Friday, August 28, 1998

A summer at the Open Door Community

"The Dance"
by Ed Potts, partner at the Open Door Community
I dance with the Lord
on this world so vain and vile.
It isn't easy
some day it will be worthwhile.
I dance with the Lord
amongst the hate and the bile.
It isn't easy
some day it will be worthwhile.
You may dance on your lonely isle
it may be easy, but,
it will never be worthwhile.
I could go on and on.
I believe I will
dance with the Lord
who died upon the hill.

"The Open Door Community, located in Atlanta, GA, is an interracial, feminist, Christian intentional community. The community provides services and advocacy for Georgia's homeless, working poor, and imprisoned." These things I was aware of upon accepting a summer internship at the Open Door; I had committed these descriptive phrases to memory so that I could easily recite my summer plans to anyone who asked, and that being said return to the very serious business of being an active, goal-oriented student. I was also no stranger to the idea that oppression and injustice were more than simply anomalies in American society. I was aware of the "homeless problem," of the fact that our minimum wage is not a living wage, and that a significant sector of our nation's economy is built upon the backs of the poor--my own economic background would not allow otherwise. I had some concerns of course--concerns that my own faith assertions might conflict with those of the Open Door's, concerns that a year of living in rural Kentucky might have left me poorly prepared for eight weeks in a city the size of Atlanta--but for the most part, the activist reputation of the Open Door and recommendations of several of my mentors seemed to indicate a good fit.

So this is primarily the mindset in which I began my eight-week experience, certain that my time spent would be "enriching" and "powerful," as one of my professors had put it, and equally certain that I would excel in my performance there and "impress" my overseers as I had managed to do so successfully in college and in my previous places of employment. In my arrogant presumptuousness, I even went so far as to bring along several sources of information on energy efficiency and appropriate technology so that I could "improve" and "enlighten" the community in my spare time. The fact of the matter is that the Open Door Community has deeply affected me in ways that I never could have imagined, that my hopes of improving and impressing the community somehow became buried beneath my struggle simply to process my experiences there, and that even now as I type these words, a gaping hole in my awareness and understanding of myself and the world around me has been revealed, leaving me adrift in a precipitously uncertain moment in my life which I am certain will come to be of critical personal importance. In the paragraphs which follow, I hope to (as adequately as possible) relate those facets of the Open Door Community which have been of the greatest personal importance, as well as providing "snapshots" of the ministry and way of life of the Open Door and its residents.

I. A Life in Solidarity with the Poor
A poster which hangs in the main hallway of the Open Door reads: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." When I first spoke with Ed Loring (a co-founder of the Open Door) during my initial phone interview, he stressed the community's commitment to a life in solidarity with the poor, and requested that I not bring any outside funds with me and that I be willing to subsist on the $50/month stipend which every member of the community receives. Though many residents have spent real time on the streets, this commitment is of especial importance to those in the community who come from more affluent backgrounds, and is an essential aspect of the resident volunteer's experience. By decreasing the distance as much as possible between the community members and those that they serve, the entire dynamic of their relations are altered. As one partner put it, the community lives "a life on the edge," a life in which suffering and even death are an everyday reality.

The decision to live in such a manner is of course a choice for many in the house, and in that sense cushions us from some of the harsher realities of life on the streets; but it is also a decision which has many uncomfortable consequences. It means, for instance, being awakened in the middle of the night when Atlanta police show up to harass the homeless folks that sleep in our yard, or some nights not sleeping at all when an individual you have grown close to disappears for days at a time or has to be taken to the local hospital. It means knowing the names as well as the stories of the folks we serve grits to six mornings a week, being the first face they see after a long night of drinking or drugs or no sleep, and occasionally having to get in the middle when two of them tear into each other. It also creates a much stronger connection between the servant and those served, often blurring the lines between the two completely, and gives an entirely new dimension to the concept of freedom. And finally, the lack of space between the community and their imprisoned or impoverished brothers and sisters fosters a deep-seated need to do more than simply "feed the hungry and clothe the naked;" it becomes an offense to members of the community to see those we have grown close to continue to be exploited and oppressed. We become enraged and refuse to accept or to participate in this "filthy, rotten system" that we see as being responsible for such offenses, and we join our brothers and sisters in solidarity demanding that such offenses be brought to an end. Truly, an injury to one becomes an injury to all, and their liberation and our own become one and the same.

Many nights I would go walking in our neighborhood, only to be accosted by one of our homeless friends who did not immediately recognize me from "910," as the Open Door is called on the streets. He would launch into his well-worn tirade of how he needed a few dollars for a bus ticket, or something to eat, only until he realized who I was and where I lived of course. Once I became a familiar face, the context of the conversation would shift to two old friends running into one another by chance and whiling away a few minutes of their evening discussing how their day had gone. "See you tomorrow," he would say as I headed home, and me with a smile on my face and for the first time in my life feeling a sense of fellowship with a homeless man rather than the embarrassing and helpless sensation one experiences as they avert their eyes and pretend not to hear the cries of the poor. My direct interaction with the homeless and imprisoned of Atlanta was a constant reminder of my own upbringing, of the fact that I myself had been only a few steps removed from their experience during some of the tougher points of my childhood, and that for lack of a strong family and good fortune it could have been me on the other side of the soup line or the razor wire. It was also a reminder however that no matter how humble my own beginnings might have been, I still had access to many of the privileges that come of being a White male in the United States. Too many mornings as I handed out tickets for out Butler St. breakfast I wondered what the mostly African-American men that we served saw in my face--another White, middle-class, college kid, complicit in the system that created the need for a grits line in the first place. I tried my best not to get upset with those who treated me with disdain or even outright hostility, more still I was amazed at those who graciously accepted what I had to offer, who wished me a good morning, who in some way, on some level, I hoped, had forgiven me.

II. A Community of Faith
One of the struggles that I am experiencing at this point in my life (and that I am told is common amongst White folks especially) is an overwhelming feeling that I can solve the world's problems--that somehow, if I just put forth enough time, enough sincere effort, I will succeed eventually in making this world the place that it "should" be. I might have eventually believed myself "successful" in these aims had I continued to distance myself from those in need, advocating for those whose fate I could only imagine, or had I taken the safer path of service without advocacy, that is treating the symptoms of societal injustice without addressing the disease. Recent experiences however have I hope diverted me from such a path.

My experiences during my last semester of school, protesting the United Nations sanctions against Iraq, along with my experiences at the Open Door and the seemingly insurmountable problems associated with homelessness, have provided me with dilemmas greater than myself of my ability to directly solve. In school, I was absolutely confounded at the ongoing situation in Iraq, at the death count that continued to rise month after month. How could this be? I had done everything right. I had made posters, written letters to the editor, I organized a teach-in on my campus and even followed that with a successful protest march. But still the sanctions remained, still the civilian deaths continued. A similar situation at the Open Door: faithfully I would get up at 5:30 a.m. to serve grits, eggs, and oranges at Butler St., I attended with great sincerity a prayer vigil when one of Georgia's death row prisoners was to be executed, and it was with great joy that I assisted in labeling and mailing the community's newsletter, the "Hospitality." Most members of the community had been taking part in such activities for years, but still the problems remained. I cannot express the great anger and despair that I felt on several mornings when I would arise and for some irrational reason honestly believe that there might not be a line of 200+ men, women, and children waiting for us at Butler St.--but there they were, the same familiar faces. Or when I first visited the immense Hardwick prison compound, surrounded by the razor wire and caged men, and was dumbfounded to learn that still more prison space would be needed.

The truth of the matter is that I wanted nothing to do with such experiences, that I would have much preferred to enjoy my secluded, relatively affluent life, only involved with the evils of society to the extent that I absolutely had to be. When I first began to feel a call to justice, it was like a loud pounding at my door that absolutely would not quit. "Be quiet!" I would shout, "I'm trying to sleep in here!" But the pounding would not cease, I could not go back to sleep; so now, like a grouchy man awoken from a deep slumber, I drag my feet to the door, hoping to quickly deal with whatever unwelcome visitor awaits and return to my much needed rest. My experience at the Open Door has awakened me to the great joy, and paradoxically despair, that can accompany greeting the stranger. It has forced me to confront, relentlessly, situations which are seemingly entirely beyond my control or capacity to "fix." And it is in this context that the community's deep-seated reliance upon faith has revealed itself to me.

One of the dear friendships that I made this summer was with a Scottish student, very religious, who was well on her way to a career and a "normal" life previous to her experiences with service to the poor. Many nights we would go for walks, discussing the vast differences in our faith, our backgrounds, and our perspectives, and often simply helping one another to process our shared experiences. She could not understand how I could take part in the works of the community if I did not share their faith; I often questioned how she could have faith and great love for a God which allowed such suffering to continue. In our own way, we helped one another to resolve these questions, and her gift to me when she returned to Scotland was my first Bible. In it, she highlighted several passages, one of which became very meaningful in the context of my own experiences with the faith commitment of the Open Door:

"Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no-one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint."

The life and teachings of Jesus Christ are at the heart of nearly everything that the Open Door Community does--it could not exist otherwise. The community is a community of seekers, and what they seek is their savior in the presence of the stranger. They worship a God that is a God of the oppressed, a savior that walks among the poor, and just as their lives are the ultimate manifestation of their faith, so too do they depend upon this faith when through their struggles they grow "tired and weary." I mentioned that my own more secular background was a cause of personal concern upon coming to the Open Door. My experiences with mainstream Christianity had been less than inspiring, and though certainly the Open Door is anything but mainstream, still I carried these experiences with me as I entered the community. Now at the end of my stay there, I find myself very grateful for the opportunity to see the life of Jesus Christ in an entirely new light. More importantly, my own faith assertions and life choices have been challenged in such a way that they could never have been had I spent my summer with a secular, service-oriented, "agency." I leave the Open Door not with answers, but with a renewed need to seek out truth in my life, and an increased awareness of the forces greater than myself which have propelled me upon just such a journey.

III. A Life in Community
Similar to the faith commitment of the Open Door, a life in community was an equally powerful experience. The majority of my energy was devoted to an internal attempt to process events which were taking place outside of the community, on the streets, and this in all honesty left me with inadequate time to focus on the life of the community itself. This is unfortunate, as even amongst the fringe intentional community movement the Open Door is unique. Not only is the community's aim a utopian attempt to remove itself from the evils of modern society while residing within the belly of the beast, it is also an experiment in egalitarianism which makes earnest efforts to cross racial, gender, and class lines. As can be imagined, this presents some very real difficulties which are often exacerbated by the physical and emotional proximity of the community members to one another. Differing degrees of power within the community, as well as unconscious racism, classism, sexism, and simple personality conflicts can be very difficult obstacles to overcome; obstacles which would never come to light outside of community life. Life in a community requires very definite changes on the part of individuals involved, changes that are counter to much of what this society has taught us. But it also provides a strength and a sense of joy that I simply do not believe is possible otherwise. The individuals that comprise the Open Door Community simply could not succeed in their ministry within the confines of mainstream American lifestyles. By choosing to live lives beholden to and in deep connection with one another, they have truly become more than the sum of their parts.

Many of my more direct analyses of community life came when I discovered particular character traits within myself which were incompatible with a life in community and of which I had no previous awareness. I am a racist, as well as a sexist, and I can too often be selfish, and gruff, and insensitive to the needs of others. Removed from the challenges of a life in community, it is too easy to be one of the "beautiful people," too easy to assume that interpersonal problems and conflicts which do arise are the result of external stimuli and have nothing to do with personal character flaws. When trouble comes, one can simply retreat to their individualist, isolated lifestyle and gently pretend that all is well. But my experience in community also awakened in me a deep, personal need to live out such struggles rather than to retreat, and to seek to understand myself and others in a manner that is not available outside of community life. As with other self-realizations that came as a result of my experience at the Open Door, I am not entirely certain how my newfound interest in community will manifest itself, only that it will.

Overall, I am still not sure exactly how I have been affected by my brief stay at the Open Door Community. Much of what I was exposed to there was entirely new to me and will take some time to process I know. I am also aware however that "a vision is only as good as the action it generates," and I am for that reason very concerned with this necessary stage in my experience. I will be spending the next few months traveling, working, and seeking out a vision for my life which can hopefully unify my recent experiences and long-term goals. I very much desire to live a life that is meaningful, and in "right relationship" with my environment and fellow human beings. As I seek out such a life I will remain ever thankful for the individuals and experiences which have served as my guides in this journey.

"Needless suffering, exploitation, lives not lived to their fullest extent, these are tragedies humankind has experienced in one form or another for all of our days. Coming to this place has in a sense broken me, and for the first time made me aware that mine may not be the power to end these things. That I may understand, even to a limited degree, the travails of my brethren, that I may bear witness and shed light on the evils of this world rather than allowing them to continue on in darkness and in silence, and that I may ultimately live a life such that my joys, pains, and liberation are inextricably bound with those I seek to serve, this may well be the greatest possible expression of a life well-lived that I may ever hope to find."
-journal entry, mid-July, about six weeks into my internship