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Building the Beloved Community through Love and Justice

This article is the fifth 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.

In the summer of 2011, I began working with Open Table Nashville, an interfaith homeless outreach and advocacy community committed to disrupting cycles of poverty, journeying with the marginalized, and providing education about issues of homelessness. In my time there as an outreach worker, a regular day consisted of transporting friends to and from doctor’s appointments, Social Security appointments, delivering food boxes, getting driver’s licenses, moving people into housing, or simply distributing frozen bottles of water on the hot streets. In the winter I helped run emergency shelter sites at local churches that partner with Open Table Nashville by opening their doors to our friends. Recently I assisted move-in crews for our “How’s Nashville” campaign, an extension of the 100,000 Homes national campaign; we moved 178 people into housing in 100 days, just short of our 200-person goal.

By contrast, the Open Door Community in Atlanta performs works of mercy in their 60-room home in the Catholic Worker tradition of personal responsibility for our neighbor’s needs.  Our hospitalities consist of soup kitchens, clothing distribution, public showers and restrooms, and meeting “special needs”, be it a hat, a razor, or a backpack.

In my first few weeks of living at the Open Door, I found myself restless and dissatisfied because we weren’t meeting the larger needs in people’s lives, such as housing. Almost all of our friends lacked housing, and because we weren’t working with people one-on-one to address their housing needs (i.e., the sort of work I was used to with Open Table Nashville), initially I felt we weren’t really changing things in their lives. I felt like we were only scratching the surface instead of addressing root issues.

Through my time there, I came to understand another perspective - that in meeting these basic needs, we are proclaiming resistance to the systems that deprive people of dignity. I had several discussions with local students from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University on how the works of mercy do or do not challenge social systems.

However, I remembered several conversations I had had back home with friends on how Open Table Nashville was not perfect either. While most of Open Table’s work is geared towards impacting  people’s lives by connecting them to resources, housing, and  dignifying income, arguably these kinds of changes can be considered assimilationist – improving some circumstances in people’s lives but without changing the  social systems that lead to poverty in the first place.

Yet I did see attempts to bring about larger-scale social change both in Nashville and Atlanta. The Open Door Community has historically lobbied and protested unjust laws criminalizing the homeless, with some success. Homeless advocates in Nashville engaged in similar protesting and organizing, and currently various poor people’s movements are being dreamed and begun all over Nashville. Of course, there are also those who say that real social change can only happen in Washington, DC, where advocates lobby for legislation to uplift the poor through welfare funding, equal housing legislation, and so on.

I began to realize that there is not one way to work for social justice, or even a “most right” way to engage in ministry with the poor. The possibilities are endless, though the challenges are daunting. As the summer wore on, I began to have more appreciation for the work of the Open Door Community as I saw in each shower and sandwich a prophetic resistance against the systems. To the question of “There is so much devastation and destitution; how will we ever overcome?”, the hospitalities of the Open Door say, “We don’t have all the answers, and we fail a lot. But we can hope and strive for the Beloved Community together…and you are welcome in this place.”

The hospitalities of the Open Door really did change things for some people—maybe they didn’t get them into a house, but they were welcomed and loved while they were here. Friendships were made. Hearts were changed. Laughter was shared. All of that can’t be measured in fiscal budgets or petitions or end-of-the-year reports, but all of it does build in its own way towards the Beloved Community.

For all of those who are engaged in different work around these struggles of poverty with our friends—all of us know the feeling of hopelessness, confusion, and burnout. What does real justice in the system look like? Do we work inside the system, or outside the system? What if we overthrew the system? What is most effective? What brings the most dignity? Do we go for utilitarian change, or cling to every moral absolute even at the expense of progress?

Many of us have asked these questions, have lost sleep over these questions, and have our lives defined by these questions. I don’t have the answers, but I do know that all the different ways we do ministry with the poor are like puzzle pieces. An unhoused friend needs a shower and a sandwich just like they need a home and a driver’s license just like they need legislation just like they…. need all the puzzle pieces to work together. I do know that when we join hands in the struggle for liberation, we are freer to dream ourselves into the elusive puzzle of the Beloved Community. And may it be so.

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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.