The 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.
I 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?
Over 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??)
This 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.*
Reflections for the 2016 Annual Homeless Memorial
As 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.
As 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.
A 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?
This 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.
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
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 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.
(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.
So 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.
So 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.
When 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.*
We’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.