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Beyond Streets, Prisons and Broken Community: Building the Beloved Community

This article is the second in a series of reflections on my experience this summer living and working at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. The Open Door Community is a residential Protestant community in the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement. Open Door seeks to dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, abolish the death penalty, and proclaim the Beloved Community through loving relationships with some of the most neglected and outcast of God’s children: the homeless and our sisters and brothers who are in prison.

Even when I was new to the Open Door, I wasn’t new to the work of wrestling with the streets and prisons. Previously, I had done internships with organizations doing relational homeless outreach work and had shadowed the chaplain of Tennessee’s death row in my hometown of Nashville. I spend most of my waking moments opposing the death penalty and struggling with systemic poverty in the form of homelessness, however most of my friends and family couldn’t see a connection between the streets and prisons. I had a hard time articulating it myself, honestly. However, I had an innate sense that there was a deep connection between the streets and prisons, a sense that led me to the Open Door Community.

My past outreach experience had taught me that homelessness, especially in the context of Nashville, Tennessee, is a result of a breakdown of community, such as loss of safety net of family and friends, lack of access to affordable and decent mental health care and substance recovery, or inability to get connected to social services or resources.

My visits to death row painted a picture of the unintentional communities that form in the midst of desperate circumstances, as well as community that is often torn apart by solitary confinement. The stories of prisoners showed me that many of them had ended up behind bars because of similar breakdowns of community such as lack of meaningful education, jobs, resources, mental healthcare, and supportive family environments.

However, I did not make the connection between streets and prisons and the breakdown of community until I became a member of the Open Door Community. While many of my concepts of community had come from a sociological perspective, the Open Door challenged me to think about community theologically.

At the Open Door, we don’t speak of building the “Kingdom of God.” We speak of building   the Beloved Community. I also came to understand the Trinity in a way I hadn’t in theology class.

I didn’t think of the Trinity much until Mary Catherine Johnson, a staff member, told me   how she came to the Open Door as a Unitarian but was converted to Christianity in the process:

“When [co-founder] Ed Loring heard I was a Unitarian, he teased me every chance he got.  For Ed, whose faith and activism are so deeply rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus, as well as the belief that the Holy Spirit is responsible for grace in our lives, it is almost unfathomable that a person of faith could only see God as one-dimensional.  If he happened to be preaching or teaching about the Trinitarian nature of God, and I was in the room, he never lost an opportunity to single me out with a wisecrack like, ‘But Mary Catherine would not understand that, since she's a Unitarian.’”

Over time I learned from people like Mary Catherine and Ed that God is a community of three persons creating, redeeming and sustaining each other and working together to create, redeem and sustain the world. Thus, when we live in community, we are living out how we were made in God’s image as we create, redeem and sustain one another. I understand this more fully through some of Martin Buber’s concepts of how we interact with God through deep, critical relationships. If we encounter the Divine You through “I-Thou” relationships, then community becomes a space for us to see the face of God through each other.

How does the concept of the Beloved Community connect to ministry with the poor? The Open Door takes the position that any old community will not do; life is to be lived in proximity with the poor, intentionally reducing distance from and barriers to the “least of these.” As Jean Vanier says in Community and Growth, “Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus.”

Supportive and dynamic communities allow us to engage with God through relationships with each other. By contrast, streets and prisons destroy the image of God in   our sisters and brothers by robbing them of their dignity and by separating them from their communities. Nobody ends up on the streets or in prisons purely by accident; a breakdown of community abandons them there. Yet, here and there, on cell blocks and street blocks, we can glimpse pockets of community that emerge to combat the loneliness, isolation and abandonment that pervade these environments.

There is a connection between all forms of brokenness: community was destroyed in Eden when we sought to be independent instead of interdependent. Challenging the damnation of the streets and prisons   requires building and restoring community, working alongside the Triune God (creator, redeemer, sustainer) to build the Beloved Community “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

When we create, redeem and sustain one another through our communities, we are vehicles for God to answer each other’s prayers; we interact with God through each other, and we love God by loving our neighbor. When we seek to live our lives with the poor and take part in restoring broken community among all people, we are seeing Christ who comes in the guise of the poor stranger.

Effective and faithful ministry with the poor has to begin and end with rebuilding and restoring community so that nobody slips through the cracks.

Shalom.

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Autumn Dennis

Autumn Dennis is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and is a senior at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee. She studies religion, is passionate about social justice, organizing, and activism, and is engaged in ministry with the children of God on the streets and in prisons. She is a freelance writer and is a declared candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.