What I learned at the Open Door

This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of Hospitality, the newspaper of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia

Last year was not my best year. Looking back I understand much of my dissatisfaction, but I would be lying if I said I have it all figured out, and I never expect to fully understand it. The biggest thing I came to realize last year was that I felt stagnant, in relationships, in my studies, with God. Wrapped up in my routine and my self-pity and my selfishness, toward the middle of first semester, I realized that I needed to do something really different from my usual activity for the summer.  I wanted to immerse myself in a different community and a different lifestyle.  I wanted people who would challenge my faith and the comfortable life I live. And I wanted to serve, to completely break off from my normal routine and just focus on serving others and looking for the face of God in those around me. I was lucky enough to get all of this and more. I came away from my SIP experience teeming with the love, knowledge of injustice, and will for justice that abounds in the community I found, but I also came away with the faces of our friends from the street imprinted in my mind and with the heartbreak of less than three months’ time living among Atlanta’s disinherited. The only other time I had more than passed through Atlanta in my life was in 2003 when I spent a week there for the Mennonite youth convention. The theme of that year’s convention was “God’s table-ya’ll come.” Now, 8 years later and after my second stay in Atlanta, I think I have finally learned what that phrase really means.

I spent my summer living at the Open Door Community at 910 Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta, Georgia. The Open Door is an intentional community that, for the past 30 years, has housed between 15 and 30 people, with that number depending on the comings and goings of those who volunteer long-term or are taken in to the community because they are in need of a home. The mission of the community is to “stand in solidarity with the disinherited.” The house offers a soup kitchen twice a week, showers and a change of clothes three times a week, a medical clinic and foot clinic once a week, as well as a women’s clinic twice a month, worship and a community meal every Sunday, and transportation to a state prison a couple hours from Atlanta once a month for families to visit their sons, brothers, fathers, nephews, grandsons, and cousins, and these are just the formal services the community offers. Over the years, members of the community have taken on side projects, such as authoring books, visiting death row inmates and their families, corresponding with those in prison, putting their bodies in the way of violence, sleeping on the street, accompanying the deserted to court, instigating protests, being imprisoned for civil disobedience, and more. Each time the state of Georgia carries out an execution, the community gathers, along with others opposed to the death penalty, on the steps of the State Capital to hold a vigil beginning half an hour before the execution is scheduled to take place and ending half an hour after the lethal injection began to seep into the veins of that brother. Silence overcomes those steps as the community stops to acknowledge the life and death of person and the continuation of state murder, committed in the name of Georgians statewide-an especially troubling fact for those who are residents of this community that attempts to propagate love and sustain life and thereby citizens of this same Georgia.

The Open Door is a sanctuary for the marginalized-for the poor, the homeless, those oppressed because of race or ethnicity, for women, and for anyone else who may wander into the front yard or the dining room. I learned firsthand what a safe haven it is for women. One morning I was running. My route was coming to a close, and just a few feet before I reached the yard I passed a couple of men who I recognized from our soup kitchen. I nodded to them and said hello as I ran past, as is my custom with anyone, and the greeting I received in return was, “Hey baby, looking good,” coupled with a very unwelcomed lingering stare, just one example of the blatant objectification and the masked misogyny mostly likely taught to these men at a young age at their finest. I did not stop to say anything to the man who apparently mistook me for his “baby.” Instead, I took my last few steps, and as I climbed the steps off of the sidewalk into the yard I turned and stared directly into that man’s eyes. As soon as he saw where I was headed, he burst into a frantic and lengthy apology, trying to swallow up the words he had let slip without a second thought. He knew how to treat women in that yard and in that house. I just gave him a knowing look, waved, and continued into the house.

This summer, I was surrounded by people who relentlessly prayed and acted and lived for justice and a better tomorrow for the poor and the mentally ill and the homeless and the person of color, and I couldn’t help but catch their fervor. The changes began after I had only been in the house for a few days, and I noticed myself constantly scanning the streets of Atlanta for any of our homeless friends so that I could wave or save “Hi” because they were just that-they were becoming my friends, not anonymous recipients of my sympathy or my money or my embarrassment about the great societal and economic divides that I help perpetuate. I learned to live in an inter-generational, inter-denominational, inter-racial, inter-class background household.  I also had my fair share of education in less significant skills, such as driving without power steering, playing acey-duecy backgammon, and making ham, mustard, and mayonnaise sandwiches at an alarmingly rapid rate.

It was not just the servanthood and the community that I found rejuvenating. I had time to lie down in the park, bake bread, read for fun, make falafel, and walk or run (or both) every day-things I am not always so good about making time for at school. I was reminded what living a balanced, intentional life feels like.

I learned to host showers, dip soup with just the right wrist action, cross city streets without any hesitation, live in a house without desserts, buy 60 loaves of bread in one fell swoop at Kroger without feeling the least bit strange, spend time alone, mutter “Amen” or “Praise the Lord” or “Glory be” without feeling the least bit bashful or out of place, to prepare a meal for 40 people in under two hours, how to pluck at a banjo, the evolution of the prison system and its intertwining with the legacy of slavery in Georgia, to run on hills in the midst of rush hour exhaust without passing out, to live not knowing who would eat or sleep in our house on any given day but to instead rely on the stability of Jesus Christ and the power of God to keep the community a-turning, to understand the dichotomy of the domination system-the American Empire-and the Beloved Community of Christ-the peaceful world that the community spoke of each time we sang the words “I have another world in view.” I learned just how dehumanizing our prison system really is, hearing my housemates talk about the hard lesson of learning “throw the food into the back of their throat” (as the guards put it) in the three minutes they were allowed to eat each meal under the threat of going to the hole if they did not finish in time. I understand that prison is not supposed to be a pleasant place-I hardly think anyone is under the impression that it is-but I absolutely do not understand how we can continue to claim that rehabilitation is in any way a goal of our prisons, and I do not understand a world in which we stand idly by and let our brothers and sisters continue to suffer under this abuse. When someone is given three minutes to eat moldy food-no talking, no sharing, no nutrition, no welcome table-there is no healing and certainly no reflection on what landed them in that situation. There will only be more anger, more fuel to use again, more confusion as to what they could have possibly done in their lives to get shoved to the bottom again and again. This mistreatment leads to a continued cycle of violence. Those at the bottom of society-those in the yard of the Open Door-carry this weight of rage with them, and it is sometimes unleashed at our home. They cannot get to those at the top who have made their lives so hard-the wealthy employer, the policymaker, the police person, the apathetic middle class citizen-so part of our work is to help absorb the weight of this rage, to face it when it boils over, to treat people with humanity when it does, to put our bodies at the mercy of violence and receive whatever comes with nonviolence. We discussed this idea of vertical violence in our reflection time after soup kitchen one day when Nelia, my housemate and pastoral friend, had been spat on and almost punched by a man who was very upset in the yard. Co-founder Ed Loring responded by laying out this idea of vertical violence that creates an even greater distance between those at the top and those at the bottom. He called us to “reduce the distance,” and part of reducing that distance is putting ourselves in places where we can break cycles of injustice and practice nonviolence even though there is not a widespread revolution happening right now.

I learned, as Ed puts it, to “live with a broken heart” and to feel the true weight of the devastation in the immediate Open Door Community and the community that includes our friends from the street. When I explained these feelings to my housemate Quiana, her response was, “Welcome to the Open Door.” It broke my heart when my housemate Michael disappeared without a trace except for the three police officers that came to the door looking for him the next day. It broke my heart to learn that it is illegal to feed people in public places in not only Atlanta but in many cities in the U.S. When I shared similar sentiments with Nelia, she told me that it is these feelings that make living at the Open Door both so beautiful and so trying, that one cannot have the full experience of the community-the alternative lifestyle-without that heartbreak, and this is true.

Community life is centered on “the circle.” the circle serves as a physical representation of the Welcome Table in the Beloved Community of Christ. We formed the circle before meals, soup kitchens, showers, send-offs for prisons trips and vigils, around the Eucharist during Sunday afternoon worship, around those receiving blessings for surgery, around those who were still in the first fresh hours of mourning the death of a loved one. The circle served to physically and spiritually re-center the community. It brought us out of our business and reminded us of why we did the work we did. Guests and strangers were welcomed into the circle each day, and as we joined hands, announcements and prayer requests passed around the circle. We then moved into prayer-a real heartfelt prayers, the kind you need to sustain a community-and finished with a song of liberation, giving our prayer a final push toward God’s ear.

After one such circle on Thursday June 23, with the tune of “down by the riverside” and the words “Gonna stop that Georgia killing machine, ain’t gonna study death no more”, the community made the short trip from our home to the Georgia state capitol building in downtown Atlanta to hold vigil while Roy Willard Blankenship was put to death at 7:00 p.m. each time there is an execution, the Open Door Community, along with others from the Atlanta area, gather on the steps of the capitol building, donning anti-death penalty shirts and signs, to protest the continuation of state murder in Georgia and other places around the united states and to stand as witnesses for the life-the humanity-of the person dying at the hands of the state. The vigil begins half an hour before the lethal injection is given. Words and song and prayer are shared among those gathered, and at 7:00 p.m., the bell of Central Presbyterian Church, across the street, tolls and five minutes of silence follow.

I have opposed the death penalty for as long as I have known that it exists, but I have never had much more of a connection to it than that-just opposition. At the Open Door, a day did not pass that we did not pray for Roy and for the abolition of the death penalty. Everything in the community stopped to observe his execution. And when his lifeless body was removed from the gurney at Jackson state prison, it was sent to jubilee partners in comer, Georgia where we followed two days later to bury our brother Roy as one of our own among some of those who have passed from the Open Door, Jubilee (a sister community to the Open Door), and from the row. That beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, Murphy Davis of the Open Door, an amazing woman who has been doing prison ministry in Georgia from the last few decades, led a memorial service in which those who knew Roy, including Murphy, shared of their many visit with him during his 34 years on the row and of his amazing journey to God. They recalled the fervor with which he tried to make sure that anyone he came into contact with was saved by Jesus Christ; he never even gave up on the warden of the prison. If that kind of faith and will to preach on death row is not a mustard see, I don’t know what is. Murphy and her husband Ed had visited with Roy one last time on the morning of his execution, and at the memorial service, she shared that the first thing Roy insisted on doing when they arrived was praying for Murphy who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Roy didn’t need the prayer to be focused around him because he was ready. He had faith and did not fear death because of that faith. Roy Blankenship was executed for murder. Roy Blankenship did not commit a murder. He walked in on a murder and did not stop it-his biggest regret in life. He was offered a life sentence three different times during his years on the row, but declined each time because he refused to plead guilty to the murder he did not commit. Even death could not stop the “Roy Joy” as Quiana dubbed it, and we all felt the power of his witness and the joy in his life-and in his death-that day and in the days to come.

I helped cover Roy’s gray casket with red dirt that afternoon. After the service, Roy’s body was lowered into the earth and 20 sets of loving hands secured his place in the cemetery in silence. During my time at the Open Door, I learned more about the acts of mercy, especially about the call to bury the dead. Burying the dead might seem like a given to us, but the origins of burial as an issue come from the time of the Black Plague. Thousands of people were left to rot in streets and fields because their family and friends has already died and there was no one left to care for their remains or because those that did survive around them wanted nothing to do with their contaminated bodies for fear of succumbing to the illness themselves. Are the bodies of those executed by the state so different? Are they any less deserted? Are they treated as though they are any less contaminated? I do not know about the rest of the world, but at least in Georgia, these bodies are buried with love and care-with mercy.

The first time I helped with soup kitchen at the Open Door, I was assigned to the official position of “bag lady.” Posted outside the door of the dining room, I helped people bag up the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches they had made at the table. As I bagged sandwiches, Horace Tribble handed out vitamins just a few feet away. When the traffic slowed for a minute, I asked Horace if he always gave out the vitamins. He said he did, and as I searched for a response-words were not coming easily that day and the littlest thing seemed to have to power to fluster me-all I could come up with was, “Well, you must be a real professional then.” Immediately after I blurted out this profound insight, the volunteer working the medical cart quickly leaned over and corrected me, saying, “Now do you mean professional or expert? Because to be a professional just means you get paid to do something; you don’t have to know anything about it. It is an expert that really knows about something but may receive no payment at all.” “Great,” I thought, “a whole 36 hours into my stay here and I have already made a fool of myself with my middle-class bourgeois language. Lucky no one judged me too much for the slip-up, but from that point on, I was on constant guard when it came to my use of language. As my time came to a close at the Open Door, so did me fear of speaking, speaking incorrectly to be more specific. I found my voice at 910, and a large part of that discovery was learning the vocabulary to articulate why I live the way I live. I finally gained the rhetoric for the beliefs and values upon which I have tried to base my decisions and actions since I first realized that my life affects the lives of others, and I will carry that valuable gift of language with me-and hopefully continue to build upon it-for the remainder of my years in this world. Perhaps it is no coincidence that my first Sunday in Atlanta, Murphy Davis preached on the importance of language in our Christian faith, sharing about the ways in which “our language expresses out values.”

My discovery happened through a combination of discussion, somewhat forced and adjustment to the circumstances in which I found myself, and a natural transformation. I am no longer hesitant to strike up a conversation about a rockier topic, to sit down and have a chat with a complete stranger, or to let language barriers or different accents stand in the way of understanding what someone it trying to say. I began my summer in fear, taken aback at my first soup kitchen when a small issue arose among some of the volunteers and it was brought to the table as everyone was eating together after the house had closed for the morning. Ed’s immediate response to the issue was “name it”-name the specific issue and the specific people involved-to everyone. Confrontation. My first day. Right in front of me. I was so uncomfortable and dreaded the day someone would bring up an issue with me for all to hear. I ended my summer in confidence-confidence that it is in fact both helpful and necessary to “name” issues when they come up in my life and confidence that it will be more fruitful in transforming relationships, lead to more personal growth, and nip more issues in the bud if I just address them as they are when they come up. This confidence came from both personal reflection on past experiences, both at the Open Door and in my life before the Open Door, and one particular conversation with ed. he spoke of the “responsible self” and the idea that self-hood is found in one’s ability to respond to a situation, and because of that we, as individuals, owe it to ourselves, to those around us, and to our Creator to respond to-to engage with-the issues that face us in our journey, to be informed about what is going on in our world and the world of our neighbors near and far, to point to the elephant in vast room of society and ask, “Okay, so why is this here, and what are we going to do about it?,” and to be open to facing our own mistakes. He discussed this as a parallel to the idea of action-reflection-transformation, a practice born of liberation theology and now used as the model in Open Door daily life and conflict resolution.

Now in no way am I saying that I enjoyed every minute of my time at the Open Door or was able to get a good conversation out of every struggle I came up against. There were days I felt exhausted for no reason, days I just wanted to cry, long days when basement clean up at the end of the night just about pushed me over the edge. Over time, certain habits and quirks of other community members got on my nerves a little bit, and sometimes my patience wore thin. Even something I knew to be as vital as the Monday night community meeting would put me in a sour mood from time to time as the meeting sometimes dragged past the two hour mark. Community is hard. Living in this community was really hard. There was give and take, and sometimes it feels like a lot more give, but the rewards came in due time and often in subtle ways. As soon as I left the Open Door, I realized just how accustomed I had become to being buoyed by love and care of a supportive community, and it suddenly seemed impossible to imagine going the rest of my life without that kind of mutual flotation device. The challenges of community can be life-giving when faced with an open heart and an open mind. It takes the work of all to build up the Beloved Community.

Community also leaves something to be desired for everyone. There will always be changes that each member of any community sees as both necessary and obvious, but the changes I ventured to dream of often ended up seeming unimportant to me when I looked at all the Open Door has done over the years and continues to do. I often wondered who I was to question anything about this place that had survived 30 years when community seems so fragile. I have no doubt the next decade will test the Open Door. As the leadership continues to age, they will have to decide when and how to give up their position at the wheel and whom to give it up to. As a new generation of leaders trickles into the house, there may well be a call for comprise and change when it comes to the crux of the ideology put into practice by the community; new leaders may see new issues and new ways to go about dealing with them and talking about them. If the house is going to continue to serve in some capacity, there is no option but to pass on decision making to people who never took part in the Civil Rights Movement, people who learned about Jim Crow from History textbooks not from personal experience (at least not the blatant segregation present in the United States until the last few decades), so they may want to take some of the focus off of the activists and sentiments of the 1950s and 1960s simply because they will never know that frustration and that passion and that moment in time like the Open Door’s current leaders do. But they will have passion. They will have direction. And they will create change, it may just look different-and perhaps a bit scary-to those who nurtured the Open Door from the ground up. However, I also stand with full conviction that the Open Door of today and yesterday is too precious to just let die away. The youth of today may not know the face of Civil Rights like their parents and grandparents do, but that does not make the lesson that those people and that time have to teach of any less value, and it does not make racism-though better hidden today-any less real.

I will never be the same because of the alternative lifestyle I was welcomed in to this summer. When I see the letters “P.O.,” I now think parole officer, not post office; I have become accustomed to a 10 minute circle as a precursor to nearly all of my daily activities; I have learned to never expect a short answer-about anything; I have been introduced to violence and instability and rage and love and reconciliation and mercy and determination and hope. I will forever be followed by-and seek out-the now familiar smell of homelessness, not only the actual smell of stale urine and feces, days or weeks of sweat, body odor, and often cigarettes or alcohol, but also the stink of the entire political system-the hate, the ignorance, and the weight-that surrounds the institution of homelessness. I still struggle each day to implement-and even to fully understand or articulate-what I learned this summer. It will probably take me a lifetime to process everything I witnessed, but I am okay with that because it will allow me to continue to grow-to fight the stagnation of middle-class America and mainstream Christianity-and to be vigilant for the hatred and injustice in my own actions and the actions of those around me, but more than recognizing hate, it will allow me to have an even deeper appreciation for the endless love of God and the amazing amount of love that exists in a world that so often seems to breeds hate.

Perhaps there is no “Movement” among young people today, but people ARE moving and I intend to do all that I can-with the help and guidance of God-to add to that inertia until we tumble right on in to the Beloved Community.

Being back gone is hard. Maybe the hardest thing I have ever done. What does that say about my life? When people ask me how my summer was, what am I supposed to say? “It was good.” This summer while I lived, two men–one innocent, one guilty, both made in the image of God–were killed by the state of Georgia. While I ate and slept in a home, my sis on the street woke up drenched in her own urine morning after morning because she had no place to use the bathroom before she went to sleep. While I went to Ben and Jerry’s for one small escape in my limited free time, my housemates spent their “breaks” with their parole officers or waiting hours upon hours for care at the only public hospital in Atlanta. Ya, my summer was “good.” I went to the margins to learn that my privilege will follow me a lot of places in this world. And now I am back, and what do I have to show for it? How much do people want to know? How do I impart the knowledge I have gained without becoming jaded or frustrated or too eager to share, keeping my mind open to what others have to share and detecting their transformation in the face of preoccupation with my own?

I miss belonging. I miss the simplicity of life and the weight of sharing problems. I miss Jason’s companionship. I miss laughing with Quiana. I miss daily conversations with Emma that inevitably ended in the conclusion that we were both going to lose our minds if we didn’t get out soon. Well, soon came for me. It was the first time in my life I wasn’t ready to move on to the next new and exciting thing. I don’t know how to function wanting to go back to something. I am a forward thinker. I mark off days as they pass. I am present. I don’t dwell on the past. Not until now.

Maybe it won’t take that long for me to readjust, to stop feeling so disoriented, to feel like I have purpose and balance again. Maybe it won’t happen at all. This uncertainty makes me nervous, but I think there is huge potential for growth if I just come to terms with being here for now, if I just give myself this time to marinate, trusting that God is okay with this–maybe even wants this for me–and that it is important for the future.

When I decided to go to Atlanta for the summer, Mary and Jessie told me I had to promise to come back. I laughed and promised I would, knowing that I am always ready to move on. I think I even fooled myself into thinking I was ready on the Friday afternoon that I flew from Atlanta to Indianapolis to meet my sister. It is only now that I find myself frantically backpedaling, grasping for that world again. I kept my promise in a way; I came back, but only most of me. I couldn’t quite tear away that last part.

Comments (2)

  1. TimN

    Mara thanks for sharing so honestly and deeply from your personal story of transformation. May we all find the places and people like you did where we become never the same.

  2. BenK

    Mara, Thanks so much for sharing your reflections. I, like you, am a young college student of privilege who spent time working alongside folks experiencing homelessness. So many of your questions, observations, revelations, and struggles struck home for me. Thanks for your beautiful words of sharing.

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