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All God's Children Got Keys

This article is the third 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.

Living with approximately 25 roommates in an intentional community can be socially exhausting, especially for an introvert like me. In a given day at the Open Door, you might encounter over 100 people in the soup kitchen and dozens more on the streets and sidewalks around the house. Understandably, it is often necessary to manage your alone time with occasional walks around the neighborhood.

Early on in my three-month stay at the Open Door, I took a walk after an especially draining day of hospitality with soup kitchens, showers, and socializing. Of course, I had a hard time being alone on the streets in a city with a metro area of five million people. Privacy on the streets is nearly nonexistent, and while I saw this daily when friends would come use our public bathroom on the side of our house that they may “pee for free with dignity,” I didn’t fully connect the pieces until this moment. All the stories I had heard from friends on the streets about their tents and camps being raided by cops, of being robbed in their sleep, of being told to “move along”   when catching a break from walking by resting on a bench—they all came together in my head as a flowing, troubling picture of how peace, quiet, and alone time on the streets is a rarity.

Of course, alone time can also be a curse. Our life at the Open Door is not only marked with solidarity with our sisters and brothers on the streets, but also with those who live in prison. Around 80,000 prisoners in the United States live their lives in solitary confinement against their will. More stories and reports of people going insane in solitary swam around my mind, and I recalled my friends back at Riverbend Maximum Security Prison in Tennessee, where many of the prisoners spend 23 hours a day inside an 8x10 cell – alone.

As I mentioned in my last article “Beyond Streets, Prisons and Broken Community: Building the Beloved Community,” I believe the streets and prisons are inextricably connected. While on the streets one can go insane because of the lack of privacy, prisoners in solitary go insane for the lack of human interaction. Streets and prisons are opposite sides of the same coin where the basic human right to control one’s seclusion and inclusion in community is stolen. While people on the streets may dream of the right to use and have their own set of keys, others in prison may dream of having the right to control the sets of locks used against them. While those on the streets may dream of being able to undo the locks of buildings, businesses, and people’s hearts that keep them locked out, those in prison may wish for the right to roam streets freely without threat of being locked in a cage. Whether we are forced inside, forced outside, forced into having no privacy, or forced to a life of torturous loneliness, all situations rob these children of God of their basic human rights to control what their involvement in a healthy community looks like.

Being able to control the keys and locks in our life is a matter of immense privilege, when it ought to be a right. Everyone deserves the right to get away from people every now and then and rest in silence and solitude, to recharge from the hard work of community. Everyone deserves the right to join in supportive, loving communities of people where we can be challenged, love one another, and find God. At the Open Door Community, we pray frequently that “all homeless people may get a key,” and I would like to add to the prayer that all prisoners may get a key out of their cells and into whatever form of healing, rehabilitation, and community is appropriate for them.

At the Open Door, we sing old spirituals. One of my favorites is sometimes known as “I Got a Robe” or “Gonna Shout All Over God’s Heaven”, in which different everyday items that African-American slaves were deprived of are lifted up as items they will receive in heaven, such as shoes and robes. I would like to add my own verse to this spiritual, as a prayer for us and our brothers and sisters on the streets and in prisons:

“I got a key, you got a key, all God’s children got keys, when I get to heaven gonna take up my key, gonna un-lock all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven…”

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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.