autumn dennis

Ordination;

Amos House Easter 2015

Amos House Easter 2015

by Autumn Dennis

It was close to midnight on December 4, 2011. I was engaging in a direct action with several other activists and organizers to publicly and prophetically reclaim an abandoned public works building. Why should buildings like this sit empty when there are over 6,000 people sleeping on Nashville’s streets? I had just begun to awaken to the power of a people mobilized, and was an active participant in Occupy Nashville. I had recently begun doing relational homeless outreach work with Open Table Nashville. A few months prior, I was converted to death penalty abolition after witnessing the execution of Troy Davis. I knew I could never stand by a death-dealing system of mass incarceration and capital punishment. Thus, I began doing organizing against the death penalty on my college campus and in the legislature. When I was asked to preach in churches, I couldn’t bear to preach on anything else other than how God’s justice and compassion looked much different than what I saw happening on the streets and in the prisons. I felt a moral obligation to be on the picket line and in the marches, if for nothing else than to bear witness to a different world that was possible. This awakening in me was fairly easy for me to stomach. However, what was not easy was how people had begun to tell me they saw a minister in me, a deacon—why wasn’t I seeking to be ordained? Friends, mentors, and pastors all encouraged me to consider that I may be called.

I was stubbornly opposed to the idea. I felt that the Church too often stripped away the power of the laity each time they wanted to throw a stole on a leader. Or at least, that’s what I told myself. I had been a member of the United Methodist Church for just a couple of years, but enough years to know that they did not ordain my kind. The United Methodist Church, which continues to reduce called, queer children of God to nothing more than “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” considered me “incompatible with Christian

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Doing advocacy and protest, October 2011

teaching.” Even more, they did not ordain people who refused to lie about themselves. (Many Methodist mentors told me that I could be a Methodist minister, but only if I was celibate or chose to hide my relationships…for the rest of my life. How violent.) So, I was very firmly set that I was not going to be ordained. Nope. Not called to that. But deep down, if you peeled back the layers of church-induced denial, you would find a deacon. A young minister. I already was one, and my loved ones could see it.

As I stood shivering outside of the public works building, I talked with some of these friends and mentors on the sidewalk. Some were friends from Open Table, the group I was doing homeless outreach with. Some were from Amos House Community, the house church I had joined a few months earlier. In particular, I was talking with my friend Jeannie Alexander, one of the founders of both Open Table and Amos House, who was wearing a clerical collar. I had heard she was ordained, but I also knew she was a member of a denomination that did not ordain women. I asked her about what her journey looked like, and she explained to me that she sought out her ordination through a small community church. To my own surprise, I found myself blurting out, “Jeannie, actually I do want to be ordained. But I can’t be ordained in my church. I don’t know what to do and I haven’t told anyone about it.” After a beat of silence, she shrugged gracefully and replied nonplussed, “Amos House could ordain you.”

Well, I had never considered that.

It is now four years later. I have been discerning my call to ordained ministry ever since that moment when I first admitted it to myself and to a friend in the middle of a direct action. For about a year, I thought I would try my hand at the Methodist ordination process and see how far I got before I would get kicked out. Instead, I found I had too much integrity and tenacity to bury for the sake of a denominational ordination. All the while, Amos House Community has supported me. We have explored scripture together, broke bread together, read and written liturgy together, spread ashes on foreheads together, carried crosses together, and proclaimed liberation together. They have held me while I cried, listened to me express my fears, walked with me as I applied to divinity school, and advocated for me. They are my best friends and are nothing short of family. Now, I see nothing makes more sense than for them to ordain me. They recognized my call and supported me all along.

At a camp with friends who experience homelessness

At a camp with friends who experience homelessness

As I was thinking about what to write for this ordination statement, I went back through some journals of the past four years. I found that over and over I wrote that I was being called to the margins—the streets, the prisons, the courtrooms, the recovery homes, the hospitals, the hospice facilities. Over time, I found that I was also being called to the margins of the Church. I gathered the gall to admit that I could not fulfill my entire calling while located inside of the institutional church. I am being called to be a minister and a deacon, to be ordained to word, sacrament, service, and justice. In many traditions, not all of these things compute—“deacons don’t do sacraments, deacons aren’t as ordained as other ministers!” (However, I learned in my divinity studies that once upon a time, deacons did do sacraments!) Just as Jesus broke the Sabbath in order to serve, so I have been called to break some rules in order to fulfill my calling.

There are so many needs to meet, both physical and spiritual, that we don’t have time to split hairs and set limitations. The roots of the word deacon in Greek (diakonos) means “to kick up dust” as if one were running an errand—rushing to serve others and come to another’s aid. In my previous Methodist tradition, they speak of the deacon’s role as being that of a bridge between the church and the world. I once read a poem written by an Episcopal bishop that stated, “the work of the deacon is not finished until the trench has been dug so clearly between our pews and the margins that all can see the connection between the blood in the streets and the blood in our chalices” (my clumsy paraphrase). Ever since I learned who deacons were, I knew I identified with them most. I’ve never felt as alive, engaged, and energized as I have been when I was doing outreach on the streets, in camps, in soup kitchens, in makeshift motel hospices. These are the places where I have most been on holy ground. The friends I’ve met there have been the greatest representatives and incarnations of Christ for me. If the past few years have been a courtship with my ministry role, those I do ministry with, and those I engage in ministry with and to—consider this my proposal for marriage. My liberation is wholly bound up with yours.

Amos House

Amos House

This has been a long time coming. God began ordaining me a long time ago. In my journal entries, I recalled God’s words to Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). The Holy Spirit has been whispering the same words to me. Now, the time has come. I am ready. My beloved companions of Amos House Community have confirmed and echoed back to me all the ways I am called. They are recognizing in me what God has been doing all along.

My ordination event this October will be like the semicolon on a sentence that has already been written, but needs to finish its thought. When I was in college, I was a paper tutor and often had to explain that a semicolon is the connector between an incomplete thought and a complete thought. My story and work until now is a thought that needs completing and a continuation. My ordination service is that semicolon; with the help of God and my community, what follows will be a beautiful story of love, healing, and liberation.

Arrests and Re-member-ing: Maundy Thursday

Posted by Autumn Dennis 

I have been to several Maundy Thursday services over the years, but tonight’s service struck a very different chord for me than in the past. For the past few nights, homeless advocates in Nashville have gathered alongside homeless friends in camps around the city. Metro Police have threatened to raid the camps, and there have been recent instances where camps have been set ablaze by police. All day, I have waited to hear word or any sort of report on the state and condition of my friends in the camps. I have followed their posts and updates of staying awake in shifts to keep watch–to keep each other safe.

It is no coincidence that these night watches and raids fall on Holy Week. On this Maundy Thursday, these night watches are incredibly reminiscent of the disciples keeping watch with Jesus through the night as he waits for arrest–our homeless friend Jesus, who had no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). Just as Jesus is unjustly arrested, our friends on the streets are unjustly arrested for the crime of existing.

Do this in remembrance of me.

Tonight, as I sat in a Maundy Thursday service at Edgehill United Methodist Church, I meditated heavily on what it means to remember and see Jesus. Maundy Thursday is not only when we recall Jesus’s arrest, but also the institution of the Holy Eucharist as the central liturgy for Jesus’s friends and followers. When Jesus broke the bread and blessed the cup, he said to “do this as often as you can in remembrance of me.” My Latin is a little bit rusty, but the word “remember” always stirs up images of body limbs being stitched back together. To re-member. In the United Methodist tradition, we understand communion elements to not be the literal body and blood of Christ, but that Christ is present in the elements and in the act of communion. In our liturgy before we partake of the sacrament, we declare the mystery of faith:

In remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith:

Christ has died;
Christ is risen;
Christ will come again.

Tonight, I got chills when we proclaimed the mystery of faith. In that very room, by the gathering of people of faith for the purpose of re-membering the body of Christ, Christ rose in that room. Every time we gather to partake of the holy meal, Christ comes again and again. The body of Christ is stitched back together as we share the bread and wine. The disciples saw Jesus in the breaking of the bread. As Dorothy Day wrote:

We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship. We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. (The Long Loneliness)

Whether people of faith are gathered around an altar or a fire in an “illegal” encampment, we re-member Jesus in each other. Even when the powers and principalities continue to arrest Jesus through our friends over and over again, Jesus is risen again and again through the most beautiful act of resistance– community. We are not alone anymore. We are all walking the road to the cross, to the tomb, to the road to Emmaus, together. Jesus needs our company on this long night, to keep watch and pray. Pray and care for your friends on the streets and in camps this night. Amen.

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Photo by Lauren Plummer

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

 

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.

The Voice of Angels

An essay by Autumn Dennis

I volunteer at a soup kitchen in a Catholic Worker house, and I see a large volume of people experiencing homelessness come in and out each week. There’s one man who comes through our soup kitchen frequently, and I always recognize him. I don’t know his name, but we’ll call him Steve. He’s distinct with his long dreads, big bright eyes, and a face that shows a lot of emotion. From my encounters with Steve, I believe he experiences severe mental health problems, most likely schizophrenia. Because mental health problems like schizophrenia seem so prevalent on the streets, I have tried to learn about them to make sure I can recognize them, speak about them, interpret people well, and interact sensitively with those diagnosed with mental health problems. Among other behaviors that he exhibits, Steve’s speech fits the textbook definition for impoverished, disorganized speech and thought patterns characteristic of schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

Most of the time, his eyes are wide open and he carries on constant conversation with himself, or possibly with beings he can see that I cannot see. He has enough engagement with the world around him to be led into our dining room and to accept a bowl of warm soup, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look another person in the eyes. He’s isolated from most people in his own realm of reality.

Artwork by S. Lawton

Artwork by S. Lawton

Sometimes when there’s a slow moment in the soup kitchen, I like to go stand a little bit near Steve and just hear him talk. He is usually at a table alone, glancing around the table a little nervously, and talking to himself fervently in a low tone.

I’m a strong believer in God’s preferential option for the poor, which claims that Jesus strongly identifies with all the addicted, homeless, mentally ill souls of this world, and that we find God when we are also near those people. And honestly, honestly…

As much as I know that schizophrenia is a painful disorder and is not appropriate to romanticize, I feel I hear the voice of God every time I hear Steve speak. I hear the language of angels. I hear a mysterious realm of reality that I cannot encounter but through Steve. Steve’s level of disorientation from our piece of reality is so great that I cannot have a relationship with him. From what I can gather, Steve probably does not know I exist in the way that others know I exist. His voice and speech make sense to nobody except Steve and God. I feel that God is truly near him, and even when Steve eyes his soup suspiciously as if it will start dancing and singing, I feel that I can sense a indomitable spirit inside of Steve’s sick, damaged body that is itself dancing and singing.

I have cast my lot with Steve’s, with all those who suffer from schizophrenia, with all those who call the streets their dwelling place, and with all those who are being murdered by our system.

John Wesley wrote a “Covenant Prayer” that I recite several times a week to center myself, and I would like to quote the ending of the prayer with the intention that I have covenanted myself not only to God, but with all the “least of these” brothers and sisters.

“Thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And let this covenant which I have made on Earth be ratified in heaven. Amen.”