Standing in the Tragic Gap: Reclaiming Holy Week in Nashville

River.jpgThe gentle waters of the Cumberland ripple against the fading light and I rest against river rocks and bone-like shells bleached in the sun. The hum of distant traffic soothes me. It’s an urban lullaby of white noise reminiscent of the rise and fall of ocean waves.

I don’t remember the last time I felt so worn—like I poured out everything I had and more and it still wasn’t enough. On these days, something calls me to places like this. Hidden. Still. Away. I need time to let everything sink in. The crisis calls, relapses, and evictions. The man on life support, the woman who handed me her blade, the friend we lost who I still haven’t mourned.

It is Holy Week—the week leading up to Easter in the Christian calendar, the week where Jesus enters into the conflict and suffering of the city. Sandra Griggs, the pastor of Glencliff United Methodist Church, says this is the week where we “stand in the tragic gap” between triumph and death, between the world as it is and the world as it could be. The tragic gap. Yes.

Glencliff UMC, supportersI started the week with Palm Sunday at Glencliff—the church that is partnering with Open Table Nashville to use their grounds for the first Micro Home Village in our city that will provide respite to our friends on the streets. The week before, fearful and angry neighbors launched vitriolic insults at Glencliff’s members and OTN and threatened to picket the church. While only a handful of picketers came out, nearly 100 supporters of Glencliff and the Village showed up in solidarity. What is a church if not a place for wounds to be tended? What is a church if not a refuge for those who have been cast out?

Justin Jones, sit inOver the next couple days, the whole city was buzzing with holy resistance. There was a public call for independent oversight for the Department of Corrections. There was a demonstration in South Nashville at an intersection where police have been targeting immigrants for traffic stops that can lead to deportations. Low-income renters whose apartment complex was bought by wealthy developers gathered to organize themselves and fight displacement. A coalition of activists, organizers, and council members strategized on how to create a democratic civilian review board that would provide oversight and accountability to Metro Police. And activists and clergy were arrested during a sit-in at Governor Haslam’s office while making a moral statement about the need to expand healthcare to uninsured Tennesseans. (Did I mention that all this happened by Tuesday??)

Romero with bannerThis is Holy Week, indeed. When I am feeling worn, when I’m haunted by the collective trauma of our people, when the opposition feels insurmountable, I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero—a man who was assassinated in 1980 for standing beside the poor in El Salvador. He knew what it was like to weep over a city. He knew what it was like to stand in the tragic gap. He says, “A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?”

So I sit by the river and watch as herons and mallards fly low. I think about my friends across the city who are deeply immersed in these struggles. Yes, “church” extends beyond the walls. Yes, “gospel” is good news for everyone facing poverty, injustice, and oppression. What would Holy Week be, after all, without overturned tables? What would Holy Week be without accusations and insults, without holy people allowing themselves to be arrested by the authorities? What would Holy Week be without the Garden of Gethsemane where we, like the disciples, are given a choice: will we stay awake to stand in the tragic gap with Christ as he suffers? Or will we drift back to sleep?

*If you’d like to join us for the Citywide Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, you can find details here.*


We Watch the Flowers Drift Away

Reflections for the 2016 Annual Homeless Memorial
memorial-2016-flowers-in-riverAs a chaplain who has held too many funerals for our people this year, I am weary of coming here to mourn. I am weary of watching the death toll rise. Year after year as we gather here with the names of the dead on our lips, we toss roses and lilies into the swirling Cumberland and watch the flowers drift away. We listen to speeches that promise change and watch our city become a place where the poor and the stranger are cast out, where the un-housed are crushed beneath the wheels of progress and the cranes of luxury. And we watch the flowers drift away.

memorial-2016-namesAs I was reading over all the names, thinking about all the people I love on this list, several stood out to me. Jimbo, a musician who froze to death at his camp, was always doing everything he could to give back to others despite the demons he was battling. Tina, who was found in her apartment, was always cheering us on and raving about coming to protests with us. The last voicemail I got from Pontiac, who died of severe health issues, was about trying to get help for people who had just moved to town. And we watch the flowers drift away.

Sometimes, at night, the ghosts of my friends who have died on the streets visit me. They shake the slumber from my eyes and whisper of worlds past and worlds to come. Sometimes, I toss and turn, haunted by things they said or things I did or didn’t do. Sometimes, I can see their eyes looking into mine and I struggle to hold their gaze. 

horace-hortonA few weeks ago, I woke early before the sun. Horace, a man on this list who was murdered just weeks before he moved into his own apartment, came to me. Some of his last words to me were, “Lindsey, get me out of here. I want to go home.” I want to go home, he whispered. Help me find a home. Help me get home. Home. It’s a constant cry from the streets, a constant longing. Home. 

So I whispered back to Horace. I told him I would pray that he would find rest and home on the other side. I told him I carry him with me—that every day we labor for affordable housing and fight for a better world, a better Nashville, that his spirit and our memories of him would fuel our struggle. 

The dead are not gone. They are as present to us as our own breath. They surround us and guide us. What will we do with their memory? What will we do with what they’ve taught us? 

memorial-2016-housing-is-human-right-close-upThis year, as we watch the flowers drift away, as we let go of what we need to let go of, let us also hold tight, dig in, and find our breath. Let us breathe in our losses and breathe out hope. Let us breathe in our grief and breathe out a fierce commitment and love for one another. Let us breathe in the ashes of a broken system and breathe out a city that scatters the proud, lifts up the lowly, and fills the hungry with good things. The dead are not gone and death does not have the final say. Listen. Breathe. What will we do with their memory?

*87 people from Nashville’s homeless community died this year. 

Prayer for Standing Rock


Great Spirit who roams the North Dakota plains,
protector of the sacredness of all land and life,
we come to you asking that you would hear the cries
of the people of Standing Rock and come to their assistance.

We know that throughout history,
you have resided with those
who have been colonized and crushed by empire,
who cultivate the land and long for freedom in their bones.
And we know that some of your harshest words
are reserved for those who are driven by greed,
who reap what they do not sow,
who fatten themselves on the labor and resources of others.
God, we pray that you would stop the private oil companies
from their rape of the land.
Their money greases the pockets of public officials
and we pray that this filthy money and the love of money
will rot like the terrible spoiled fruit that it is.

At the same time, we pray that your wisdom
will rest on the elders of Standing Rock
as the eagle rests on the cliff’s edge.
Protect all those under their wings—
all our brothers, sisters, and siblings
who are banding together against this injustice.
Give them vision when they are struggling to see beyond the day’s survival.
Give them hope when all seems lost.
Give them love when fear and sadness well up in their spirits.
As winter approaches, fortify their camps
with the supplies, sustenance, and warmth
that will see them through.

We know that you, too, O God, have roamed the deserts and plains.
We know you move through pillars of cloud, parted waters, burning bushes,
herds of buffalo, and the still small voice of a mountain breeze.
God of the wind and clouds,
God of the fire and water,
God of the land and landless,
hear our prayers for our siblings, our comrades, in North Dakota.

May the tear gas canisters dry up.
May the rubber bullets lose their way.
May the batons of police officers be beaten into plowshares,
and the plowshares returned to those who love and cultivate the land.
Light a fire in the spirit of your people, O God,
and restore the land, in all its sacredness,
to the elders, tribes, and people of Standing Rock.
May their current struggles bear the fruit of victory and peace.

written by Rev. Lindsey Krinks with Open Table Nashville


To learn more about Standing Rock, visit Stand With Standing Rock and Indigenous Environmental Network. The “Standing Rock Allies Resource Packet” can be found here.

Squinting into the Unknown: Courage and Survival on the Streets

Ray, Photo for Tenx9 Story

Tenx9 (ten by nine) is a Belfast-originated monthly storytelling night where 9 people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. This story was told at Nashville’s Tenx9 on June 27th, 2016.

I shuddered as I pulled out the letter from the Fulton County jail in Georgia. After another restless night, I was up again before the sun so I went to my drawer teeming with correspondences. I found one of Ray’s letters and unfolded the soft, lined paper. His handwriting was distressed and the letters scrawled across the page as if they were trying to escape. I remembered the last promise he made to me frantically over the phone before he was locked up again, before he wrote this letter. “They’re not gonna take me alive,” he said. “I’ve gotta get back to Nashville. If they try to take me, it’s over.” But they had taken him. The police found him sleeping in a dumpster in the rain and locked him up. As I re-read the words, the feeling of powerlessness flooded through my chest again like a kind of heaviness or grief.

I imagine the panic that must have coursed through Ray’s blood. His letter described what happened when they took him in. He wrote, “I ran my head, head first, into a solid steel door, and that didn’t work. Then they got the blanket around my neck I was going to use to hang myself. And after coming out of the padded cell,” he continued, “I tried to beat my head on solid brick.” I put the letter down, stared off into space. How many times had I wondered if he would ever make it back to Nashville alive?

As an outreach worker and street chaplain with Open Table Nashville, trauma and despair are part of the waters in which I swim. Death is always on the move, haunting me and licking the heels of my friends on the streets. And when Ray wrote this letter, death was clenching his ankles, dragging him into the familiar pit where he felt worthless and alone, angry and utterly defeated. “Ray,” I had told him on the phone, “I want you to know that you have friends who care about you. We want you to come back home in one piece. We love you.”

I folded up the letter and put it back in the envelope. I looked at the date—nearly two years ago. Most of the men and women I meet on the streets are in my life for a brief time—a few weeks or months until they get back on their feet, move on, or pass away. I’m part of a chapter in their lives and then the page turns. But then there are people like Ray—people I connect with deeply, who become my friend, part of the fabric of my life, and transform me.

My phone buzzed from the side table and my heart lifted. It was Ray who was also up early, letting me know that we were still on for morning coffee. After being extradited to Georgia on an old warrant in 2012 and then trapped in the revolving door of their prisons and dumpsters, he was finally free. He and his friend Steve had just hitch-hiked back to Nashville and the first thing Ray wanted to do was get coffee together… a ritual we shared often before he was dragged back to Georgia.

I pulled up to meet Ray as sunlight was shifting through the clouds and almost didn’t recognize him. He was tanner and leaner than before, and in the place of his familiar handlebar mustache was a dark, scruffy beard. He wore a faded cap low on his head, his myriad of tattoos hidden by long sleeves. And when his eyes caught mine, he sat down his backpack and shouted, “There’s my friend!”

Ray, coffeeRay treated me and Steve to coffee and we reminisced about old times. We laughed as we tried to count how many times we had nearly been arrested together. There was the time we were doing tenants rights organizing at a slum in Madison and were almost caught by the slumlord. In order to escape, some of us had to jump out the back of the building from a second story window and I had a bruise on my arm for months. Then there was the time that we occupied Legislative Plaza for five months during Occupy Nashville. During those long months on the plaza, where we saw both the best and worst of humanity, I learned more from Ray than nearly anyone else. I can’t count the times I saw him take in stray, abused dogs and care for them with a kind of love that left me in awe. I can’t count the times I saw him give his last blanket or the coat off his back to someone else as the cold pushed its way across the icy granite.

Ray chimed in. “And I remember when I first met y’all. Down by the river at our old camp,” he said. “I knew y’all were for real when I saw the bags under y’alls eyes.” “Were they that obvious?” I asked. “Oh yeah!” he continued. “And I knew y’all really cared when you said you’d get arrested with us.” I smiled. In the spring of 2010, my homeless outreach team received a call that the police were going to close the camp. When we went to see what was going on, we found the most beautifully landscaped camp, complete with a communal kitchen area and a beach. We told the police that if they closed the camp before the residents found housing, they would have to arrest us, too. We held the camp for months, and in the end, it was the hungry waters of the Cumberland that took the camp during the flood. “Ray,” I said, “I’m so glad you’re back.” His eyes, the color of the muddy Cumberland, gleamed.

I imagine Ray as a young boy, scrawny and determined like an alley cat who knows what it takes to survive. I imagine the weight of the world crashing into him at the tender age of 9, his childhood ripped from his hands like a playground toy. I imagine him hitting the streets at the age of 14, building a wall around his heart to protect him from all the hurt, the broken promises, the shattered dreams. He told me in a letter that he first began lowering his walls and defenses, when he met us at the camp. Something in him had shifted. Something in him had opened up like morning light pushing through the heaviness of clouds. “I wanted to join y’all,” he said. “I  wanted to be a part of what y’all were doing.” And he did. He not only joined us but became one of our friends, our teachers.

“So how are things now?” I asked Ray. His eyes squinted and his brow furrowed beneath his cap. He listed the things he wanted to work on: getting health insurance, getting medical care for his Parkinson’s and the torn ligament in his knee, establishing a new campsite, and eventually finding housing. “And my vision’s getting worse,” he said. “I get so frustrated cause sometimes I can’t see. I can’t see what’s off in the distance and everything is real blurry.” I sat back in my chair, the last of my coffee growing cold against the porcelain. Ray’s health was wavering and he couldn’t see what was ahead. His horizon was smudged, uncertain, unclear. Yes, he needed glasses. But even more than that, he needed to see that there was still hope for a better future—a future that wasn’t as unreachable as it seemed.

We made plans, sipping the rest of our coffee. I told Ray that he and Steve were back just in time—that the city was threatening to close another encampment, this time in the woods surrounding Fort Negley. “Whatever we can do to help,” they both said, “count us in.” In the next weeks, we would nearly be arrested together again.

Recently, a friend asked me about where I see courage in my work. The first person I thought about was Ray. What is courage? Courage is taking the blanket from around your neck and wrapping it around the shoulders of someone else. It’s taking in stray dogs when you can barely feed yourself. It’s risking arrest when getting arrested means more than a night in jail because of your background. It’s taking down the wall you’ve built around your heart brick by brick until you can feel again; until you are able to love and to let yourself be loved. What is courage? Courage is peering, squinting, into the unknown and mustering the strength to hobble into it anyway.

A Playground for the Rich, a Prison for the Poor

People Over ProfitIn order for injustice to exist, a large segment of the population must be misguided, unethical, apathetic, or asleep. Or they must be so beaten down that they forget the power that burns in their bellies, their bones.

For the last several years, a large segment of Nashvillians have watched silently as huge swaths of our city were bought by the highest bidder. The hunger for profit drives the market. Money flows from developers in L.A., New York, Atlanta. They know the drill, they know when and where to invest, how to fit through loopholes, move in the dead of night. And in Metro government, few, if any, checks and balances exist to ensure that the “rising tide lifts all boats.”

Nashville has given millions upon millions of tax breaks, tax incentives, and public money to high end development projects while thousands of affordable homes, duplexes, and apartments are bought out. The low income tenants are evicted, moved further out of sight, out of mind. The housing is razed or renovated, replaced by expensive condos, “tall and skinnies,” boutique hotels, or Airbnb units. Poverty rates climb. Food stamps are cut. Homeless camps are cleared. Anti-refugee and anti-LGBTQI+ legislation is passed. Police cameras go up in public housing projects.

1 arrest, Kyle LincolnAs political organizer and professor Sekou Franklin says, “Nashville is being built like a playground for the rich and a prison for the poor.” The message is clear: the new Nashville is for people with money in their pockets—the young, the privileged, the white, the rich. So instead of the “rising tide lifting all boats,” a few drift by in pricey yachts while our people are drowning. The progress Mayor Barry’s administration is making is throwing life preservers out, but real change, real equity, real justice, will take decisive leadership and bold actions from the Mayor’s Office and City Council. And it will take a critical mass of people who are awake and willing to hold our city leaders accountable.

Andrew KrinksFor too many years, we’ve watched silently, waiting for a tipping point, waiting for something to shake us out of our slumber. And then, for many of us, the buzz of bulldozers rang in our ears, jolting us awake. For many of us, that tipping point came when the Mayor’s Office announced that they would move forward with plans to evict the people camping in the woods at Fort Negley who had nowhere to go. So on April 15th, hundreds rallied, marched, camped out with the residents. Others in homeless camps across the city joined together with low-wage workers, people fighting for racial justice, students, faith leaders, and organizers. With open eyes, the feeling of love, of newly discovered collective power, blazed in their bones.

Sekou FranklinDuring Mayor Barry’s State of Metro Address on April 29th, this same group came together for a silent vigil, followed by “The People’s State of Metro” press conference.  The following reflection is the speech I shared during the press conference. The other speakers included Steve Hopper who lives in an encampment south of downtown, Neptali Perez with Workers’ Dignity, Rhiana Anthony with Black Lives Matter, Marie Campbell with Showing Up for Racial Justice, Sekou Franklin with Democracy Nashville, Dick Blin with Jobs with Justice, and Ingrid McIntyre with Open Table Nashville.

What happens next depends on all of us. “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe,” says Ernesto Che Guevera. “You have to make it fall.”

The People’s State of Metro SpeechApril 29th

Ballons with housing signHow many people here have struggled to find housing they can afford in Nashville over the last couple years? How many people would have to move if your rent doubled overnight? All of us on the bottom and in the middle are united in our struggle for safe, decent, affordable housing.

We came here today to ask a question – What does the “State of Metro” look like from below? For me, it looks like a homeless woman name Alyce freezing to death in her car. It looks like over 70 deaths in the homeless community last year. It looks like clearing homeless camps like Fort Negley when there’s not enough room in the inn. It looks like Section 8 waiting lists with over 14,000 people waiting…. waiting for a better life, waiting for a better future for their children, hoping and praying their name is called.

Yes, this is the State of Metro in 2016, the state of the city we love. It’s a playground for the rich and a prison – or graveyard – for the poor. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

People Over Profit signWe’re not here today to protest Mayor Barry, per se. We’re here to protest silence and apathy in the face of injustice. We’re here to protest the perpetual displacement of our people in camps, projects, and low-income housing. We’re here to protest the watered down, status-quo, business-as-usual politics that have given this city to wealthy developers and taken it out of our hands. This is a crisis. This is tipping point. People are waking up, coming together, demanding change, declaring that this city must start putting people over profit.

Stop Displacement Now, photo by John PartipiloThe banner that now hangs from the Pedestrian Bridge reads, “Stop Displacement Now!” These are our demands: End all the closures of campsites and low-income housing until we have sufficient alternatives. Come up with a strategic, comprehensive plan to create 20,000 units of low-income housing – the units we need to address this crisis.

So if you are listening now and find yourself one of the wealthy, one of the privileged, one of the decision makers, we ask you to join us. Use your privilege, your resources, your influence for social, economic, and racial justice.

If you are listening now and find yourself in the middle, we ask you to join us. Help us build bridges to those in power and to those on the bottom. Use your networks to mobilize more people into this crucial work.

And if you are here and find yourself on the bottom, we want to say we are with you. Stay strong. Your voice is most important in this struggle and you are not alone. We see your suffering, we see your strength. So keep raising your voice, keep telling your story, and keep coming together in solidarity. The future of our city depends on it.

March, Kyle 2

The State of the Dream and Why I Stopped Serving the Poor

Campsite that we provided outreach to. - Copy(This talk was given as a part of First Unitarian Universalist’s “MLK Day: State of the Dream” event.)

In the realm of homeless outreach, our friends on the streets don’t come to our building, our office, like they would come to another service provider. On any given day, our “office” is found in the campsites, slums, and seedy motels. It’s in the jails, ER waiting rooms, and psych wards. It’s where the poor, our friends, live and struggle and die.

At Open Table Nashville, we meet people where they are physically and geographically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and we share the journey with them. Sometimes that looks like helping them access mental or physical health care and permanent housing. Sometimes that looks like being a consistent presence to remind them that they’re not alone. Sometimes that looks like standing beside them when Metro is threatening to close their camp and reminding them that they too have a voice, that they too have power. And sometimes, that looks like going to hours upon hours of City Council and Planning Commission meetings and standing on the cold granite of Legislative Plaza, crying out for change.

So you will rarely find us in our office which is a small second-story room that was donated to us by a very kind  church. Our work happens outside the walls in condemned and contested spaces in Nashville. And our strength comes from something more than bricks and mortar. It comes from the relationships we have with our friends on the streets and in the community. It comes from the hunger for justice that burns like a fire in our bellies.

12342672_10153821981754264_5074253195567903670_nSo my talk today is entitled “The State of the Dream and Why I Stopped Serving the Poor.” We’re gathered here on MLK weekend to discuss the state of MLK’s dream in our community and how we can move beyond models of service to models of justice and solidarity.

So what kind of dream are we talking about? MLK’s dream was about a world free from the prisons of poverty, from the dehumanization of discrimination and racism, from the spirit of fear and greed and hate. The dream is about realizing and embodying the Beloved Community in the here and now. So how are we doing on realizing this dream in Nashville?

When we look at issues of poverty, housing, and homelessness, I’m afraid we’re not doing very well. When our poverty rate increased to 19.9% last year, meaning that every 1 in 5 Nashvillians are entrenched in poverty, the dream is not being realized. When the waiting list for Section 8 is over 14,000 people yet public funding is being pumped into financing more luxury condos, hotels, and elite development projects, the dream is not being realized. When homelessness is steadily increasing and countless low-income families are being displaced by gentrification, the dream is not being realized. When a minimum wage worker has to work over 110 hours a week just to afford “fair” market housing, the dream is not being realized. And when a 69 year old woman freezes to death in her car in Madison for lack of adequate housing and shelter, the dream is not being realized.

So why in, in this climate, did I stop serving the poor and how can we go beyond models of service to models of justice? The idea of “service” too often means a one-time event where the “have’s” give temporary relief to the “have-not’s.” While these events can certainly meet immediate needs, they do nothing to change the larger system where so many require such relief. Part of Open Table’s mission is to disrupt cycles of poverty so we don’t just help the people who are drowning in the waters of poverty and despair – we go up stream to see why so many people are in those waters in the first place.

Victory shotSo I stopped serving the poor because what is needed is not service but solidarity. What is needed is not charity, it’s change. Concrete, systemic change. I stopped serving the poor because “the poor” are not projects to manage or problems to solve… they are brothers and sisters – siblings – to love and journey with and struggle alongside. They are my friends and coliberators.

In his last speech to the Southern Leadership Council in 1967, Martin Luther King said that models of service were simply not enough. He said that we have to ask bigger questions about the whole society. “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace,” said King. “But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something similar in the midst of the Holocaust. “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,” he said. “We are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Restructuring an edifice that produce beggars. Driving a spoke into the wheel itself. What could these things things look like in Nashville?

The work of solidarity begins with relationships. It begins with closer proximity to those who are cast out, those who are struggling. This means that if we don’t know the poor, our first task is to learn their names and struggles, to go down to the rivers of despair and wade with our neighbors. We enter into their lives, not just in one-time ways, but in consistent and sustained ways. And then, we go upstream.

VergeWhen we started this work of homeless outreach and organizing, we had little more to organize with than our own bodies and hearts. When Metro tried to close Tent City in 2008, we said we would put our bodies in front of the bulldozers, that we would get arrested alongside the residents. And while we still use that tactic if and when needed, we’ve gotten more savvy. We have a network of relationships throughout the community with attorneys, faith leaders, council members, researchers, the media, and other organizers and we work to change things from both the bottom up and the top down.

We change things from the bottom up by reminding our friends on the streets that they have rights, voices, and power. We host “Know Your Rights” workshops, encourage their leadership, and learn from their examples. We sit with them at their campfires plotting change and stoking the flames of their dreams.

And we change things from the top down by changing policy. Starting this Wednesday, an Encampment Task Force appointed by the Metro Homelessness Commission will begin meeting to come up with recommendations for the Mayor’s Office and Metro concerning Fort Negley and other campsites. The task force includes the head of Metro Parks, the central precinct commander, outreach workers, and other Metro employees, but most importantly, it includes people who are currently living in campsites.*

Housing VigilWe’re also partnering with groups like NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope) and A Voice to restructure the local edifice that produces homelessness and displacement through changing housing policy. While this can be tedious and technical work, it is one of the only ways for immediate and concrete systemic change. We are working to secure more funding for the Barnes Housing Trust Fund which provides a dedicated source of funding for affordable housing. We’re advocating for a Community Land Trust that could help us preserve existing affordable units for decades to come. We’re working on Inclusionary Zoning which would mandate that new developments have a certain percentage of affordable units. And we’re looking at ways to rechannel Tax Increment Financing, a public funding tool that was used under Mayor Dean almost exclusively to fund high-end development projects, back to affordable housing.

We have seen change happen and we know it’s possible. So we’ll keep bending what Martin Luther King called “the moral arc of the universe” toward justice with every ounce of strength we can muster. This arc bends and the Beloved Community forms when we come together. No one can do this work alone. So I’m praying that we will have the courage to step outside the walls, outside our comfort zones, and swim in the waters of change. What is needed is not our comfort but our courage. What is needed is not our isolation, suspicion, and cynicism, but astounding love and grace lived out in the public sphere. So as we work toward this dream, let us cultivate a kind of fire here that no water can put out and nurture a kind of “dangerous unselfishness.” Let us fan the flames of hope and resistance and join the struggle with our friends in the camps, slums, and alleys of indifference. We’d love to have you on this journey with us.

*The first Encampment Task Force meeting will be next Wednesday, January 20th at 9:00am at Metro Social Services (800 2nd Ave. N.). There will be a meeting every Wednesday at 9:00am until March 2nd and these meetings are open to the public and will include public comment.

Radical Chaplaincy: Reflecting on the Northwest Solidarity Tour

Mural at Tierra Nueva by Troy Terpstraby Aaron Scott, Rev. Sarah Monroe, and Rev. Lindsey Krinks

This piece grew out of conversations with Aaron and Sarah from Chaplains on the Harbor in Aberdeen, WA. We were connected through the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary and wrote this after meeting with and working alongside groups across the Pacific Northwest in September. The primary voice is Aaron’s. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a “nonviolent army of the poor” in the last campaign of his life, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Willie Baptist, founder of the Kairos Center/Poverty Initiative, frequently takes this call to the next level by saying, “Every army needs generals.” Chaplains on the Harbor recently returned from a week on the road with a cohort of our fellow street pastors, grassroots organizers, and movement builders. Through our conversations and information gathering along the way, we reached a point of clarity regarding our own role in King’s and Baptist’s assessment: just as every army needs generals, every army also needs chaplains. We do not define “chaplain” here in the terms narrowly set by institutions invested in enforcing the status quo, but rather by those in our movement who are getting the job done. What is the role of chaplaincy in social movement building, in resurrecting a new Poor People’s Campaign for today? Five key responsibilities emerged over the course of our time together:

TN2 - Copy1) Pastoral care for the front lines of struggle: Radical chaplaincy first and foremost includes our accompaniment and endurance alongside grassroots freedom fighters—on the streets, at protests, in tent cities, in jail, at ground-zero sites of climate change and in other crisis zones. Our friend Neaners, a leader at Tierra Nueva in rural Skagit County WA, shared some powerful stories of his work in relation to this model of chaplaincy. Neaners spent five years in solitary confinement, building strong relationships with Tierra Nueva pastors during his incarceration through letters and phone calls from the jail where he was held. Upon his release, Neaners went to work with Tierra Nueva’s gang outreach project. A former gang leader himself, Neaners has true skill in connecting with gang-involved youth. His theological insights into the systemic injustice of poverty, in the midst of God’s abundant creation, are at once grounded and complex, and he communicates these in a way that speaks urgently and relevantly to others struggling for survival and dignity. Neaners is one of the million unsung saints out there on the ground, who has both the personal experience and the dedication to others’ liberation that makes this movement possible.

Chaplains2) Building the theological, spiritual, and moral framework of our struggle for human dignity: As chaplains of this burgeoning force, it is our duty to prioritize the moral authority of the poor in the movement to end poverty. We are not called to clean up, make respectable, or dilute the message of grassroots leaders. We are simply called to amplify the message in these leaders’ own words, on their own terms. We can amplify this message through a range of tactics. At Chaplains on the Harbor in rural Grays Harbor County, WA, we work to bring the urgent message of our tent city constituents to the forefront of the institutional church. This includes hitting the preaching circuit during our organizing campaigns, inviting church groups out to learn from our leaders on the ground, and supporting these leaders in directly engaging the highest levels of institutional church power. In mobilizing community support as they sought out a second host site for Rivercity, our tent city constituents asked that Bishop Greg Rickel of The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia pay them a visit to begin building a relationship with him as well as help boost their visibility. Bishop Rickel not only showed up, but also spent time interviewing camp leaders and helping out with our social media campaign. In strategically leveraging the bishop’s position of moral authority, camp residents were able to assert their own authority to a wider audience in their struggle for survival and dignity.

DV38 - Copy3) Equipping and supporting grassroots leaders to love and protect one another:
As we labor for a new and radically transformed society where the rights and needs of all people are defended, we also share the responsibility of caring for one another in the harsh reality of the present. As poverty-abolitionist chaplains, we have the particular task of teaching and encouraging our communities how to lean toward care and respect for one another in the midst of repression and hardship. This includes restoring justice and righting wrongs where trust has been broken internally in our movement. We toured Dignity Village, Inc., a self-governing homeless settlement in Portland, OR where leaders demonstrated a powerful model for this on several levels. Village members share the task of staffing 24-hour internal security for the site. They also collectively sustain themselves by selling firewood and scrap metal, a level of self-sufficiency in which they take much pride. Village members take seriously their responsibility to defend one another: our tour guide Lisa explained the village’s process of ejecting residents who practice abuse or sexual harassment against other community members—as well as the opportunity residents find at Dignity Village to heal from personal trauma and the trauma of living on the streets. These small-scale projects of survival and dignity are icons of integrity to which our entire movement looks for hope and healing.

sisters-of-the-road-cafeSisters of the Road, a collective cafe in Portland, OR serving unhoused people, also offered a powerful example in this task of loving and protecting one another in the movement to end poverty. In addition to their model of radically dignified hospitality, Sisters also leads liberation-based education with their people on the streets. A white, unhoused Sisters’ worker explained to us that this education tackles systemic issues “like racism, which can be hard to swallow at first if you’ve lived on the street—you’re like, ‘What do you mean I have privilege?’ But they show you in a way that makes sense in your own life, because it’s about the whole system.” In order to truly love and protect one another, radical chaplaincy must include this kind of systemic analysis of forces like racism that have pitted the poor against one another and sabotaged our ability to stand together. We study history and we employ systemic analyses because we love each other and do not want to fall into the traps that have been laid for us for generations.

not a crime4) Nurturing our people to keep their eyes on the horizon: Radical chaplains must spiritually guide the multitude of leaders of this movement to find their individual purpose, strength, and hope in the long-term struggle for collective liberation. To do this, we have to stay in touch with leaders across many borders and lines of difference who are working toward our common goal. In meeting Lindsey, the street pastor at Open Table Nashville, Inc., we at Chaplains on the Harbor were struck by the resonance her story had with our own. Both of our organizations are working to support self-governing tent encampments in our local areas while navigating a web of police, legal battles, media relations, leadership conflicts and, most fundamentally, the large-scale economic and political forces driving policies of displacement. Despite being across the nation, in different states, and organizing in very different contexts (Nashville is a major city while Aberdeen has a population of 17,000 people), we shared a clear understanding that our people were suffering in the same ways as a result of the same systemic injustices—as well as a clear understanding that our best chances at victory were bound up with each other’s success.

In the same vein, we spent an evening meeting with Portland Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines. We were blessed by the radical analysis and depth of solidarity these young Filipin@ organizers extended to us as we took turns describing what our struggles had in common. PCHRP members shared stories of families torn apart by forced economic migration, of indigenous repression, and of the recent murder of a young Filipina trans woman at the hands of a U.S. Marine. We at Chaplains on the Harbor shared our stories of homeless parents separated from their children by CPS, police brutality against Native people, and our uphill effort to create safe spaces for women living on the streets. After a long period of listening, Agustín, a PCHRP member, said, “I think a lot of this comes down to the issue of human trafficking. CPS separating families and placing children into foster care at these rates is trafficking. The prison system is trafficking. Families torn apart because of poverty is trafficking.” We were deeply moved by the immediacy with which PCHRP moved to connect our issues—as a majority white, rural, stateside organization—to their own transnational struggle. It has inspired us to keep lifting our gaze to see the big picture and the many, many lives connected to our local resistance work.

R2D2445) Building power and taking power: King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” The Coup said, “Preacher man wanna save my soul, don’t nobody wanna save my life.” We are not truly grounded in the love of God’s children if we fail to build the power necessary to defend the lives of God’s children. There are countless creative ways to build power for the sake of this movement. Right 2 Dream Too, Portland, OR’s self-governing urban rest station and encampment, showed us a few. First, unhoused community leaders took over an abandoned downtown lot (some of the city’s most expensive real estate) and held it for four years. Second, those leaders have used the land to organize a safe sleeping space for other unhoused people and run it with a level of efficiency and integrity that puts the city’s own efforts to shame. The power of R2DToo’s work has won support in all sectors of society, from elected officials to religious leaders—and even police, who have noted that R2DToo’s presence on the block has increased neighborhood safety more than anything that came before it. Their model is an incredible synthesis of power and love, leveraged with the long-term vision of how we might build a new society free from poverty and homelessness.

st. martin St. Martin and the Roots of Chaplaincy
The historical roots of chaplaincy date back to Tours, France in the 4th Century CE just after Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. Late one night, a young soldier named Martin was riding to his base on horseback and came across a poor man who was freezing outside the city gates. With nothing in his purse to offer, Martin cut his military cloak in two and wrapped one half around the freezing man, keeping the other for himself. Martin returned to the military base and that night as he slept, he saw a vision of Jesus wrapped in the cloak. In his vision, Jesus said, “Here is Martin, a soldier who is not even baptized, and he has clad me.” Martin was so moved by this experience that he told everyone about it, was baptized, and later left the military. As decades passed, the remaining half of his cloak became a holy relic and was taken into battle as a symbol of God’s presence. The cloak, or cappa in Latin, was kept in a capella and the guardian who traveled with the cloak was called a capellanus. The English words “chapel” and “chaplain” originate herein and Martin is now known as St. Martin of Tours.

radicalchaplaincy4The history of chaplaincy and St. Martin’s cloak are contested narratives that shed light on the way that Empire uses the symbols of the church and the bodies of the poor to legitimize and carry out violence, oppression, and colonization. To take chaplaincy back to its roots, then, is to journey outside the city gates and to bear witness to St. Martin’s radical act of mercy and solidarity and Jesus’ identification with the poor. The kind of street chaplaincy we are interested in reclaims and resurrects this narrative. Rather than using it to bolster institutional power, we are interested in bolstering the growing movement of people on the margins who, like the freezing man, have been cast out and are struggling for dignity and basic human rights. Through our work of mercy and presence, we stand in the shadows of empire with those who too often shiver and suffer in silence. Through solidarity and accompaniment, we move forward together with amplified voices, burgeoning power, and the deep understanding that Christ is present and struggles alongside us. And we are transformed.

This post was originally published on Aaron’s blog and was republished on the blog for the Kairos Center/Poverty Initiative.