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: 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.


Fear, Death, and Love

(remarks from recipient of the Mary Morris Award, Lipscomb University: Brett Flener)

Hearing people speak about the kind of person Mary Morris was in her time at Lipscomb is a humbling experience.  In my time, I hope to cultivate only a portion of the spirit she spread among her peers and students.  James Brown, a good friend of mine, and co-worker of Mary Morris told me countless stories about the kindness she practiced so regularly.  Specifically, he mentioned his experience of a dinner party that Mary invited him to.  It was at that dinner party that James fully experienced Mary’s way of making everyone she encountered feel valued and appreciated regardless of socioeconomic level or position in society.  So, I would like to first thank Mary’s parents for raising such a wonderful woman and sharing her with the community here at Lipscomb.

I would also like to thank my parents who have taught me more about hospitality than they will ever know.  I cannot remember a time in my life when the door hasn’t been open to whomever I decided to bring home.  Be it best friends from university or a chronically ill individual whose residence was the streets of Nashville- there was always a place at our table.  I cannot thank them enough for all of the support they have given me over the past few years.

I would also like to mention past recipients of this award, Andrew and Lindsey Krinks, both of whom have been instrumental in forming and sustaining the person I am today.

1 John talks a lot about fear, death, and love.

We know that we have left death and come over into life; we know it because we love others. Those who do not love are still under the power of death. –1 John 3.14

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. –1 John 3.18

Who in this room fears death?

As biological creatures we are driven by our instincts for self-preservation. And given that pleasure and pain regulate our actions we often become selfish and hedonistic.  Further, given that self-preservation is the ethic of being mortal we can see how we can become enslaved to death. Mortality fears constantly push and pull on us, manipulating our animal instincts for survival and self-preservation.

The battle we all face is the battle between fear and love. Between self-interest and self-giving.  Obviously, selfish, envious, prideful, and violent people are going to have a hard time loving others. Such are the psychological and behavioral expressions of a life enslaved to the fear of death.

Resurrection, or living in freedom, is victory over this fear in the concrete expression of love toward others.  Living a life marked by Resurrection is the willingness to undergo a diminishment of the self and the ego to give life to others. Resurrection is perfect love casting out fear.

The Christian tradition provides no clear consensus on where boundaries should be set when it comes to sacrificing for others.  Jesus has certainly offered little consolation in this regard- by sacrificing his interests for the interests of others- to the logical conclusion of the cross.  When we look at those who have tried in his wake however, I think it is clear that the saints and the gospels prophetically encourage us to adjust our current boundaries, to say Yes more to others and No more to the self. It’s the journey of learning to love more and more that seems most critical.

Richard Beck, a behavioral psychologist and ad-hoc theologian at Abilene Christian University (who I have been ripping off for the past two paragraphs) offers us some insight on how to serve: Give up the striving after self-esteem and significance. How? Do good work. Enjoy the work for itself. Don’t turn work into a self-esteem project. Don’t serve that power. Put aside the anxiety of chasing self-esteem and significance and learn to enjoy the day. Notice the simple gifts of food and drink. Be present with your loved ones. Cherish and cultivate friendships. Don’t turn religion into a self-esteem project. Don’t be too righteous. Yet don’t be foolish either. Seek wisdom over violence and war. Avoid the propaganda of nations and fools. Spend the day doing good.

Though I’m not sure how far we should go in some ultimate or absolute sense, I am fairly certain that most of us can do more. That’s what I’m asking us all to consider.

William James, a great pragmatist of the 20th century observed: “When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits.”

His point is simply this: Despite our feelings to the contrary, from the time we wake in the morning to the time we go back to sleep most, if not all, of our actions are deeply set in the grooves of habit. It follows, then, that much of our happiness and virtue, or misery or vice, is due to the kinds of habits we have acquired over the years. Our goal, therefore, is to learn to cultivate habits that lead to virtue and self-giving towards others.

When I met Chris Ferguson in January of 2010, he had recently been released from prison.  I was serving at one of the many warming shelters in the city that had been organized by Amos House Community church.  Chris and I shared stories until the early hours of the morning and exchanged contact information.  The relationship forged in that place still exists until today.

Chris had been a truck driver for the last 23 years of his life.  During his 2 years in prison- his trucking license expired.  This left him without an occupation or means to thrive in his new circumstances.  I introduced Chris to a group of my friends and we made it a point to spend time together on a regular basis.  Shortly after this, we began to pull money together to put down a deposit on an apartment for Chris.  If Lipscomb Security had the resources they do today, I’m sure there would have been an interrogation into suspicious activities.  During these times, it would be regular for me to send out a text in the morning and subsequently collect money for the entirety of the day in what- to the common observer- would look like an open air drug transaction than good deeds being practiced in secret.  There was a certain camaraderie between the individuals who were giving in secret throughout the hallways of Lipscomb.  It was something most of us had never experienced before.  After talking to Chris face to face and knowing him as a person, it was easy for our group of friends to tear down stereotypes of the other and practice compassion.

It was simple.  We had more than we needed.  Chris did not have what he needed.  It was common sense that we should fast from weekend activities, or for some people, from food, so that someone else could have the physical necessities and opportunity to move past their unfavorable circumstances.  It made sense that some of us should skip class to drive 8 hours roundtrip to Georgia so Chris could reinstate his license.  And when the church that offered him family and community held its services on Sunday nights, but the shelter doors closed at 5, it made sense that we offer him a bed in the dorm.  I feel confident speaking for myself and these friends who walked with Chris when I say we are forever changed in light of that experience.

I talked to Chris yesterday, he is doing well, on the road in Georgia to pick up a load.  Every-time I call, he never fails to proclaim his love and gratitude for the small sacrifices we decided to make on his behalf.  And unfailingly he asks if there is anything he can do for me.  On my better days, I return the thanks, acknowledging that he played a significant part in liberating my friends and I from our own oppression of selfish decisions and materialism and introducing us to the life that can be found in service.

Revisiting William James-the great pragmatist- we remember his observation that human beings are a bundle of habits.  Consequently, to make this world a better place, we will have to practice our beliefs about service consistently to make it a part of who we are.  If I had one piece of advice for individuals today, it would be to get out there and develop relationships with people doing significant work today.  Pursue your passion to serve and the rest will fall in place.

How the Light Gets In

by Lindsey Krinks (published in the May 2010 issue of The Contributor)

It is easy to find stories of loss, despair, and devastation on the streets. Such stories are as endless as the countless faces of the men, women, and children who stand daily in breadlines across the world. And such stories are important, for they bear witness to the atrocities that happen in the margins—atrocities which often go unnoticed. Yes, on the streets, funerals abound and loneliness descends like a plague. We are broken people living in a broken society. But in the midst of such brokenness, there are glimpses of hope, hospitality, and community. “There is a crack in everything,” croons poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen. “That’s how the light gets in.” Let this be a tribute to the light that seeps through the cracks, to the brief moments of beauty, clarity, and renewal that overcome the dark, grueling chaos of the streets.

Hope against all odds

Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter in the Christian tradition, was, for first century disciples, a day of mourning, uncertainty, and “standing in the void” between death and life. This year on Holy Saturday, a group of us spent the day on the streets with our brothers and sisters in a period of contemplation and reverence. While we were waiting in line for food at the Jefferson Street Bridge, we mingled with our friends and listened to their stories. In the middle of a conversation, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and heard a voice ask, “Lindsey, is that you?” I turned around to see a tall, handsome man in his fifties and it took only a second for me to realize who he was. “Indiana!” I shouted, as I hugged him. My eyes filled with tears—I was utterly stunned to see him.

Indiana was one of the first people that I truly connected with on the streets, and for nearly a year, I have wondered about him. I’ve wondered if he was dead, locked away in jail, or roaming the streets of some distant city. I met him on a cool, rainy day last March, and we connected instantly. He was filthy, soiled, and toothless, but he had a twinkle in his brown eyes that I will never forget. Every few days, he stumbled to our office reeking of mouthwash, his pants saturated in his own urine, barely able to stand. Because of his poor health, he had to lean on a crutch or a shopping cart to get around. My coworkers and I worked with him for months and months and nothing changed. He was an old hippie—an ex-member of “The Rainbow Family”—and thus highly skeptical of institutions. He wasn’t ready to get the help he needed, but we continued to build a relationship with him, give him clean, dry pants, and help him down to the shower. We watched him cycle in and out of jail and the hospital, and finally, finally, he agreed to try treatment. “You got a life,” he said to me one day, “and just like you got one, I want one, too. I want mine back.”

I still remember the day I drove him out to the VA in Murfreesboro for detox and treatment—we listened to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to calm his nerves. After treatment, he got into a local transitional housing facility and shortly thereafter he left and we lost track of him. I figured he had relapsed and hitchhiked back to Indiana, but there he stood before me: alive, articulate, sober, healthy, and smiling with a new set of teeth. He stood before me resurrected, and I was as astounded as doubting Thomas. He told me that he thinks of us often and is thankful for us. “Do you remember what you ladies told me before I left?” he asked. “You said when I was sober and in housing, you would take me out to eat. Well, I want to take you guys out to eat!” he beamed. Yes, on Holy Saturday, life seemed devastating, bleak, and confusing. But even today, in the midst of darkness and uncertainty, resurrection is happening all around us, if we only have eyes to see.

Hospitality in the margins

“Until we find each other, we are alone,” writes poet Adrienne Rich, and who knows this better than the marginalized, forgotten, and overlooked members of our community? Through my work with Nashville’s homeless community, I’ve often seen more faith and hospitality on the streets than I’ve seen in many of our churches. Over the last two years, there have been a handful of vulnerable homeless individuals we’ve worked with that no service providers would take because these individuals “didn’t fit criteria”: the elderly, uninsured man with Alzheimer’s; the gnomish, schizophrenic 54-year-old with the mental capacity of an eight-year-old who wasn’t “sick” or “violent” enough for a state hospital but not “well” enough for other service providers; the nearly blind, chronically ill, mentally disabled man who was told he was a “fire hazard” by the only transitional shelter in town that almost accepted him. My coworkers and I spent countless hours with each of these individuals trying to locate the services they desperately needed, and were turned down by almost every service provider in Nashville. We were frustrated, burnt out, and utterly sick at the subtle violence of a system that cannot grasp mercy because the barriers of “criteria” and “policy” have grown too thick, too high.

Each time, after we failed to locate resources for our vulnerable friends, the only place we found hospitality was in the margins—specifically in Tent City. You see, when we visit with our friends at Tent City, they often ask us how things are going. Sometimes, we recount frustrating circumstances with them (while observing HIPPA, of course). With each of the three circumstances above, residents of Tent City offered to make space in their camp for our vulnerable friends. Two such residents even said of the 54-year-old, “He can stay in our ‘hospital wing’ and we’ll make sure he’s safe. We can share our Food Stamps with him and since church groups come to feed all the time, he’ll be okay.” Indeed, they had a hospital wing in their camp where they once cared for a man who was uninsured and had a broken back and two broken arms. Other residents of Tent City cared for the man with Alzheimer’s when no one else in our city would. Maybe those of us who feel compelled to bring Jesus to the “least of these” should consider that, perhaps, he is already there in the margins with them.

Community and commitment

For every person and congregation in Nashville who is disconnected from the lives and stories of the poor, there are also people and congregations who are engaged. The engaged and committed groups are those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and realize that people are not problems to be fixed; they are brothers and sisters to be loved and journeyed with.

Ethos Church is a fairly new church in Nashville whose mission is simply to love God and love people. They have about 600 members and hold services at the Cannery Ballroom on 8th Avenue every Sunday night. They don’t meet at the Cannery because it’s a trendy music venue; they meet there because it’s close to the heart of the city and accessible to their members who are homeless. Ethos has embraced the countless members of Nashville’s homeless community and invited them into their lives and homes. A little over a year ago, Popcorn joined their church. Popcorn was homeless, African-American, endearingly flamboyant, and HIV positive. Last fall, the doctors told Popcorn his “T cell” count was dangerously low and that he only had a couple of months to live. Immediately, Ethos raised the money to keep Popcorn in housing and helped to make provisions for hospice care.

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approached, Popcorn’s body grew weaker, but his spirits remained high. His friends from Ethos visited him, brought him food, and prayed and laughed with him. The week of his death, Popcorn was surrounded by his closest friends and family members around the clock. Despite his young, tragic death, Popcorn lived and loved with everything he had, and there was no doubt that he was loved by many. When the time came for funeral preparations, Ethos stepped up again. Their members generously funded the funeral and invited Popcorn’s family to a potluck dinner afterward.

The memorial service was held on a chilly night in January and the room was packed with a mosaic of African-American members of Popcorn’s family and members of Ethos who are primarily white and in their 20s. Tears, laughter, hugs, and memories were shared and it was clear that this was a glimpse of the “beloved community” that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about so eloquently. Afterward, everyone gathered together for a huge meal where there was singing, storytelling, and more laughter and tears. Members from Popcorn’s family were deeply moved and told Ethos, “We’ll see you at your church on Sunday!”

Earlier this week, I received a call from a librarian, “Francis,” in Sumner County. She told me that she had recently taken in a homeless couple. “The guy is 23 and the girl is 20 and nine months pregnant,” she said. “Both are mentally handicapped.” Francis is a single mother with three children, two of whom are living at home. Her family has embraced the couple and converted their living room into a nursery. I asked Francis what we could do to help. “Well, we have all of the baby things they need, I signed them up for Food Stamps, WIC, and TennCare, and we’ve been watching videos about birthing, nursing, and parenting. The 23-year-old has been looking for work and has applied at Goodwill, but we are taking care of them and they are welcome to stay at the house right now. I want to eventually help them get back on their feet, but the baby is due any day, so we’re taking it one step at a time.” I was stunned. A librarian who is also a single mother and probably struggles financially herself, had taken in a pregnant handicapped couple in need. We talked for some time, going over resources, housing possibilities, and their situation. Francis said she wants the couple to have support and thinks this might be the first time they’ve been in a trusting, healthy relationship with someone else. She explained that she was just doing what needed to be done. I told her that we would support them any way we could and we talked about how one of the “common denominators” of homelessness is, to use a Wendell Berry term, “community disintegration.” If a falling away of community contributes to someone becoming homeless, then part of the solution must be building community back around the person.

Ethos didn’t see Popcorn as a “problem to be fixed,” and Francis didn’t see the homeless couple as a charity project. Both Ethos and Francis fully embraced these individuals and committed to journeying with them through thick and thin. Popcorn passed away and there is no telling what is in store for the soon-to-be-parents, but true mercy and love are never contingent on outcomes and results. In other words, if we glue together all the cracks of the world, how will the light get in?

Oscar Romero, former Archbishop of the capitol of El Salvador, was fiercely committed to standing beside the impoverished and oppressed and even publically condemned his country’s corrupt government and military from the pulpit. He was finally assassinated by government allies in 1980 while celebrating Mass. The “Romero Prayer” was later composed in his memory and reads, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

May we all have the courage to take a step in the direction of embracing others, living among the cracks, and rejoicing in the glimpses of hope, hospitality, and community discovered therein.