you’re serious about getting more young clergy, make this is a church where we don’t have to lie about who we are in order to serve God. You’re better than that.)

The Lord be with you, and I’ll see you at the open table.

With grace,

Autumn Dennis

Tennessee Conference

 

Preventing Cold Weather Deaths this Winter

“Oh God, Let us not be rich while they are destitute, nor be in good health if we do not tend to their wounds, nor have enough food or covering, nor rest under a roof, if we do not offer bread to them, and give them something to wear and a shelter to stay in, as far as we are able!” – Gregory of Nazianzus

crutches, james fulmerOn a frigid night in early January, an un-housed man named James “Jimmy” Fulmer froze to death on the steps of an East Nashville church. The temperature was 25 degrees. Jimmy and the crutches he used were visible from the road. All he had was one blanket wrapped around his shivering body that another un-housed man bought for him. A week later, advocates held a public funeral procession decrying his death and the lack of affordable housing. A couple years before, an un-housed man named Carl froze to death just off Main Street. He was also visible from the road and no one stopped to see if he was okay.

Every year in Nashville, one to four people freeze to death on our streets and countless others get frostbite and hypothermia. In a city with a new $600 million dollar convention center and new luxury condos and high-end restaurants sprouting up in every direction, we don’t have enough shelter and transitional housing beds for everyone who needs them. There are also hundreds of people who can’t get into traditional shelters like the Mission or Room in the Inn—people who have pets, couples and spouses trying to stay together, people who have been banned from services, and people who can’t handle crowded, structured environments, most often due to mental health issues.

chris stainFor the last three years, our sister organization Open Table Nashville has filled this gap by opening Emergency Warming Shelters when the temperature drops below 25 degrees. For our friends, this is a matter of life and death. The people we bring in are often some of the most medically vulnerable and it will take ALL of us—as a city, as service providers, and as people of conscience and faith—to make sure that what happened to Jimmy, Carl, and others never happens again; to make sure that no one feels so hopeless and alone that they give up and let the cold overtake them. While we are opening these emergency shelters, we are also advocating for more affordable and accessible housing because the lack of affordable housing is one of the root causes of homelessness.

In order to ensure that no one else freezes on our streets, we need help. Please, please spread the word to everyone you know asking them to chip in and help in whatever way they can. We cannot enjoy the warmth of our own homes without responding to the dire needs of our brothers and sisters who too often shiver and suffer in silence in our own back yards. Our liberation is bound up together.

Here are some ways YOU can help:

Locations (email lindsey@opentablenashville.org if we can use your site!):
We currently open a combination of any of the following congregations (depending on which ones are available any given night), but we are in need of other locations that can accommodate 30-50 people: Hillcrest United Methodist Church, Barth Vernon United Methodist Church, Green Street Church of Christ, and First Church of the Nazarene. We will fully staff the sites, we just need warm, available buildings!

Volunteer roles (email regina@opentablenashville.org to get plugged in):
First Church, 11.24*Inn Keepers (spend the night with another volunteer, 8pm-7:30am)
Evening/Morning Transportation (drive a van to pick up our friend around 5:30pm and/or take them back downtown around 7am)
Kitchen Coordinator (make sure coffee is going and food is heated, set out, 5:30pm-8pm)
Laundry (someone to pick up the laundry in the morning & wash it for the next day’s shelter)
Sign-In Table (greet our friends when they come to the shelter 5:30-7:30pm)
Set Up Team (5pm) and Clean Up Team (6:30am)
Floater Volunteers (anytime between 5pm and 7:30am to help fill in the gaps)
Canvassing (driving around downtown and East Nashville to look for people who desperately need to come in, 6:30-8:30)

Donations (every little bit helps!). You can drop these items off at Metro Social Services at 800 2nd Ave. North in the Homeless Services Office Monday-Friday during business hours or contact lauren@opentablenashville.org:
– Sleeping bags, blankets, towels, twin sheets, air mattresses (can be gently used!)
– Hand warmers, hats, heavy duty gloves, thermal underwear, coats & scarves.
– Coffee, creamer, sugar
– Paper products (coffee cups, paper towels, paper bowls, paper plates, napkins, utensils)
– Cleaning supplies (Clorox Wipes, Lysol spray, Dish Detergent)
– Extra dinner and breakfast food (preferably food that can be stored for flexible usage)

Worship With* the Poor

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/216/

This article is the fifth 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.  

Every Sunday at 4pm, the Open Door residential and extended community gathers for worship. However, just as every other aspect of life at the Open Door, worship is very intentional and looks quite a bit different from the mainstream church. While our service does include hymn singing, lectionary readings, sermons, altars, and Eucharist, the similarities end at this face value level. In order to explain how the Open Door views worship with the poor, I must first explain how I believe the Open Door understands worship.

The church has historically considered worship to be a practice in which devotees meditate on their God, often in a manner where we remind ourselves of the attributes of God, or where we engage with God. Most churches I have been in do this by mostly focusing on praising God, giving thanks, and asking God to intervene in their lives. I know especially in the South, this praise and worship is especially focused inward, considering the moral implications of our personal faith lives and how God can work in our personal lives. I’ll cut to the chase- a lot of our worship is pretty selfish. Instead of meditating on who God is and how we can get closer to God, we often meditate on who God is and how we can reap the benefits. Worship at the Open Door does involve meditating on God, reminding ourselves of the attributes of God, and seeks to engage the Divine. However, we do it very differently. Peter Gathje, Open Door Community historian, writes in Sharing the Bread of Life, “Worship [from the beginning of the Open Door] sought to embody the biblical insistence…on the connection between worship and the practice of social justice in the lives of the participants. Worship which made people feel good but did not move them to seek justice in their way of life and in society was offensive to God. Worship was to be the basis for community action” (35). Let me paint a picture for you on what worship looks like at the Open Door.

Worship at the Open Door

You walk into a somewhat industrial looking dining room and kitchen that has the walls decked in anti-death penalty posters, flags declaring “peace” in different languages, with a cross on the back wall bearing a black crucified Jesus. Banners with the faces of the executed (or those approaching execution) hang on the wall to your left, saying “We are Andrew Cook” and “We are Warren Hill”. You find yourself to a small plastic chair, and check out the makeshift altar. A small hip-high table is draped in hand-stitched cloths that show the liturgical colors, but with ethnic patterns. Handmade ceramic plates and chalices holding the bread and juice have Matthew 25 carved around the sides. The bread is robust, home-baked, and is brown and white. The table is also set with Georgia wildflowers. You look at the bulletin that was sitting in your chair, and the written liturgies all refer to God as Liberator and Advocate, to Jesus as poor and executed, and speak of the homeless and prisoners. The songs are a mixture of slave spirituals, protest songs, and other various folk and liberationist hymns—maybe even some Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. Today, its “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel”, “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”, “Wade in the Water” and “This Land Was Made For You and Me”. The lectionary is read, and a short reflection is given, either dissecting the liberationist aspects of it, or it might be connected to a current day issue, a local concern of the local homeless community, the mass incarceration system, the state of war in the world, or of a friend up for execution. We make our way to the sermon, which is given by a different person nearly every week on a variety of topics. What is guaranteed is that it will revolve somewhere around the constant theme that we come to know God through the plight of the poor and prisoner. When it comes time for the Eucharist, people pass the bread and the cup around: “…Until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at the Welcome Table…AND COME AGAIN HE WILL!” Soon after, an adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer is read with the celebration of the Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ WILL come again!”

All of the many symbols I just depicted are intentional and key to how the Open Door understands worship and the life of discipleship that proceeds. The homemade bread is intentionally made with white flour and a separate batch of white flour mixed with cocoa. The two doughs are then braided together and baked to become white and brown—symbolic of how the Body of Christ is not white, but is of many colors, representing many peoples, and how Christ lived and died for and with all of us. Other symbols are re-appropriated for use in worship; for example, on Pentecost we waved red bandannas to remember the fire of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure what those bandannas meant to everyone else in the room, but they reminded me of a prominent gang symbol in my hometown, and using it in worship was especially meaningful for me as I remembered the reconciliatory power of the gospel.

When we understand the stories and traditions of the poor and those historically oppressed, we understand God. God is not only an advocate and provider for the poor and suffering, but also is ultimately and most fully revealed through our poor and imprisoned friends. The Open Door takes Matthew 25 to its fullest interpretation, knowing that in order to worship a brown, immigrant, executed, homeless Christ, we must align ourselves alongside and live life with those children of God that come in the same form today. Not only is the story of God and Christ understood through the inspired Scriptures, but also is understood through the inspired lives of our friends struggling to live and die on the streets and prisons. Worship at the Open Door revolves around the key concept that as we remind ourselves who God is, it becomes easier and easier for us to see the broken bodies that come through our soup kitchen as the broken body of Christ. I encourage all of us to rethink how we can make our worship spaces the place where we most creatively proclaim God’s inclusive, reconciliatory, and resurrecting love with* the poor.

I would like to close this article with the words from one of my favorite worship songs at the Open Door Community:

“Jesus Christ is waiting,
 Waiting in the streets; 
No one is his neighbor, 
All alone he eats. 
Listen, Lord Jesus,
 I am lonely too. 
Make me, friend or stranger,
 Fit to wait on you

Jesus Christ is raging,
 Raging in the streets,
 Where injustice spirals 
And real hope retreats.
 Listen, Lord Jesus,
 I am angry too. 
In the Kingdom’s causes 
Let me rage with you.

Jesus Christ is healing,
 Healing in the streets;
 Curing those who suffer,
 Touching those he greets.
 Listen, Lord Jesus, 
I have pity too.
 Let my care be active, 
Healing just like you.

Jesus Christ is dancing, 
Dancing in the streets,
 Where each sign of hatred 
He, with love, defeats.
 Listen, Lord Jesus,
 I should triumph too.
 On suspicion’s graveyard
 Let me dance with you.

Jesus Christ is calling,
 Calling in the streets,
 ”Who will join my journey? 
I will guide their feet.”
 Listen, Lord Jesus, 
Let my fears be few.
 Walk one step before me;
 I will follow you.”

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.

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: http://www.ministrywith.org/blog/view/210/

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…”

Eucharist with* the Poor

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/207/

This article is the second 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. 

Three times a week, the Open Door Community shares a public meal inside of our kitchen with our friends who live on the streets. Before every day of “hospitality”, the residents, volunteers, and friends of the community gather for reflection in the late morning. Now, if you’re a college student like me, sunlight before 7am is potentially fatal; as a result, most days I had no time to really prepare a breakfast for my sleepy head. Most mornings I was left scrambling to put together a meager meal of buttered toast and coffee.

However, as I made this meal several times a week, I remembered all the different encounters I’d had and stories I’ve heard about such simple elements as coffee and bread since committing my life to the streets and prisons. In the writings of Dorothy Day, she describes that before there was a Catholic Worker soup line, there was first a bread line in the Depression, where the unemployed would take up street blocks just to get a shot at some filling bread and warm coffee. A friend of mine who is a death row chaplain says that between getting home late from the prison and waking up very early to get back to the prison, she has no time for any breakfast beyond coffee and toast to wake up and stave off hunger before lunch.

"The Last Supper" by Fritz Eichenberg

“The Last Supper” by Fritz Eichenberg

In Western culture, several high-class diets emphasize the total elimination of bread in order to lose weight, even though the economic ability to refuse to eat bread is itself a massive privilege. Today, coffee is a symbol of worker’s exploitation in South America as the need for fair trade, sustainably grown coffee becomes more evident and mainstream. However, the elevation of coffee and bread is not at all recent. In most cultures, bread is a symbol of the “poor man’s food”, the most basic staple of nourishment. The 14th-century poet Hafez even wrote a poem that contained the lines,

“Love

so God will think

“Ahhhhh,

I got kin in that body!

I should start inviting that soul over

for coffee and

rolls.”

At the Open Door, we believe that Christ comes in the guise of the stranger, the homeless, the prisoner, and the outcast. Every time we share a meal with our friends in soup kitchen, we are sharing a meal with Christ. Every time we huddle around a cold biscuit and a lukewarm cup of coffee, we are connected to the poor throughout the world because these are the staples of nourishment for labor pool workers, for those in bread and soup lines, for those working in fields, for those who serve them, and for all those who do not have the luxury of or time for a full meal.

What if Christ was around today? If Christ comes to us in the guise of the marginalized, what kind of meal would he share with his friends today? I am inclined to think instead of wine, the “rich man’s drink”, and matzo, the “poor man’s bread”, Jesus might use coffee and rolls to teach us how to “do this in remembrance of me.”

I believe the point of Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, and Communion is to be UNITED and REMEMBER. While most of us don’t drink Welch’s Grape Juice and Hawaiian Sweet Bread together as a part of our everyday meals, many of us daily consume coffee and toast. Every time we drink coffee and eat toast, may we be united with the least of these everywhere who might be eating and drinking the same thing before their labor. Every time we drink coffee and eat toast, may we remember who is represented in these new elements, the poor of the world who grew the grain and the coffee, and the Christ that comes hidden in this disguise. Let us reimagine what the Eucharist is and can be, and how we can remember and be united. Let us reimagine and remember the broken, homeless, immigrant, executed, brown Body of Christ.

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.