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Ministry With* Our Senses

This article is the fourth 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.

The Open Door Community seeks to reduce the distance between ourselves and the poor.  We do this directly by how we structure our communal lives, intentionally holding all possessions in common, and by making efforts to shed excessive luxuries that our friends on the streets or in prisons may not enjoy. For example, we do not have air conditioning, eat sweets, watch television, or have our own cars. All of the clothes we wear are from donations, all the food we eat is donated and is from the same soup kitchen meals we serve to our homeless friends, and we all live on a stipend of $11.50 a week.

There are, other ways, too, that we live our lives with the poor, most notably through our senses. The five senses—sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—are all engaged fully at the Open Door, in ways I have not experienced in other forms of ministry.

Living at the Open Door, I definitely “saw some things.” A man with cuts extending from the corners of his lips to his ears would come through the soup kitchen line; a woman covered in disfiguring moles would come on another day for showers. Sometimes it was men with brutal head injuries from violence on the streets, or swollen diabetic feet wobbling their way around our living room. Women covered in scars following men with unique, dance-like limps in an endless line of hungry bellies and souls welcomed in through our front door.

I definitely smelled some things, too. The Open Door has a bathroom on the side of the house that is accessible to the public. The Open Door Community has struggled with the city of Atlanta to provide public restrooms for the past twenty years, and eventually decided to take a personalist ethic and provide one itself. The public restroom has to be cleaned at least once daily, which was often my job. The bathroom is partially sunken underground and has a bit of a dungeon-like atmosphere, though I would often be reminded that this dank and smelly room is something of a sanctuary, providing space for our friends to “pee for free with dignity.” Each time I scrubbed the toilets, scoured the sinks and mopped the floors, I would be greeted by a variety of stenches.

This wasn’t the only time I smelled smelly smells. On other days I would have an eight hour laundry shift, washing the clothes that come down the chute from our public showers. As I would delicately wash the clothes that some of our friends had worn for weeks on end, my stomach would churn at the same time my soul would sing at the simple, holy act of doing laundry for a homeless friend.

I mentioned earlier that we live without air conditioning. Living at the Open Door from mid-May to mid-August, it was probably 90+ degrees Fahrenheit indoor at all times. In order to combat this stifling heat, we kept the windows open and fans running at all times. As a result, the sounds of the streets and alleys were constantly wafting in our windows: fighting, urination, sex, crying, shouting, mumbled conversations, singing. Whenever a fire truck or an ambulance would come whizzing down Ponce de Leon Avenue, the sounds of the sirens would reverberate throughout the halls of our looming house, and I felt it was a chilling reminder that our friends on the streets live in a perpetual state of emergency. However, sirens often do not wail on their behalf.

As for taste, I mentioned earlier that all the food we eat is donated to the community and we eat all the same food that we serve in our soup kitchen lines. After our Tuesday and Wednesday soup kitchens where we serve over 100 people, the community and outside volunteers circle up the tables in our large dining room to share a meal together of the leftovers of whatever was served that day. As we all slurp the same soup together, we are united. Every meal table is an extension of the Communion table at the Open Door Community, and we share the same food and taste the same things as our friends. When fasting makes an appearance in the spiritual disciplines of the community, the fast is often broken together by celebrating the Eucharist together followed by a common meal. In such moments, common things that you’ve tasted all your life become moments of vibrant illumination for your senses.

The sense of touch is the most special of all. Handshakes are marks of dignity and respect. Many times I have seen friends from the streets and prisons be surprised when someone wanted to shake their hand. Of course, handshakes don’t get people nearly as emotional as hugs do.  It’s hard to shake the beautiful memories of Georgia prisoners lining up for concentric circles of hugs and greetings of “Peace be with you” after bible study on a hot summer evening. In hugs, sometimes you smell things, sometimes you see things a lot closer than you did previously; however you always feel things, such as hearts being warmed with compassion and friendship.

And lastly, there’s the never-ending prayer circles of hands joining hands joining hands, a staple of the life and beauty of the Open Door Community’s spiritual disciplines and life together. When hands touch hands, we say, “I don’t know where you’ve been or what these hands have done in the past, but we’re here together now and you are welcomed into this circle.”

Many of the writings of the Open Door Community call for society to “reduce the distance” between ourselves and the poor, the imprisoned, the outcast, and the marginalized. In so doing, we reduce the distance between us and Christ. The most overt way    we are reminded of that distance is what we experience with our senses. It is through our senses that we are most easily offended, but we can remind ourselves that God proclaimed these broken bodies “good” in the image of God.

Using our senses and honoring each other’s broken bodies, we can remember the broken body of Christ and become one with another. May we all take advantage of our senses as we make our way to the margins and reduce the distance between ourselves and the least of these.

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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.