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.


Photo by Lauren Plummer

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.

The Invisibles

By Jeannie Alexander (Originally published in the June 2010 issue of The Contributor)

On the banks of the Cumberland before her rage, her screams, her mighty storm, there lived a community of ten people: four women, six men and a dog. A quiet community with humble dreams of lives lived in different circumstances, but lives lived nonetheless with dignity and grace.

They were a cooperative group who sought solace in their life together—lives free from drugs and focused on hard work at car washes and temporary day labor agencies. Lives of determination applying day in and day out for one job and then another. Lives, for some, of haunted dreams and restless nights, where the morning peace of the river whispered to anxieties born long ago in a Southern prison. Lives of laughter and living, of working and cooking and praying together, life lived as community. Lives determined to make their corner of the world better than it was when they found it.

And so as they founded their community and settled their unconventional family on the banks of the Cumberland by LP Field. They began the hard work of cleaning up years of accumulated trash under the bridges, and after removing thousands of pounds of rubbish (most of it deposited by those passing overhead on the James Robertson and Woodland Street bridges and those who parked in the LP Field lot) they worked together and landscaped their home, creating beautiful pathways lined with stone and a stairway made of river rocks. They built elaborate fire pits and constructed dwellings of bamboo tarps and thatched roofs. There was even a community kitchen where meals were prepared and eaten together. Below the camp they created a clean beach area perfectly situated so the residents could enjoy the concerts at Riverfront Park directly across the river, or play fetch with the camp dog.

And they were good neighbors, quiet neighbors, honest neighbors. But these good residents of what we came to know as the TA Camp committed a crime so severe that they were banished, their community was broken apart, and their carefully constructed homes would have been demolished by public works if the river had not taken their camp mere days before it was set to be razed. You see, these good people, your neighbors, who cleaned up a blighted area of Nashville and made an unwanted invisible area of downtown home, committed the terrible, unforgivable trespass of being visible.

They laid bare the truth of poverty in Nashville, and instead of hiding, they dared to wave and smile to those walking on the bridges overhead. Foolish, foolish people—they thought their fellow citizens of Nashville would be pleased with their hard work in cleaning up the riverbank under the bridges. Foolish people who dared to think that they could be liked and accepted in their unconventional home. Foolish people who did not know that, for some of those to whom they waved and smiled, appearances count far more than the right to life and dignity, that appearance counts far more than the right to exist and be left alone when you are causing no harm to those around you.

How could they know that some passing overhead would not see the beauty of their creation, but instead would only see the ugliness of homelessness, would only feel the embarrassment of peering into private lives, viewing people living each and every day by their own hand in homes they had constructed from the materials around them.

The embarrassment that the camp engendered was a dangerous embarrassment, for it was not caused by the moral shame that one should feel when confronted with the knowledge that a city of such wealth and possibility would allow some of its citizens to live in tents and bamboo dwellings because, despite working hard both day and night, they were denied a living wage. It was not embarrassment at the failure of a city to meet such desperate poverty with love and compassion. Neither was it embarrassment that those of us in the city have failed miserably to love our neighbors as ourselves. All such shame is and would have been appropriate.

Instead, the embarrassment was that such a camp dared to be visible, dared to exist, and therefore dared to run the risk of shattering our illusions about the quality of life in Nashville. And even more importantly, the camp dared to harm the image of our fair city, for such camps are like the leper’s skin abrasions, the tell-tale signs of rotting within and the first indication that all is not right.

And so employees of the district attorney’s office who walked over the bridge each and every morning, and whose eyes were greatly offended, complained to the district attorney who then registered formal complaints with the downtown central precinct against the camp. Offended eyes are the key to our heart, so let us blot out that which offends us lest we transform our human condition—those living below would have been better off if you had plucked out the eye that offended you. These complaints were filed not because the residents were a menace, and certainly not because they were concerned about the camp generating trash (the camp was spotless), and not because there were loud parties or fights, and not because members of the camp ever threatened or intimidated those who parked in the LP Field parking lot. They filed complaints simply because they did not like to look at the camp as they walked overhead on the bridges on their way to the office.

Oh what a hard inconvenience for those working in an office allegedly dedicated to the protection of Nashville’s citizens to witness the damnable truth that such protection does not extend to the harm inflicted by the whores of capitalism and the fiend of indifference. How dare the truth convict them and make them victims of their conscience?

Yes, the mere existence of the camp made some uncomfortable, and so in our society of immediate gratification, sound bite analysis, and unexamined lives where we do not treat the causes of illness, only the symptoms, it should not be surprising that the solution was not to address the injustice of poverty, extend hospitality to those in the camp, or offer the camp residents living wage jobs; the solution was to make the problem disappear by simply making the camp disappear.

My God, what hellish power some wield to destroy lives and homes because they do not like what they see. I wonder, could I drive through your neighborhood and decide that your mere existence was an affront to my sense of well being, and, deciding that I really did not like the look of you and your neighbor’s house, call Commander Huggins at the Central Precinct and have your homes razed in thirty days?

The week we were notified that complaints had been filed we visited the camp and marveled at its landscaping and enjoyed the excellent hospitality of its residents. Thinking that there must have been a mistake, because we were told initially that there were safety concerns and concerns about trash, we brought a representative of the Homelessness Commission to the camp, an “important man” as some at the camp later said. He, too, was very impressed and promised to speak out for the residents and to arrange a meeting with the district attorney. He promised to convey a message from the residents of the camp to the district attorney’s office inviting all who were concerned about the camp to come down to the camp and meet the residents. He promised to send a group of concerned Nashvillians down with trash bags to help clean up the areas under the bridge away from the camp where trash still remained, an area the camp residents were currently cleaning because they wanted not just their home but the land around their home to be clean too. They wanted people to be proud of their work.

After the important man left we consulted with the residents and asked them if they wanted to organize students and congregations to resist the closing, or if they wanted to work with the important man in an attempt to avoid the closing—and, if closing was inevitable, to then work with the police in an attempt to gain as much time as possible to close the camp down properly. They had some faith in the important man, and they were a quiet people not wanting to cause trouble and so they opted to work with the important man and with the police in an attempt to save their home.

So the little community was cheered and felt more at ease because an important man had come down to their camp, had said good things, had promised to be on their side and then had gone away to act as their champion.

But then the important man was not heard from again, and those of us who had witnessed the destruction of three large camps within the previous five weeks began to smell blood in the air. By Thursday we were simply told that the DA’s office never returned the call made by the important man and by Friday—the last Friday in March—we were told that the camp was going to be torn down Monday morning and assured “nothing can be done to stop it.”

I wish that I could tell you that advocates and pastors met with the police and Homeless Commission members and appealed to the better angels of their nature and that they in turn responded with compassion and said, “Oh my, what were we thinking, ten people and one dog with little to no resources cannot find a safe place to live in three days. We want to act with compassion and justice. Please tell us how much time they need, and in fact let us see if we can find some section-eight vouchers to help make housing them easier and to provide them with more options.” But that would be a lie. Instead, as always, the only language that those who live by the threat of inflicting violence through force speak (and never forget that it is always force at the end of the barrel of a gun) is the language of counterforce, and it was only when we made known our intention to engage in non-violent soul force in the form of organizing non-violent resisters to guard the camp that we were given 30 days (ultimately 37 days) to relocate and house the residents of the camp. It was only after the promise of resistance that any meeting occurred.

The residents of the beautiful camp were devastated. “So they just want us to disappear, to be invisible?” In their attempt to grasp the consequences of a world ruled by mammon, the illogic of the camp residents ran thus: “If they don’t want to use the land for anything, and we haven’t hurt anyone, and we have actually made the land better by cleaning it up and landscaping it, and if by living here we aren’t dependent on community resources to provide us with housing, and if we just want to be left alone, why can’t we stay?” The police response, predictably, was: “You’re trespassing, you don’t own the land, and somebody registered a valid complaint.” To which the reasonable question is raised, “Complaint about what?” And the truth of the matter is confirmed: “The people walking overhead don’t like the look of the camp.”

Time and time again we bear witness to the confusion and hurt and fear inflicted upon the least of these when those in power want them to “move along” and become invisible. And I hear the ghosts of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad and tenant farmers: “But it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours—being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it… And now the owner men grew angry. You’ll have to go… But if we go where’ll we go? How’ll we go? We’ve got not money. We’re sorry, said the owner men. The bank, the fifty-thousand acre owner can’t be responsible. You’re on land that isn’t yours… Maybe you can go on relief.”

But there is no relief, no sweet air, no peaceful river to lull you to sleep. There is only the indignity that the powerless and poor have always suffered, the indignity of being herded and forced to move along. During the 34 days we worked to relocate the TA Camp residents, we learned that before the flood it had become the unofficial policy of the central precinct to destroy all encampments and to relocate the camp residents to Tent City, thus turning Tent City into a defacto reservation. Dare we thank God for natural disasters?

You magicians of secular power—for all such power is mere illusion—what must we show you, what must we say, what must our brothers and sisters do to convince you of the fact that they too are human and thus possessed of certain God-given dignities and rights? What must we do to convict your hearts and win your minds? How many faces covered with tears must you see, how many shaking hands clenching air, hands rendered impotent by your guns, as they stand forced to watch as you destroy their homes over and over again? Ears ringing with your policy of “move along,” muscles aching, feet bleeding, minds clouded from lack of sleep, depression and alcohol—each insular and seemingly benign act of “move along” having the cumulative effect of a death march. By your sinful, capricious whims, and at the command of “valid” complaints, communities are destroyed and living, breathing, beautiful humans made in the image of God are tossed around and shuffled like so many dirty rag dolls.

Our brothers and sisters are told to “get it together” and to “take pride” in themselves, but how can they take pride in themselves when every single day the message is sent in no uncertain terms that they are not wanted, are a damn inconvenience, and are not even to consider themselves citizens? And they know that if you do not want them to cease to exist outright, then at the very least you want them to become invisible. Numerous times in the past I have witnessed friends leaving an area where they were minding their business and doing no harm because they were told by police to “make yourself invisible.”

I fear not just for my friends suffering under such injustice, I fear too for those who are forced to execute the hell-born policies of this city that crush individuals while hiding under the false pretense of community standards and twisted paternalism. The oppressors themselves are dehumanized and violated when acting under orders to “clean the city up” and to “clean those encampments out” because they are “dangerous.”

Those in uniform often dreamed of being police officers because they were told all of their lives that the police were the “good guys,” and they wanted to be good guys, they wanted to make the community better for all, and while there are far too many who put on a police uniform because they get off on the false sense of power that it imbues, there are even more who simply want to do good. And so, “woe to you, teachers of the law (policy makers and judges), you hypocrites” who, through your lies, “win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” Woe to you who dehumanize your strong arm by teaching it to dehumanize others. Woe to you who create and feed a system that creates disproportionately high rates of divorce and alcoholism among those charged with carrying out your orders. And woe to you when those whom you oppress by locking them up, and those you oppress by destroying their own inner moral compass so that you may use them to harm others: realize that they are both victims of your lies and iniquities and refuse to do your bidding anymore.

There will come a time—in fact, it comes now in fits and starts—when we will live our reconciliation with God through being reconciled with our brothers and sisters. And when that time comes, as it comes now, we will embody Paul’s message to us that we are no longer Greek or Jew, male or female, master or slave, for we are all heirs. And when we truly know that we are all heirs we will weep for the injustice that we have perpetrated, and we will weep for joy as we remove our policies of invisibility from our brothers and sisters, and, with open arms, we will embrace them like Lazarus unwrapped, retrieved from the tomb where he was laid because we didn’t know what to do with him.

This flood which devastated poor and rich alike left hundreds who lived in encampments along the river without community and without a home. As I evacuated the last of my friends from the TA Camp that Saturday night when the heavens opened up and the river rose with heretofore unseen fury, my friend “Jon”, a camp resident, smiled sadly at me and said, “At least it was the river that finally took our home and not people and bulldozers.” The river at least allowed my friend some dignity as it equally destroyed all in its path, rich and poor alike. For once, my friend was not singled out to bear a burden and a shame that others do not bear.

In a sense, perhaps the flood was a baptism, another chance to start over for all of us. Let us die to this world in the waters of the flood and be reborn not of this world but of as heirs and children of God’s Kingdom. Let us take this God-given chance to help rebuild the lives of all of our siblings, those in neighborhoods and those in campsites. And as the Kingdom of God works exactly contrary to the kingdom of man, let us go together back down to the private wooded areas and once again calm river banks and rebuild instead of tear down. And then, with renewed conviction, let us create housing affordable and safe for all, and then let us go back down to those riverbanks, reach out with love and compassion, not judgment and reproach, and bring our brothers and sisters fully into our community. And let us ask for forgiveness and weep for joy, for it is we who were prodigals, saved at last by those who were outcast, God’s chosen ones.

What is the Crisis at Hand?: Further Reflections on a Town Hall Meeting

by Andrew Krinks

It has become all too clear in recent days that we now find ourselves, once again, at a moment of crisis in our work with the homeless community in our city. But perhaps that is somewhat of an understatement. For indeed, the last month has consisted of one crisis after another after another. First came the floods of May 1st and 2nd—a crisis for many thousands of people in Middle Tennessee. As for those of us trying to walk alongside our brothers and sisters trapped on the underside of a system that they struggle to survive in, we have seen firsthand the crisis of displacement—displacement after displacement after displacement.

After the Red Cross shelter at Lipscomb University closed; after the week-long shelter of motel rooms and gracious churches expired; after driving those Tent City residents left with no other place to go out to Otter Creek Church to wait and scramble for another plan to come through so that our friends would not be abandoned, we found ourselves taking up the offer of the only landowner willing to help us out. And as we all know by now, that final move led to the crisis of a vehement people. Crisis after crisis, displacement after displacement—a familiar rhythm for people without homes or adequate community.

But the crisis I want to talk about is not the crisis of the flood itself. Neither is it the crisis of finding temporary shelter for our homeless brothers and sisters in its wake—whether hotel room, church building, or 124-acre plot of land. Neither is it the crisis of being accused of acting as scheming, manipulative connivers for refusing to abandon our friends, and for moving them to the only place we had left without first asking for permission from area residents (permission that surely would never have been granted, which we only now realize after the fact). To be sure, these are the crises that ring in our ears at such a high pitch these days that it’s hard to sleep at night, hard to keep from feeling exhausted, enraged, and ever at a loss for words. And indeed, we remain awestruck in the wake of the Town Hall meeting in Antioch in which the empty refrain was repeated over and over again: “We love the homeless, but…”

The crisis I want to talk about is the one that confronts us, much like these other crises, generation after generation—a crisis that seems to grow like a weed in our world, never squelched no matter how hard we try. It is a crisis I wrestle with as if it were another person—and one could even say that it is. What is the crisis? It is the crisis of trying to discern how best to love—to be reconciled with—“the people of Antioch”. Why is it a crisis at all? Why should I even care? Because, as Christ says, we find God in “the least of these.” For Amos House and our friends and partners, we are ever finding God in society’s “least”. But as Southern Baptist bootleg-preacher Will Campbell has recently reminded me, if the people who appear the most detestable to me are “the least” then, according to scripture, that’s where I meet God. And to be quite honest, the people who incite the most fury in me these days are those who spewed so much vitriol from the microphone at Living Word Church last Thursday night. And when I contemplate whether or not this could possibly be true, that God resides in them, I feel a rope wringing itself into a knot right in the center of my chest.

If there are no flesh-and-blood enemies in God’s kingdom, then those people of Antioch who are denying the Christ in their poorest neighbors are as family to me. So I guess that means I’m angry with my brothers, upset with my sisters. But they are family, beloved, which means that they lie within the fold of God’s love.

So what, then, is the task at hand? For those of us who have refused to abandon our friends at Tent City, it is to learn to put on the gaze of God—to see in our most-misguided brothers and sisters from Antioch the very presence of God, and in so doing, to seek new ways to bring the good news, and to do so in ways that don’t demonize or diminish. For many of the people of Antioch, the task lies in learning to see in Amos House, in Jeannie Alexander, in Doug Sanders, not conniving, self-righteous bastards who have “dumped” garbage on them, but rather people seeking to be ministers of the God who takes the shape of those cast out from society. Nothing more, nothing less. Brothers and sisters. Their task also lies in walking out of their houses, into Tent City, not with burning anger or clenched fists, but with open hands and hearts willing to go beyond what they have so long considered their charitable way of being. This is an invitation.

Let me clear. This is not some sorry attempt at utopian diplomacy. Nor is it, I pray, merely a fear of confrontation speaking through my words. For if there is no confrontation in Antioch now, if we hear no complaints for our actions, then maybe we are the misguided ones. (Jesus makes clear, after all, that this sort of work will not always be welcomed.) No, on the contrary, what I am interested in is learning the sort of persistent patience that would not dismiss “the people of Antioch” as a homogenous monolith that has struck out and lost their chance to do good. For indeed, we have seen how they are anything but homogenous: many Antioch residents have even come down to Tent City to donate time and resources to those living in the camp. Indeed, there were even those few exceptional men and women who sought to offer more compassionate perspectives on the situation from the microphone at Living Word Church. I even overheard a couple outside of the town hall meeting offer their genuine support to a Tent City resident in need of work, promising to keep in touch about it, even promising to come visit the camp. And whether they ever went to the camp or not, I am here making it known that “the people of Antioch” is anything but a monolithic beast of hatefulness that we “righteous” ones have come to condemn. It is a people—colorful, diverse, lost, found, beloved.

Clearly, this does not mean that I have overlooked the poisonous speech that made up the majority of the town hall meeting last Thursday. Indeed, I believe there were many a captive mind, false allegiance, and demon-possessed imagination in that room. But driving home from the meeting, in between fits of frustration, I felt a deep sadness, a heavy pity, a longing to see transformation take place in Antioch. And this, precisely, is the reason I even venture to put these thoughts before you at all. As Will Campbell says, echoing Jesus of Nazareth, prisoners are prisoners; it is our vocation to set them free. Whether an actual prison, or the prison of poverty, our vocation is to help liberate, and in so doing find liberation ourselves. But what is truly scandalous about this vocation is that we are even called to help liberate those held captive in ideologies that oppress, in lifestyles that insulate from strangers and “others”, those lost along those ways of being that mistake safety and property value for the tenets of a meaningful existence.

If we are to find God—the God who has reconciled us to himself, and all peoples to one another—then we should begin by using our imaginations to find new ways to welcome the “people of Antioch” into further reflection and action and community. Yes, many proved that they will refuse to listen, to think critically enough to realize their doublespeak regarding their Christian-ness and good citizenry. For those lost children of God, we offer our prayers tonight. If their hearts remain hard, we will, as my sister Jeannie (and the gospel) says, shake the dust from our feet and move on. But, as ungodly as they have proven themselves to be, I don’t believe God gives up on people, even when they deny him in the guise of a poor stranger. It is for this very reason that we shouldn’t give up on them either. If the grace of God has, and continues, to transform me—a gift I do not deserve—then by all means, I ought to extend that gift to others, to extend the table that has been extended to me by God and by God-in-my-homeless-brothers-and-sisters time and time again. For I have been given a gift from those living on the margins of our city. Therefore, in trying to continually receive this gift, and to receive it well, it is my desire to share it—to share it, especially, with the people of Antioch.

To reference once more that one-of-a-kind prophet and pastor of our time, Will Campbell, unless those who, whether they realize it or not, hold up those systems and structures that dominate and oppress—unless they are enlisted in the communal effort to dismantle the powers of death, then our work might accomplish some good things, and we’ll move on with the people of Tent City to whatever place we can find, but there will still be people in Antioch in dire need of liberation. And so, once again, let this be an invitation. For we have discovered God, the God of freedom, through our communion with the cast-aside and oppressed of our city, and we invite you to do the same.

I don’t presume that these words speak for God or that they encapsulate the heart of what’s true. Indeed, no naïve romance has accompanied the writing of these words, only genuine fear and trembling, and great uncertainty—which makes me wonder if there isn’t something here worthy of being said. But I could also be wrong. In the end, all that I am confident of is that we desperately need the fire of prophetic witness, but not the fire of prophetic witness alone. For if that fire is not leavened with the equally scandalous fire of radical reconciliation—reconciliation that resists that part of our nature that would cast out those men and women who spewed false witness in Antioch—then our holy anger lies in danger of turning sour, dull, incapable of bearing faithful witness. For the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against those powers—powers that hold imaginations captive—that possess those beloved children of God who live in Antioch and have made their voice heard in such a sad way. Indeed, it is my conviction that such foolishness as this, such reconciliation, is, in fact, prophetic in and of itself.

May the people of Antioch—may we all—be liberated into the freedom of God wherein the words “rich” and “poor” lose all their meaning in the wake of radical hospitality, reconciliation, and resistance to those systems and structures that know not what it means to love those deemed unlovable. Let us have the courage, and the faith, to be surprised, shocked, thrown off our “safe” courses-of-action by genuine encounters with those “others” who exist on the far side of our failure to love and be truly reconciled.

The Flooding of Tent City

by Andrew Krinks (Originally published in the June 2010 issue of The Contributor)

(Photos by Tasha French)

When Ronnie Smith lost two jobs and a house four years ago, he was left with only one option. Like so many others in similar circumstances, he headed to Nashville’s largest year-round shelter space, the Nashville Rescue Mission. But, having never been homeless before, Smith struggled to adjust. Finding it near impossible to stay sane in such a chaotic and crowded environment, he soon began looking for another option. So, when he was finally able to move into the peace and quiet of an abandoned house with a friend, he was relieved. But, despite his best efforts, that friendship finally fissured, and Smith found himself in search of what seemed to be his last option: a tent. Once he obtained his tent, Smith spent his evenings setting up camp anywhere he could manage only to find himself, again and again, threatened by strangers or told by police officers to “move along.”

Finally, bereft of any remaining options, Smith headed to the only place left on his list—the place he had hoped never to have to go: Nashville’s Tent City. Having heard nothing but bad stories of the city’s largest homeless encampment—from drugs to theft to violence—Smith carried his belongings toward the riverside encampment with trepidation.

But when Smith arrived at Tent City eight months ago, he was surprised to find little to confirm those rumors. On the contrary, what he discovered was something he hadn’t been able to claim in his years on the street: a community. “People were real helpful. They’d even watch out for your stuff when you were gone,” says Smith, one of approximately 140 residents of the camp who, up until the morning of May 2nd when floodwaters completely destroyed the camp leaving every last resident displaced, were grateful to be able to call Tent City home.

Tent City before the flood

The Tent City that Ronnie Smith encountered eight months ago was not the same Tent City that has existed on the banks of the Cumberland River for more than 20 years. Not only had its population grown in that time from a mere handful of residents to over 140, it had also changed from a well-kept secret to a widely-recognized fact of the city, appearing in local newspapers, countless television news stories, a few documentaries, and even The Wall Street Journal.

To understand what initially caused this wider exposure and overall shift at Tent City, we need to go back to 2006, when then-Mayor Bill Purcell announced, in a trend that mirrored a number of other American cities, that the city of Nashville would begin its official push toward raising the “quality of life” in its downtown area. In the eyes of the average beholder, this campaign appeared, rather innocently, to be concerned with strengthening the overall pleasantness of our city. For those on their way to work, for tourists, for weekend honky-tonkers and concert-goers, the idea was, seemingly, to make downtown Nashville a more desirable place to spend time.

Unfortunately, however, a direct result of this public policy has been the criminalization of homelessness in Nashville.

To illustrate, if a well-dressed woman on her way to work stops on a sidewalk to rest with her large rolling briefcase in tow, no one would think anything of it. However, try the same thing when you’re a resident of the Rescue Mission who has no choice but to carry your large pack containing all of your belongings back and forth across the city on a hot day. When you stop to rest on a sidewalk and relieve your back, you’d better not rest too long, unless you’re looking to land an “obstruction of the passageway” citation from a law enforcement officer.

The same goes for carrying an open alcohol container in public or cutting through a parking lot to save time: one who is not homeless will seldom receive any trouble for such actions. But the same is not true for those who are homeless, and the city’s court and arrest records prove it.

All things considered, the notion of “quality of life” as understood in Nashville translates into little more than “quality of life” for some of Nashville’s residents, but certainly not all of them. Furthermore, and perhaps more telling, it is all too clear that this notion of “quality of life” also translates into “quality” for some at the expense of others. So, in a city where it is a serious challenge to show your face as a homeless person on a public sidewalk in downtown Nashville without being questioned about what you’re up to, the obvious result is a city where homelessness disappears—which is precisely what every city dreams of.

But our city officials ought to know better. When you “get rid” of a problem, it’s a good idea to engage in a bit of reflection, to dig a little deeper. You may ask yourself: has the problem been made right, alleviated, redeemed? Or has it merely been made to disappear? The truth is, the “quality of life” campaign and other efforts to rid our city of the “problem” of homelessness can only result in the displacement of that problem, meaning, if we look hard enough, we’ll find that the problem hasn’t been alleviated, only relocated. And to find where we’ve sent so many of our beloved “problems” packing, one need look no further than the banks of the Cumberland River. Because when it is a crime to be homeless and to dwell as such among the other citizens of Nashville, and when the Rescue Mission, for various and legitimate reasons, is not an option, one is left, like Ronnie Smith and so many others, with only one remaining option: camping. And Tent City, located alongside Inner City Ministries on the banks of the Cumberland River was, until recently, one such place for 140 men and women to do just that.

But as Tent City grew, so did Metro government’s hyper-awareness of it. Before long, though it was by no means the first time in its more than 20-year history that it happened, police officers showed up at the camp in 2008 and posted notices that the camp would be shut down in a matter of weeks and would therefore need to be cleared of all belongings as soon as possible; anything left standing would be razed and anyone remaining would be arrested. And so, after being unable to stay too close to downtown without getting harassed, homeless individuals who retreated to Tent City for some semblance of privacy and freedom were once again told to “move along,” or else face arrest.

That is, until local churches, advocates, and outreach workers stepped in. Offering to clean up the premises, then actually paying for dumpsters, port-o-potties, showers, and bringing in volunteers to pick up trash—all while promising to stand face-to-face with any bulldozer that might tear down tents and well-designed wooden homes to the ground—Tent City’s closure was averted. After rallies and extensive volunteer efforts from ministers, students, and concerned citizens, the word from Mayor Dean at last came down that the camp would not be demolished.

Since then, despite occasional and somewhat subtle attempts by Metro’s police department to reverse Mayor Dean’s order, Tent City has gone from being a homeless encampment perpetually on the verge of destruction to the closest thing Nashville has to an officially-sanctioned “transitional housing” site, with law enforcement recently going so far as to destroy other camps and send their residents packing for Tent City. In the last year, with the help of its closest outreach workers and ever-present volunteers, a Tent City council, made up of Tent City residents, was formed to help keep order and rules intact. If that is not evidence enough of the fact that its residents deeply desire to get their lives back together, they have even initiated and held AA meetings on site, aware that alcohol abuse has often been the root of more than a few problems the camp has faced in its history.

While Tent City has been far from an ideal community, it has been a necessary a one. In a city that promised 2,000 units of low-income housing five years ago and yet has drastically failed to follow through on that promise, a place like Tent City remains inevitable. Not only that, but Nashville’s primary shelters are not legitimate options for individuals in committed relationships, for those who own pets, or for those who have a criminal record. Furthermore, the road from homeless to housed and reintegrated is a long and arduous one—one that is near impossible to manage without a system of support. It is for these reasons that “transitional housing” (what Tent City strives to be) is important. A step above temporary shelter and a step below permanent housing, transitional housing puts a floor beneath the difficult path of downward mobility, allowing homeless individuals to prepare for permanent housing and social reintegration with the guiding help of outreach workers and a community of other homeless men and women in the exact same boat.

But, despite the fact that it has existed on the banks of the Cumberland for over 20 years, and because it has grown so rapidly on land owned by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT), city officials have had no choice but to put a timeline on relocating Tent City. To that end, in February of this year, the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission formed two subcommittees charged with locating an alternative site for the camp, as well as with researching models and structures from officially-sanctioned, transitional encampments like Dignity Village in Portland, OR that could work in Nashville. Progress has been made and more evolved rules and guidelines are in the process of being written with the help of Tent City residents.

While many things have improved at Tent City in the last year—things that have allowed many people to gain the necessary footing to step into housing and better work and a more humane existence—its days have long been numbered. But, to the shock of its residents, it would not, in the end, be the cold machinery of bulldozers that would level Tent City; it would be the unexpectedly volatile Cumberland River come rising over its banks, higher and higher until the top of every last tent and tarp-covered wooden home packed full with every last belonging stood fully submerged beneath its consuming waters.

The flooding of Tent City

When Ronnie Smith woke up Sunday morning, May 2nd, to a small but steady stream of water running in front of his tent (a large tarp fastened over a wooden frame), he wasn’t terribly surprised. “It wasn’t all that unusual,” he said. “So I went back to sleep.” When he woke up fifteen minutes later, however, with water halfway up his bed (a stack of two mattresses on top of two box springs), he began to worry. After a quick glance around his tent in which all of his belongings were floating like debris on the surface of the water, he grabbed the only dry items he had time to reach for: a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. When his feet hit the floor, the water was well above his waistline. Emerging from his tent, he started wading with other residents to higher ground.

One of those other residents was Ruth Simmons, a relative newcomer to Tent City the day the rains began to fall. Waiting to receive word on her disability appeal, and working as a vendor for The Contributor in the meantime, Ruth considered it a gift to be able to live where she did for those brief months. “I was very comfortable there. It was my home.” When she woke up Sunday morning, like any other rainy morning, she, along with Ronnie Smith and so many other Middle Tennesseans, had seemingly no reason to be concerned. Even as the water rose, Simmons says, it didn’t quite sink in what, exactly, was happening. “I was kinda in denial.” That is, until she stepped outside her tent into waist-high water.

An hour or so later, residents began to gather together on higher ground where they met Doug Sanders, outreach minister at Otter Creek Church, who had been given permission by Inner City Ministries to use their bus to transport residents to the Red Cross Shelter that had just been set up at Lipscomb University. Doug, one of the more familiar faces at Tent City in recent years, drove two busloads of residents, about 70 in all (plus more than a dozen pets), to Lipscomb where Tent City residents and approximately 130 non-Tent City residents stayed until Tuesday, May 18th. Another 30 of Tent City’s residents received temporary shelter at Woodbine Presbyterian Church and Green Street Church of Christ, as well. The remainder of the residents went either to a friend’s house or straggled on the edges of the flooded camp until they found someplace else to go.

Of course, it wasn’t just those living on the banks of the Cumberland that felt the force of the record-breaking rainfall. It has been nearly 100 years since Tennessee has seen anything close to the amount of rain that fell those first three days of May. As much as 18 inches of rain fell in some areas, leaving countless streams, rivers, and waterways well above their capacity. The images are unforgettable: the building floating past almost fully submerged tractor trailers on Interstate 24; the tops of stop signs barely visible above the water line; rescuers driving boats down the middle of roads that have never been flooded before; homes and businesses all but buried beneath standing water; people of all ages hanging onto trees and cars for dear life; brown water sneaking up to Second Avenue downtown; and the list goes on—more endless than any one person can know.

But more than the images on the news, every person in Middle Tennessee, whether personally affected or not, knows countless others—family, friends, neighbors—who were. So widespread is the devastation that every Middle Tennessean knows someone who lost every last thing: people whose houses were carried upstream; people whose cars were destroyed; people whose tokens of memory were lost; people who now own nothing but the clothes on their back.

But the storm’s devastating effects have had a rather fortunate result, as well. The true character of a people is given room to reveal itself in the worst of times, and Nashville has proven itself to be more generous than expected. Anyone who spent any time tearing out drywall or tile flooring in a flooded house knows well how many strangers spent days walking through the desolation (in Bellevue, Bordeaux, Franklin, and elsewhere) offering whatever help was needed. At last, the “Volunteer State” has been given the opportunity to prove its nickname unmistakably accurate.

Many have said that natural disasters such as the flooding that struck Middle Tennessee have the ability to act as a great equalizer. While it is true that all socio-economic classes were affected by the storm, its lasting effects will likely not prove equal. For some, losing “everything” means losing those things that can fit inside a two-person tent. When Ruth Simmons, holding back tears, says that she lost “everything”, she means her bed, a few bags of clothing, her personal identification, photos of her children and grandchildren, as well as her Contributor bag and newspapers. All of it now floats somewhere along the banks of the Cumberland River while she strains her mind to figure out some way to start again.

Tent City after the flood

There is no minimizing the degree of loss people all across Middle Tennessee will continue to suffer for a long time to come. But it would be a mistake to pretend that every victim will experience an equal degree of restoration. For those living in Tent City—and let us not forget the countless other riverside homeless encampments of our city—the future is especially uncertain. But just as the people, organizations, and businesses of Middle Tennessee have been given an opportunity to respond compassionately to victims of the flooding living in all areas, so the pre-flood posture of our city—government and public alike—toward our homeless neighbors now has an opportunity to be reexamined and reconsidered. After all, the recent displacement of Tent City due to flooding is not the first displacement its residents have experienced, and it almost certainly will not be the last.

As for what comes next for the displaced residents of Tent City, there is much still to be determined. Metro has officially condemned the land on which Tent City stood for so many years; saturated with raw sewage, upturned port-o-potties, diesel fuel, and other contaminants, it is no longer a place where humans can live in relative health and peace. But then, we might ask, when has living under a bridge or by a river ever been an acceptable form of human dwelling in a land of such plenty?

The immediate goal is to locate an alternate site for Tent City to be relocated. Calls for land in the downtown vicinity have been sent throughout the city, but those calls, as of the writing of this article, have yet to be answered satisfactorily. Donations of tents and sleeping bags have, however, been plentiful, and will certainly be used, but not until land is found.

The long-term goal is to move the camp to a permanent location before the end of the year. But both the temporary and permanent sites will continue to move away from the sort of camp where anyone can come and go and camp whenever they’d like, toward the sort of camp where people who are serious about making every effort to get back on their feet are given the means to do so. All in all, the goal will be to offer a dignified alternative to living on the streets or in shelters—streets and shelters that either do not welcome or cannot accommodate everyone.

The good news is that, in the wake of the flood, many Tent City residents have received aid from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). In addition, a number of Tent City residents have been approved for Section 8 housing vouchers. But even so, it may take months, if not longer, to secure actual housing locations for those residents. This may prove especially challenging in a city that is drastically under-resourced when it comes to low-income housing options. As for the rest of Tent City’s residents, some have received hotel vouchers that will last for a few weeks, while others will take refuge inside the walls of a handful of area churches that have been gracious enough to show hospitality to those left with no other place to go. But hotel rooms and emergency shelters are viable options for only so long, which is why the request for land in the downtown vicinity on which Tent City may be allowed to reestablish itself—as a well-organized transitional housing site—remains the most dire need at the present moment.

In the end, a city like Nashville—with all its churches, non-profits, and government institutions—certainly does not have to stand alongside the very poorest of its displaced flood victims. Indeed, there is no official law stating that a city must care for those whose lives have consisted of one disabling tragedy after another—those who, after the flooding of the Cumberland River, have found themselves displaced for what seems like the hundredth time. But there is no better moment than the present for the people of Nashville to reflect on what it means to be a city that cares for all of its citizens, no matter their socio-economic status. For if it is indeed true that “We Are Nashville” as the slogan says, then it is eminently important that none be excluded from that “We”—that none be left wanting after we’ve congratulated ourselves for being such a generous city. If “We Are Nashville”, then we will open our doors—and our land—to Ronnie, to Ruth, and to all the others left with no other place to go.

Well-Honed Hate: the Ground of Love

Merton icon“So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

There are days when my wife comes home from work utterly exhausted. Jobs—even a lack thereof—can be a source of great stress and exasperation: the deadlines coming too soon, bosses demanding more than you can give, customers behaving like children, co-workers who wear your nerves thin, and so on. But my wife’s exhaustion fits under none of these categories. Working on behalf of the impoverished, marginalized, and homeless populations of our city, frustration is no stranger to her. But her frustration is seldom directed toward the men and women she advocates for; instead, her frustration manifests because she walks with people through a system that seldom seems capable of showing compassion to those who have fallen through the cracks. From the mentally retarded adult homeless man refused by nearly every institution in town because he did not “fit criteria”, to the practically blind man who was refused housing because he was deemed incapable of evacuating during a fire alarm, the system which claims to help—and, yes, sometimes does—has, again and again, proven itself incapable when it comes to showing genuine compassion or humility toward those who need it most.

So on the nights when my wife comes home late—worn out by public meetings and tireless attempts at trying to carve compassion out of a compassionless system—I sit, I listen, and when she turns quiet, I stare at the wall and wonder about such disorder, such injustice. There are days, too, when I have no energy either and my listening unravels into anger. I picture myself standing before those who would not find the faith or courage to step out of their professional restrictions in order to show compassion to another person; I picture myself yelling, shouting, coming up with the perfect mix of holy anger and truth to put them in their place, to diminish them, to make they who so often consider themselves powerful to feel small.

There is perhaps something in such a desire that is justified. As Thomas Merton says in the quote above, “hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed.” And surely, to hate these things often means raising one’s literal voice in opposition. People who do the sort of wrong that affects other people in life-threatening ways ought to be told about it and instructed to stop. Indeed, this has been the vocation of many prophets throughout the ages: to call out perpetrators of injustice on their ill conduct and to envision a different way of doing things—and then to demand it of everyone who is willing to listen. From Isaiah to Amos, Jesus to James, Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., those faithful enough to question the accepted order of things have condemned evil, envisioned another way, and then, in most cases, were killed for it. Indeed, the world does not much care for prophets when they arrive on the scene.

But there is more to being a prophet than telling people why their actions are the embodiment of evil. An important trait that links the truest of the prophets has to do not with the fire of their speeches, the fearlessness of their civil disobedience, or the intensity of their condemnation. On the contrary, what unifies the spirit of the prophets whose prophecy has made a lasting difference in the life of the world is the discipline of thorough self-examination and self-criticism. It is easy to catch the fault of another person—to trace its origin, its manifestation, and the inadequacies in the person which caused it—and to feel a sense of righteous removal from such behavior simply by having identified it. But the problem is, as a friend of mine once quipped, “if you spot it, you got it.” In other words, the reason I may be so adept at identifying a particular shortcoming in another person is because it is so much a part of who I am, so familiar to me that I didn’t even know I was guilty of it, too. If you spot it, chances are, you, too, have got it. This is one of the most bitter truths I’ve encountered. Who wants to look inward if it’s going to hurt? And yet, I am convinced that the world cannot do without more of us learning to admit that we, first, are the guilty ones.

At the root of all this is an acknowledgment of the presence of God, of love, in every person we ever encounter, no matter what they’ve done to offend our sensibilities or preferences. At the root of this is an acknowledgment of the reality that there is no measure of injustice or conflict that cannot be righted and reconciled by the spirit of God at work in the world. To demonize, to hate another person for their actions, to diminish them, to say I’ll have nothing to do with them, is to fail to see the world with God’s eyes. And the point at which I may learn to see the world with God’s eyes is in nurturing within myself the discipline of admitting my own faults, of confessing that I am no different from the worst perpetrators of injustice. To establish this is to leave open the possibility of civil interaction with people we have made our enemies, with people who we think are greedy, lazy, or simply bent on doing evil. This is the root of reconciliation, the root of unlearning hate: whenever we feel an accusation toward another rising to the tip of our tongues, to train our intellects to first look inward to check if we, too, are guilty of the same wrong. Then, and only then, it may be possible to address the wrong in a way that may actually leave open the possibility for it being made right.

It is never easy or comfortable to leave open the possibility of error in oneself, of being at fault, of acknowledging that the finger pointed at another is really a finger pointed at oneself. It is far easier to recognize the evil “out there” and to proceed with fiery condemnation. But the truth is this: the person who will bring about the most redemptive, lasting change in the world—change that nourishes the bodies and minds of other human beings—will always be the one who has looked inside themselves with a critical eye, a sort of healthy condemnation of the “appetites and disorder in [their] own soul.” Only then will they be capable of proceeding into an unjust world with a deep understanding that any one of us is capable of committing atrocious evil, that the wrong committed by another ought not give way to our diminishing their personhood into a caricature of pure evil. Such a diminishment fails to acknowledge the belovedness of every human being in the eyes of God.

Thomas Merton, ruminating elsewhere on the importance of interior examination for the life of the world, put it this way: “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.” To put it another way, without hating the unjust, greedy, and malicious disorder of our own souls before hating it in the soul of another, we will never succeed in working toward a world where life overcomes death, love overcomes hate, and justice overcomes injustice. To bring about such a world, voices must be raised, unequivocal fingers must be pointed, and all sorts of wrong—personal and structural both—must be brought into the light. But these things, if they are to work in tandem with a spirit who has already initiated a redeemed world, must be preceded by the acknowledgment of the worst sort of evil: the evil of the world’s injustice, which grows like a weed in our own hearts, but which we have yet to identify or uproot. Holding our tongue which would accuse, taking a long look inside, and hating with a discerning, well-honed hate, the sickness that is there out of a deeper love, a longing for something better, is the first step. After that, the roots which would hold up a lasting peace, a lasting shalom, may begin to shoot into the depths of the ground on which we stand.

When my wife comes home tired and angry because so many people refuse to love those who have been pushed to the margins of our society, and when I join her in that frustration, I feel myself railing against it all. But only on the good days—the days when I remember to search for and uncover the same exact disorder in my own soul—does my anger do the world any good. So “if you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed—but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

-Andrew Krinks

(from The Contributor, Issue 18, September 2009)

Tent City: Updates and Reflections

Tent City, winterSince last summer, members of Amos House have come to know and love the colorful, endearing residents of Tent City, a local homeless encampment here in Nashville. When the city planned to close the camp on November 1st of last year, we organized a letter writing campaign and non-violent demonstration to pressure city officials and draw attention to the injustice of bull-dozing the makeshift homes of our brothers and sisters. With the combined efforts of college students, advocates, local church goers, and other concerned citizens, a public outcry was launched and to our surprise, Mayor Karl Dean was sympathetic to our concerns and granted the doomed camp a reprieve. He charged the Homelessness Commission with deciding what to do about the camp and, in turn, the Commission charged local outreach workers with the task of moving Tent City’s residents out of the camp and into housing. The lack of low-income housing in Nashville and the overwhelming barriers that people living on the streets face made this task challenging, to say the least.

Such barriers to housing include having a pet or pets, having a felony or other charges, substance abuse, the lack of documentation (social security card, ID, birth certificate, etc.), income, medication, transportation, technology, etc. Also, for chronically homeless individuals, the transition into housing and a structured environment can be ridden with anxiety and difficulty.

Over the last six months, however, we have walked with about a dozen of our brothers and sisters from Tent City into housing. We are hoping to help over a dozen more residents move into housing over the next couple of weeks. Here at Amos House, we believe that housing is a human right, because without housing, people are forced to live a subhuman existence.

City officials have set at least three different closing dates for Tent City that have been pushed back (late September, November 1st, and most recently, June 1st) but continue to insist that Tent City will have to close eventually because of its location. Never mind that the camp has existed in its current spot for over 20 years, never mind that the waiting list for Section 8 Housing in Nashville is currently between two and three years long, never mind that it offers a centralized location outside of the main downtown area for people to live and have consistent contact with outreach workers and other resources: the camp is in the projected path of the proposed riverfront redevelopment, half a mile from a burgeoning luxury condominium (Rolling Mill Hills), and sitting on state and private property.

So the Commission recommended that the camp be closed June 1st, but the week before, they rescinded, saying that they would work with outreach workers, service providers, and other advocates to come up with a feasible relocation plan for the remaining 40+ residents without housing prospects. They are hoping to move the residents out and close the camp in the next 2-3 months.

The “Tent City saga” has been extremely interesting to watch and participate in, and while it has been frustrating and unnerving, certain aspects of it have also been redeeming. We have seen the “powers that be” pressured and persuaded by a concerned, justice seeking community. We have seen the power of the media at its best and worst. We have seen our homeless friends discover the stability and dignity they had once lost. And we have seen that while our city is capable of compassion for its most vulnerable citizens, it often opts for the “out of sight, out of mind” approach. Our good friend Steve Samra said on his blog that this saga “should be an indictment of the housing situation here.” While we build luxury condos, gentrify downtown, and propose the building of a new convention center, our brothers and sisters die on our streets for want of shelter. Yes, this is an indictment to our city and also to us as professed followers of Christ. Let us all continue to work to be a people that embodies the justice, peace, mercy, and compassion of the Kingdom of God here on earth and a people that calls our society to do the same.

If you are interested in ways to get involved in the lives of the residents at Tent City and other individuals who live on our streets, please e-mail us.

To read about the history of the camp and receive news updates, visit the Tent City News Facebook page. To see last night’s News Channel 5 story on the camp, click here.