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.


Suggested Reading List on Housing Rights, Homelessness, Land Struggles, and the Criminalization of Poverty

booklistLast Wednesday, I was tasked with talking to 180 Vanderbilt students about affordable housing in Nashville. At the end, several students asked for a suggested reading list so I decided it was time to re-vamp my list. After hitting up some friends for help, here are my top picks. I’d love to hear if others have suggestions!

Out of Place: Homeless Mobilizations, Subcities, and Contested Landscapes, by Talmadge Wright
Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness, by Randall Amster
No Trespassing: Squatting, Rent Strikes, and Land Struggles Worldwide, by Ander Corr
The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, by Don Mitchell
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to Urban Revolution, by David Harvey
Toward Land, Work, and Power: Charting a Path of Resistance to U.S.-Led Imperialism, by Jaron Browne, et. al.
Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, by Stephen Fisher
New York for Sale: Community Planning Confronts Global Real Estate, by Tom Angotti
Citizens without Shelter: Homelessness, Democracy, and Political Exclusion, by Leonard Feldman
Reckoning with Homelessness, by Kim Hopper
Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America, Ella Howard
Policing the Poor: From Slave Plantation to Public Housing, by Neil Websdale
Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity, by Loïc Wacquant
Prisons of Poverty, by Loïc Wacquant
The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, by Jeffrey Reiman and Paul Leighton
Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, by Victor Rios
No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future, Joerg Rieger
Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, by Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh
Disrupting Homelessness: Alternative Christian Approaches, by Lauren Stivers

Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, by W.E.B. Du Bois
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn
Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History, by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubac

On Keeping Broken Things

cumberland river - Copy

Winter, 2015

I am standing at the edge of another year. I am standing at the edge of another year and find myself drawn back to the woods, back to the hidden spot on the river where I can be alone. As I walk to the water, my feet trace the familiar path and quiet surrounds me. Seagulls and herons glide low, cutting through wind, bathing in light. River rocks, broken glass, the rusted bones and bolts of old machines, and dried clam and bullet shells encircle me. I know in the months to come, this same sun, with its warmth pushing through the chill of wind, will raise winter’s dead, calling us all out of our tombs.

As I sit by the river, everything around me slows, and again, I find my breath. I breathe in the cold, damp air, feel the wind pushing against my body, and remember who I am.

I am the descendant of coal miners and educators, farmers and physicians. I grew up in the foothills of South Carolina and spent my childhood making forts, turning over river rocks, and swimming in lakes. I came to know the darkness of addiction, depression, and dysfunction early on. Our family covered and carried that darkness like a festering wound and we learned to push forward and even to step out of its shadow and play. Gradually, as the generations roll on, those of us who survived are learning how to let the light in, to heal. We’re remembering why we have hope in the midst of such brokenness.

coldJust across the river from here, there is a catacomb-like cave where a man named Ken has lived for three years. He digs through trash cans for food and half-empty beer bottles and then scoots down the steep bank to his home. His skin is blackened with dirt, his hair caked in a strange dust. He barely talks, but we found him when the cold hit and he came into the emergency shelter at Green Street Church. It was his first time to sleep inside in years. Gradually, he began to warm up to us. He smiled when we remembered his name, let us tend his weary, blackened feet, and let us find him better shoes. Then, he began to open up. “It all started when the kids were killed,” he said. He muttered shattered fragments of stories and said he was some kind of sniper years ago. And his tangled trauma bled through his words.

I have no interest in “fixing” or domesticating Ken. He has survived alone for who knows how long and at least now, he knows he’s not alone, he knows that if he’s ever ready to talk about healing or resources, we’ll be here. And lately, even on Wednesday nights when it’s not as cold, I’ve seen him come to Green Street’s service and stay for the meal afterward. He has come out of his cave, emerged from the tomb, still wrapped and reeking. From here, his journey will move forward on his own terms.

So I look back and I look forward with open hands, letting go of my urge to fix and save, letting go of all expectations and concerns. “I will keep broken things,” writes Alice Walker. “Their beauty is they need not ever be ‘fixed.’” Yes, I will keep the covered, shadowy things, wounded and caked in dust. And I’ll hold the cracked and ruined pieces in my open hands toward the light.


country5 - Copy (2)This last year has been a whirlwind with highs and lows that left me reeling. Nearly 100 of the men, women, and children we journeyed alongside are off the streets. The barriers we pushed through to help them get into housing were significant and, at times, nearly insurmountable. And while obtaining housing is a huge victory, they’re all still swimming in varying forms of brokenness. Aren’t we all? There is no silver bullet for the human condition, for struggle, for trauma, for grief. Leonard Cohen sings that light comes in through the cracks, through the crevices, through the brokenness, and I hope with all my heart that he’s right.

Even as we celebrate the people who are now off the streets, we also mourn the people we’ve lost and we continue to walk “with those beyond help,” as Dorothee Söelle says. Dave, the seizing man, is now in another state (or in jail) and I wonder if he’s still unraveled, I wonder if he’s still haunted by the damaged memories of things that never happened. Several months ago, as we were passing time in the emergency room, I asked him about the tattoos on his arms. In the middle of a myriad of ink and symbols and flames, I noticed ravens on each of his wrists. “Ravens have always followed me,” Dave said, gripped. “One time, in East Tennessee, three ravens landed on the hood of my car, hopping up and down and flapping their wings. They wouldn’t let me leave.” So he had them inscribed on his body, a reminder of the darkness that follows him.

On the shaded, maze-like trails that snake through the Kentucky hillside surrounding Gethsemani, I once found the dark, sleek feather of a raven. I took it with me, cleaned it, and made it into an earring that I wear on days when I need to connect to my own brokenness and darkness. Just weeks before I found the feather, I was walking on a wooded footpath in Shelby Park when I heard the sharp cry of a wounded raven. I looked in time to see his dark eyes catch mine as he lifted into a nearby tree. Did he want me to see his pain? I watched him for some time, entranced by the confidence and beauty shining through his wounds. He took his time smoothing his wings with his beak as his sleek feathers reflected the light.

elijah and the raven 2It is written that ravens are birds of myth, legend, and prophecy, carrying life and death in their wings. They are brothers of the crow, friends of gods and warriors, protectors of saints and cities. Ravens make sense of the signs and carry nations on their backs. So what of this wounded raven, perched in the tree, his darkness calling to me like song? Lost in thought, I lowered my gaze and when I glanced back, he was taking off. I can still hear his labored flight echo through the trees and I can’t shake the thought of him. So I wear the feather as a reminder of darkness, of brokenness, of mystery. Yes, I will keep dark and broken things, sleek and splintered, seizing and frayed, and I will hold the past, present, and future, with open hands so they, too, can fly away, wounded or whole or somewhere in between.

The other month, I spent an entire day with Phillip from the riverside camp. We were successful in defending his camp from closure by the police, but the time had come to move on, to clean the camp up and to shut it down. The guys were all transitioning from the streets to housing and this was the next step. We had held the camp for as long as we could and winter was just around the corner. Phillip was the last man standing and was beside himself with grief. This chapter of his life was coming to a close and he was stepping into uncharted territory—detox, rehab, and being reunited with his mother and daughters up North.

IMAG1564All of Phillip’s belongings that weren’t going with him were tossed into a towering bonfire that gave off a thick black smoke. Into the fire went the posts and plywood walls that held up his make-shift home, the cushions of the old red chair, the expired food and all his clothes and keepsakes that were beyond repair. He stared through the flames and smoke as we pulled apart the remaining shell of his home. He said the flames were like the flames of hell, and as we worked, an unexpected anger came over me. Yes, this is the kind of hellish society in which we live—where Phillip is forced to disassemble and burn his own home because the land he has cultivated and turned into a sanctuary is the property of a private corporation in another state.

I left that day with the scent of campfire smoke in my hair and the fierce recollection of what should burn and what shouldn’t. I went forward holding the memory of that bonfire lifting its smoke to the heavens like a warning or a prayer, lingering in our lungs, our clothes, our hearts, raining a fine dust of ashes all around.

The prophet Isaiah, well acquainted with brokenness, darkness, and fire, says that the Spirit of the Lord will give those who mourn “beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of despair, garments of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness,” he continues, and “will raise up the former devastations and repair the ruined cities.” But for now, we are caked in dust and ashes. When will the ruined cities, camps, and caves be raised?

About a month before the final bonfire, Jeff, another one of the men from the riverside camp, went into detox at a psychiatric hospital. His first couple days of withdraw were horrible, his body wracked by shaking, sweating, fevers, and chills. When I went to visit him a few days later, however, the meds had kicked in and he was in better spirits. “I have something for you!” he said as his face lit up and he handed me a gift. It was a dream catcher he made from the rounded edges of styrofoam plates threaded together with shredded sky-blue hospital clothes. Hanging from the center were pigeon feathers found in the small courtyard outside. “Jeff, this is incredible!” I said. He had made one for Samuel, too, and had a third hanging above his bed. “It’s for the nightmares,” he said. “It helps.” Yes, Jeff, I will keep broken and mended things, woven from hope and hospital clothes.

“The present form of this world is passing away,” says Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. And in second Peter, the apostle writes that on the day of the Lord, “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire.” And I wonder what elements will burn. Will we perish or carry that smoke in our lungs, our hair? Peter continues, “and we wait for new heavens and a new earth where justice is at home.”

So I am standing at the edge of another year, sitting on the riverbank with stories and hope, with darkness and fire, surrounded, holding, and held by broken things. I’m trying to imagine a new heaven and new earth where justice is at home, where the ruins are repaired. Central American poet Martín Espada writes, “If the abolition of slave-manacles began as a vision of hands without manacles, then this is the year; if the shutdown of extermination camps began as imagination of a land without barbed wire or the crematorium, then this is the year; if every rebellion begins with the idea that conquerors on horseback are not many-legged gods, that they too drown if plunged in the river, then this is the year.”

tinfoil roses So I am imagining new heavens and a new earth and I’m praying that this will be the year. Yes, let this be the year when cavemen come out of their tombs, when no one freezes to death on church steps, when bulldozers tear down prisons walls instead of homes, when we see beauty in brokenness and ashes, and when we burn systems that perpetuate poverty, mass incarceration, and death to the ground. “We can take back our world if we want to,” writes Marge Piercy. So for now, I will keep broken things and hold hope in my hands, praying that we will find the courage to take back our world, to raise up devastations, and to rebuild the ruins as we heal.

Psalm of Waiting

Advent, December 2014

“Then my bones drop away
like petals, my bones wither
and scatter and still I am waiting
empty as grey arching sky, waiting…”
– Marge Piercy

Eric Garner Vigil, Andrew2

It is cold and growing colder and still we are waiting. We are waiting together, losing and finding our breath together, dying and rising all over town. Our footsteps burn holes in the pavement but we cannot stop. We are windstorms and waiting, holy restlessness and harvest. We are moving forward against all odds, lit by something within, waking up to the power of who we are together.

Last week, we died on Broadway, we died on I-24, we died in the Gulch, in the mall at Green Hills, and at the convention center. We lay on the cold pavement together in silence with the names of the slain on our lips looking upward at city lights and the arching sky, embodying the disruption so deep in our hearts. Each minute we lay was for an hour that Mike Brown’s body lay on the ground in Ferguson, each breath was for Eric Garner who couldn’t breathe, each tear was for the names and stories of the countless black lives, young and old, male, female, and trans, lost to stunning violence and non-indictments. And something happened to me on that pavement, that sea of asphalt where the waves of time, the centuries of grief, washed over us. Something happened to me, something opened inside me—a kind of anticipation, a kind of resolve—and each time we rose together, I realized I was changed, I realized that a new “we” was emerging, powerful in our vulnerability, fierce in our love.

adventDuring this season of Advent, death hangs heavy in the air. Death and injustice. They hang like strange fruit from the trees leaving me raw. In “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot speaks of the birth of Christ as a kind of death, a “hard and bitter” death that changes everything and leaves behind a deep sense of disruption. Mary’s Magnificat in Luke sings of the coming Christ as one who scatters the proud, brings the powerful down from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, sends the rich away empty, and fills the hungry with good things—a complete upheaval of the existing order. In his book Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon says that liberation, reawakening, restoration, and decolonization are always violent events. Yes, I’m reminded that there is nothing sentimental about this Advent season by the death and unrest that surround me in this waiting.

The other day, I visited two people in separate hospitals—a man who tried to kill himself and a woman who was dying. Both visits were unbearable, my stomach felt sick after leaving. Seeing the flesh stitched back together on his arms and seeing the tubes following in and out of her weathered body left me shaken. 1978749_10152891850074935_8905904662241900070_nIt was his birthday. It was her third week in housing. Then, the day before the police officer who strangled Eric Garner was let off the hook, another un-housed man—Robert—was found dead in the library park, his poor health exacerbated by exposure to the cold. I got there too late. The only thing I could do was to kneel on the ground and bear witness as his stiff, lifeless body was loaded on the stretcher and taken to the medical examiner’s office.

Earlier this month, I listened as “Valerie” told me about the abuses she faced as a child. Through tears, she told me what it was like to lay in her bed with her sister and wonder if the men who walked through their house would come molest them like the men before. She told me about the shame and guilt she felt as the terrible secret grew in her belly when she bore her brother’s child. For years and years, she drank her trauma down to her toes, and at 80-something days sober, the old wounds were re-emerging, rising up to her throat, stinging her heart and haunting her mind. Now she lies in bed at night holding her pillow to her chest and hears a tap-tap-tapping like two feet walking across her brain. “Things have been hard,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. Yes, Valerie, we are still waiting.

Eric Garner Vigil, Alan Poizner, Tennessean14After a night of dying and rising during the Eric Garner march, I was driving back home with adrenaline coursing through my veins when I saw a man sitting on a bench in the shadow of the new convention center. He was shivering and ill-equipped for the cold—no blankets or gloves, only a thin canvas jacket. I stopped, got out of my car, and introduced myself. His name was Thomas and like so many others, he didn’t want to go to the Mission. “Do you need any blankets or gloves? Any hand warmers or toe warmers?” I asked. He looked up at me with brown crusted eyes. “I don’t have any toes,” he muttered. I fumbled to respond. “Oh gosh,” I said, “Well, we could put them on your feet to keep them warm.” He nodded and while I was getting the supplies from my car, he took off his ragged boots. His feet were two nubs like trees without branches. I asked him what happened and he said all his toes were amputated in 2012 from frostbite. As I helped him put the foot warmers on the nubs of his feet and bundle up, he said his feet ache all the time. He thanked me and I gave him my card and told him I’d look for him again. I continued home, haunted by his feet and by the remembrance of another man who lost both his legs to frostbite last winter. This is what we are up against, I thought, a system, a society, a city, where the poor are literally dismembered in the shadows of progress while breathless black bodies lie on the ground. Yes Thomas, yes Eric, we are still waiting.

AudreLordeAs Audre Lorde mourned the horrific murder of Emmett Till so many years ago, she wrote about “the horrors we are living/ with tortured lungs/ adapting to breathe blood.” And as I read her heart-wrenching words, I realize there is a grief and waiting I know in my bones and there is a grief and waiting I will never know. The grief I know is the grief of burying countless friends before their time, of tending the wounds that may never heal, of having no answers for people who suffer so immensely, of watching their minds and bodies and will waste away on the streets as they wait for housing, for hope.

But there is a different grief I will never know. I’ll never fear that my unborn sons and daughters will be imprisoned or gunned-down because of the color of their skin. I’ll never know the way it feels to have my body criminalized or stigmatized because of the way I look. I’ll never wonder about the terrible abuses faced by my ancestors who were traded and slaughtered like cattle. I’ll never be able to say, as my friend Jessica says so beautifully, “We are the hopes and dreams of the slaves.”

When I want to retreat from suffering, injustice, and racism, I can hide in coffee shops or hike through the woods without fear. Like Ferlinghetti, I’m a social climber—I can blend into different settings with different people without feeling eyes cut me down and tell me I don’t belong. This is white privilege—something I didn’t ask for, something I can’t give back. And I’m learning how to move past guilt and fear, denial and paralysis. I’m learning how to situate myself and, as James Baldwin says, to risk myself. I’m learning, slowly and with countless missteps, my place in this struggle, my place in this waiting.

In Psalm 126, the psalmist prays that those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy; that those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, will come home with joyful shouts, carrying their sheaves. Perhaps the waves that washed over us in that sea of asphalt were the waves of our own tears rising up with the tears of the prophets and slaves, the battered and dismembered, the wretched of the earth. So today, my prayer is that our tears will fall like seed, breaking open the pavement, breaking up the ground and creating a new earth where the harvest is plentiful and the hungry are filled with good things.

rabia_al-_adawiyyaWhen Peter Rollins was in town several months ago, he told a story about a Sufi mystic and saint who ran through her village carrying a bucket of water in one hand and a torch in the other. She said the water was for putting out the flames of hell and the fire was for burning down the gates of heaven so we could live in the present without fear of hell or want of heaven; so we could love God and one another with a kind of urgency and fullness. This waiting in which I swim is a yearning for another world but it is also a bucket of water, a torch of fire. With this waiting and yearning, I want to both put out flames and watch things burn. With this waiting, I want to both feel the water wash over me and become the waves themselves. “I baptize you with water, but there is one who is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” said John the Baptist. So I long to become the flames, as well.

My prayer in this season is this: Meet us here, O God of winter and waiting, of open hands and marching feet, of harvest-time and knowing. Meet us here, O God who waits and struggles with us, O God who dares to hope. Teach us to become the water, the fire, the waiting. Teach us to channel our collective lament, our collective love, our collective power and wield it to bend armored tanks into homes, prisons into farmlands, weeping into sheaves of joy. Without you, we are seeds yearning for soil, wicks yearning for flame. Without you, we will forget, as Annie Dillard says, that “the waiting itself is the thing.”

Advent Reflections from Justin

drawing of Nashville by Kaitlyn Krinks, 7 years old

“Nashville” by Kaitlyn Krinks, age 7

This post was written by Justin Williams and originally posted on Open Table Nashville’s blog. Justin is an intern at OTN from UT’s School of Social Work.

This winter has seen me revisiting the likelihood that Dr. King had me in mind when he lamented those of us “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

I can’t pinpoint who or what exactly is responsible for bringing this particular quote to life. Perhaps it’s the now-routine experience of dropping people off in front of tents at the cusp of freezing temperatures… or watching an undernourished friend give away the last of his deli meat to a newcomer at camp just minutes after I’ve selfishly consoled myself for all the gas used to drive across town to let him spend the last of his disability check at the grocery store. Maybe it’s the burden of a mental rolodex now full of countless faces that cycle through my thoughts every time I see someone sitting alone on a park bench… or it’s simply the growing numbers of concerned Tennesseans willing to disrupt patterns of violence with their bodies while I fret over due dates on an academic syllabus. In any event though, the onset of winter seems to have conspired with Open Table Nashville just in time for the Christian tradition’s observance of Advent to begin again unsettling and ministering to my uncertain presence within these complex times.

In the wake of another sorrowful Black Friday (which included an 89-year-old Salvation Army volunteer being trampled to death as he collected donations outside a Kmart), it seems necessary to recall the ways in which the commemoration of Advent offers potential for deep subversion of the social religion of consumerism and pseudo-spirituality that marks the worst of our culture’s relationship to the holiday season.

Advent, positioned at the heels of Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmastide, is situated at the intersection of gratitude and a spirit of discontent rooted in longing, expectation, and discomfort with the prevailing order. It is about anticipation amidst uncertain times and requires that we celebrate spaces of abundant mercy and love while lamenting any instance of their absence as we build the courage and faith to act prophetically for their promised restoration.

adventAdvent, if recognized rightly, invites us to sit amidst the tension between furious longing and satisfied anticipation. For want of space (and lest anyone accuse OTN of trying to outdo Marxism!) I won’t include the full passage of Christian scripture here, but the challenge of Advent is fully captured by the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise that the Gospel of Luke uses to frame the arrival of Jesus into a world in which the appearance of the reign of God is rendered upside-down when overlaid with a socio-political orientation that has lost its bearings and skewed towards the rich and powerful. She rejoices in—and accurately reinterprets for us—the reality of what already is while siding with the dejected and the dispossessed.

As a fledging social worker, I’m drawn to the language of “parts” used in the Internal Family Systems modality of psychotherapy to discuss the presence of inner-personal exiles and I’m intrigued by the potential application of such concepts to sociological functioning. In IFS, “exiles”—a personification of the aspects of our individual (and perhaps collective) Being marked by the pain of fear, trauma, and shame—are suppressed by two other distinct parts that aim to either numb and distract or preemptively protect and police our consciousness and behavior. Though IFS is potentially a powerful metaphor for psycho-spiritual journeying, this winter has served as a profound reminder that the season of Advent is surely an invitation to not only internal transformation but as well to the social upheaval and role reversals of which Mary sings.

Already in Nashville, people without respite from the elements are dying unnecessary deaths in spite of a concerted effort to implement cold weather protocols for outreach and emergency shelter. Chic urban development and broad gentrification in line with the city’s emerging economic growth exponentially increases while a dire affordable housing shortage is exacerbated as existing units disappear and the poor are increasingly criminalized when they experience homelessness.

Advent is a season that was born in the hearts of a people who knew of divine intentions to establish a kin-dom of peace… and yet they hung their indigenous harps upon the willow tree (Ps. 137) and suffered much as exiles and captives beneath the rule of unjust power.

dumpster, homeOTN lives in close proximity to those all too frequently held captive by a gauntlet of forces both internal and institutional. Though we are no longer in Babylon or under Roman occupation, we all have ways of naming the colonization of our spirits and—for those engaged in a daily struggle for survival or those of us fortunate enough to sit at the feet of discerning voices that have been exiled—there is little doubt that our sisters and brothers, both elder and infant, contend with the same rubric of systemic oppression that provides the context for the birth narratives that so many celebrate (though often extracted from their social implications) every December.

Though I know there are many with past and present experiences of the harshness of life on the streets that will say OTN has served them in times of need, their presence in my life is an equally profound saving grace in light of the risks of dulled appreciation and a numbed sense of liberative longing that can so easily creep into the holiday seasons passing through my life of privilege.

The authors of the Christmas Gospels subvert triumphalist conventions of imperial birth narratives at every turn. Providing a genealogy that stumbles and stutters through a lineage of unsavory men and blatantly scandalous women, they emphasize their Hope’s status as an impoverished and powerless baby born to a refugee father and his teenaged wife, displaced from their home by a census demonstrating arrogant imperial power and control (perhaps a theme not unfamiliar to those contending with the American criminal-industrial complex). Showing a preference for the margins over political and economic centers of power, the Prince of Peace’s lowly birth within a cave for beasts of burden was heralded by a band of outcast shepherds comparable to the migrant workers that pluck our fruit… or perhaps the friend of OTN that this afternoon could not contain a wide-eyed grin at the prospect of having his felonies overlooked with the hope of an opportunity to clean toilets at a middle school.

unnamed (4)Given the manner in which the subject of Advent was first recognized, those banding together in illegal camps and freshly accessed public housing units can’t help but add to my understanding of the ever-deepening concepts symbolized by the candles of Expectation, Hope, Joy, and Peace in my childhood Advent wreath. While exposure to the experiences and perspectives of those marginalized by economic class, white supremacy, and mental health are not in any way new, there remain limits to my capacity to transcend myself with empathy or eliminate the need for teachers; thus their successes and failures, reflections and silence, all challenge and faithfully refashion my acculturation to a status quo decidedly incapable of nurturing the characteristics of Advent. I enter urban camps or approach broken-down cars—the meager fortresses of survival that our neighbors without homes depend upon—and I am engaged with a transparency that echoes my longing for real shalom that requires deep transformation on inextricably linked personal and societal scales while risking no threat of being diminished by true gratitude for the ways in which daily bread sustains and life perseveres.

Walter Brueggemann notes that the task of prophecy is “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Though I am convinced that housing is a human right and that establishing a permanent residence is the first step in empowering those experiencing homeless to address further bio-psycho-social needs, so many counted among the homeless of Nashville already have much to teach us about alternatives to the dominant cultural myths. Those we work alongside provide moorings in something deeper and truer than the seductions of a status quo that degrades us all but appears more natural to some.
This is good news indeed.

art2 - Copy

“Campsite” by Kaitlyn Krinks, age 7

And when we who endeavor to share life with society’s most vulnerable lament the litany of barriers to full dignity that they help us understand—from relationally brutalizing substance abuse and seemingly irreparable family estrangement to dehumanizing legal discrimination and disempowering apathy sometimes masked as “ministry”—we do a disservice to their presence among us by not recounting as well the joy and thanksgiving to which their lives so often bear witness. Neither story tells the whole but both stories must be told, for we sit between exile and thanksgiving, a present reality in which thrones of injustice seem insurmountable while yet the lowly are promised exaltation as the hungry receive their fill. In my short time at OTN, there has been much to beg mourning and to incite anger… but people continue to navigate the housing process and establish homes for themselves in which their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs can better be pursued.

Though I will continue to be convicted by Dr. King’s prophetic witness, the season of Advent provides a timely environment to sit square in the middle of tension that fosters holy anger, risky hope, support needed to defy fear, and the cultivation of graciousness and exuberance towards all the ways in which life cannot help but prove abundant.

As long as some of our neighbors depart prematurely from a world that couldn’t even identify them with a full name… while a new friend of mine (a confessed and convicted murderer, no less!) proves to have a pastoral touch that could never be imparted through institutional seminaries, Advent achingly and graciously continues.

“In Violence and Travail”: Advent on the Streets

camp(This entry was originally posted on Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Alumni Blog)

I can finally feel the season of Advent in my bones. My heart and mind have been so heavy for so long, weighed down with the news of more death and injustice, with worries about the coming cold, but I can finally feel seeds of hope opening and sprouting within me, blooming silently in my blood. So during this season of Advent where we await the coming of Christ, I wait with open eyes looking for a sign, looking for something, someone, to break into all this suffering and violence and bring good news.

My body and feet, too, are weary and worn. They are weary from marching across the city with hundreds of others after the verdicts in Ferguson and New York. They are worn from climbing in and out of caves and ravines and trekking across train tracks to take Eric Garner Vigil, Christopher Ott12warm blankets and supplies to the countless people who live in tents and makeshift homes in the margins of our city, out of sight, out of mind. I am haunted by the dire conditions in which men, women, and children live in our own backyard—the abandoned trailer parks, the rafters beneath bridges, the lean-to’s made from old billboard signs, the dilapidated and heatless shanties. Yes, welcome to Nashville, the new Bethlehem, where there is still not enough room in the inn, where pregnant women and their partners still wonder if they can cobble together enough change to stay in a seedy hotel room and escape the cold for just one more night.

And I wonder what will change things. I wonder what good news looks like today. I take comfort in knowing that Christ was born, as theologian Walter Brueggemann says, “in violence and travail.” I take comfort in knowing that newness and life can enter our world with a single cry that cracks open the darkest of nights.

dumpster, home2I’m a street chaplain and homeless outreach worker with Open Table Nashville (OTN) when I’m out on the streets, I carry my medic bag along with housing applications, anointing oil, blankets, gloves, and socks. At OTN, we tend wounds, share burdens, help people access housing, build community, and listen for hope. But all these things are not enough—we also work to disrupt cycles of poverty and oppression. “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

So during this season of waiting, let us awaken to the hope-charged air and seize the possibility of creating a better world. Let us wade through systemic violence, through racism and hatred, through hopeless travail, and feel our feet pound the pavement in protest, in prayer. Let us lay down our credit cards, our worries, and our silence at the feet of the living Christ and lean into the coming newness born in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. And then, with God’s grace, let our voices be the cry that cracks open the darkest night and let our very breath, our very marrow, our very being, be the in-breaking of hope, equality, and justice in the world.

Eric Garner Vigil, Christopher Ott2In Violence and Travail
Walter Brueggemann
We give you thanks for the babe born in violence.
We give you thanks for the miracle of Bethlehem, born into the Jerusalem heritage.
We do not understand why the innocents must be slaughtered; we know that your kingdom comes in violence and travail.  Our time would be a good time for your kingdom to come, because we have had enough of violence and travail.
So we wait with eager longing, and with enormous fear, because your promises do not coincide with our favorite injustices.
We pray for the coming of your kingdom on earth as it is around your heavenly throne.
We are people grown weary of waiting.
We dwell in the midst of cynical people, and we have settled for what we can control.
We do know that you hold initiative for our lives, that your love planted our salvation before we saw the light of day.
And so we wait for your coming, in your vulnerable baby in whom all things are made new.


Leaning into Mystery – November 2nd

charleston - CopyAll Souls’ Day, Charleston, SC

It is said that some places have thin air. In these places, the veil between this world and the next seems thinner, more charged with mystery and the sacred, a liminal space. No one knows what makes these places feel so different, but when you’re there, you find yourself catching your breath more often, you feel lighter, surrounded, awestruck, and held. I think there are also liminal seasons and days. I feel this way during Lent, the Summer Solstice, Advent, and the full moon, like there’s a different energy that is palpable and that energy is drawing me in like a mighty breath breathing the world into being.

For me, this weekend is a liminal time. It holds a triad of days where our calendars and rhythms open up to mystery, darkness, and death—All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, celebrated collectively as “The Day of the Dead” in Mexico and beyond. When else do we invite ourselves to be moved and even frightened by what we don’t understand? When else do we let ourselves get caught up in superstition and the supernatural, take on the guise of someone else, and honor and celebrate the dead?

samhainAnd it’s not the mere naming of these days that make them liminal times—something deeper is going on. Take, for instance, All Hallow’s Eve—Halloween—which originated from the Celtic harvest festival Samhain. This ancient festival was founded because people who lived close to the ground, close to the rhythms of the earth, sensed the seasons changing. They made towering bonfires, brought offerings of food and drink, and petitioned for protection and provisions during winter. They, too, saw this as a liminal time, believing that some threshold was propped open between worlds. So as their slice of the earth was cooling and turning back into herself, they turned inward, as well, giving themselves over to fear, superstition, and even hope.  Sometime around the 8th Century, Christians merged the celebration of Samhain with All Saints’ Day resulting in All Hallows’ Eve.

This year, I’m spending this hallowed weekend in Charleston, South Carolina where $15 ghost tours abound, variations of Old South plantationism still thrive, and Spanish moss and the salty scent of marsh hang heavy in the air. I’m spending the weekend in Charleston because a 47 year old man died and gave my father, a 56 year old man, a kidney. So as I give thanks that my father is still on this side, I say a special prayer for the donor, his family, and all our friends and loved ones who have passed. I say a special prayer for all the souls that have departed and are journeying, mysteriously, somewhere between worlds, somewhere beyond the veil.

monarchs8Thousands of miles away, something else is stirring: hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies making their annual migration south to the transvolcanic mountains of Mexico. They are, as usual, just in time for the Day of the Dead. They migrate from all over North America, charging thin air with a frenzy of flaming wings. What are they and where did they come from? Researchers still don’t know how the monarchs do it. Researchers still don’t know how they, all at the same time, find their way to the same place—a place thousands of miles from where they hatched, a place they’ve never been before. Perhaps it’s something embedded in the DNA that pulses through their furred and coal-like bodies. Perhaps it’s the position of the sun or some magnetic pull of the earth that guides their pilgrimage. But when they come in droves, it is said that they are the souls of the departed coming back to visit all those they left behind.

monarchsThe monarchs spend the winter clinging to the bark and branches of oyamel firs, sometimes tens of thousands to each tree. Together, they form a living cloak lighting the trees with flame. When they lift in a single stroke, their wings make the sound of crackling fire dancing across live wood and the whole forest is like the bonfires of old—an ancient sign of protest against the coming cold or some petition to the sun or gods to remember us all. Yes, what are they and where did they come from?

In the heart of winter a couple years ago when our sunny hope of social change and direct democracy was dashed before our eyes on the cold granite of Legislative Plaza, I gathered with a group of about a dozen women and we set out into the woods at night. We were tired, yes, but when we came together, a kind of wildness was lit within us. We crossed the North Nashville train tracks into darkness and beat drums and sang songs. We climbed upon a stilled train, marched to a clearing in the woods, and lit a fire. We named our procession “5th wave feminism” and told stories about the radical women who had carved a place for themselves in our histories: our mothers and grandmothers fierce with their loving, Ella Baker, Dorothy Day, Lucy Parsons, Zora Neale Hurston, Joan of Arc, and the list went on into the night. We returned, drumming and singing, “swinging our great grandmother’s bones,” as Marge Piercy says, renewed.

witch_burningCenturies ago, women were burned for less in Europe and beyond. Women who carried the knowledge of how to heal with herbs and deliver life into the world, who knew how to lean into mystery and darkness, who could sit with suffering and death, were burned at the stake. Why? The knowledge they held and passed down was powerful—a threat to patriarchy, the church, and pre-modern medicine. Their knowledge was a power that could not be controlled by men or their version of the Christian God. When we can’t lean into mystery—into what we can’t understand—we fear it. We crush it.

In his All Saints’ Day address at Verano cemetery in Rome, Pope Francis drew from the texts of the day—the seventh chapter of Revelation and the Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, he calls us to lean into the mystery of suffering and hope. He calls us to open our eyes and remember the “unknown saints” around us—the discarded and unwanted, the un-housed and the jobless, and all those fleeing from war, hunger, and desolation.

“Who are they and where did they come from?” asks the elder in Revelation 7:13. “They have come out of the great tribulation” (7:14), and they are sanctified, says Pope Francis, through their distress. In other words, their sainthood, their salvation, comes through their suffering, their struggle. “They will be sheltered with the presence of God,” continues Revelation, and “never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat… And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Christ of the Breadline, Andrei RublevPope Francis continues, saying that we, too, are sanctified as we embrace and identify with the discarded, as we live into the Sermon on the Mount, as we mourn, as we hunger for justice, and as we sow peace, mercy, and joy into the soil of the world. And somehow, this path, this pilgrimage into the Beatitudes, will bring about our liberation.

Like the monarchs, I feel drawn to this path by something I don’t understand—some shifting of light, some magnetic pull, some holy breath drawing me in. What would happen if I—if we—were to fully give into this pull? When I do listen, when I do give in, I feel the beating of my heart join with the pulsing chorus of the discarded and oppressed. And then, something striking happens like the migrating monarchs, like our procession across the North Nashville tracks: I find thin air igniting into flame, dancing and crackling like oyamel firs and bonfires of old, the thick smoke rising into the night like a prayer. It is said that when the martyrs of the early church were burned at the stake, the smell of baked bread drifted throughout the town. Somehow, through their witness and the tragedy of their suffering, their bodies became a sacrament like the body of Christ, the bread of life. We are sanctified through tribulation, sanctified through struggle and fire, and this is pure mystery. So I pray for the courage to lean into this mystery with all I have. I pray for our collective lifting and charging toward liberation, toward hope.