Journey With the Open Door

Submitted by Joshua Enns on March 3, 2014 - 11:01am
A "in-the-midst" snapshot of a week spent learning in Atlanta

I am in a yellow room. The basement here at The Open Door is bright. Bright like the hope and transformation this community brings to its neighbourhood in Atlanta . I am in the Martin Luther King, Jr. room. I am excited to see what this week will bring... 

 

TRIP JOURNAL

This journal was written by the four of us who went to visit the Open Door Community. Each entry is written by either Adwitya, Joel, Laura, or I and it is meant to give a rough window into our experiences during the week. Throughout the week, I worked on a poem that tried to catch some of the spirit of my yellow room and of our experiences at the Open Door, I’ve titled it: “Journey With”. Pull up a cup of tea as you read this journal and journey with us in raw text fashion and glimpse a visit to the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia.   –Joshua

Journey With

 

Speak fire just-truth agitator

love stirs - thought spirit and body words

Be unapologetically communal

    mercy works, grace abounds - the transformative life

Practice holy questing

    re-baptising ‘our’ feet, breaking domination - full bodied liberation

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 Sat, Feb. 15

 Today we experienced southern hospitality at its finest.

The day started as we drove out from the Fireside with well wishes and hugs from Alyssa and Rich. We arrived at the border in Detroit to be stopped for an hour as our car was searched from top to bottom.

We opened a gift from Dylan while on the road (with a sticker on it saying “Inspected by U.S. Border Patrol"): delicious chocolates along with a warm and encouraging note reminding us of friends and family keeping us in their prayers.

After 12 hours on the road, we pulled in to Knoxville Mennonite Church. The church is really a large house with an attached hall that functions as a sanctuary/meeting place. We were immediately invited in to leave our stuff in bedrooms/sunday school rooms with beds all made up for us, and then join the potluck Valentine’s party happening in the church hall.


Most of our time was spent talking with Elijah, a friendly high school student who attends the church, but we were also made to feel incredibly welcome through many more introductions from other community members who were so glad we could join them. The community was vibrant and energetic, continuing the party well past 10pm. 

After everyone had left, we continued talking with Sylvia, another woman from the church who was spending the night in a converted sunday school room as she lived several hours away and didn’t want to have to drive back for church in the morning. She told us all about her friend Henry, a man with cerebral palsy that she and her husband had taken care of for the last 28 years until he passed away in the last month. The love and care this couple had shown Henry was evident from her stories, and served to be encouraging and humbling.

 The entire evening, I’ve been trying to figure out how we got so lucky that this all worked out. Maybe it’s a God thing… Of all the Mennonite Churches between Waterloo and Atlanta, we found the one with beds for us to sleep in, a party for us to join, food for us to eat, and a community to make us feel welcome. This truly was a blessing, and I am so grateful for the warmth and hospitality we have been shown here. My home and prayer is that in the coming week, and in the days to come after, that this hospitality can serve as an example for us to share with all those who enter our presence whether at the Open Door or back at home in Kitchener.

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 Sunday, Feb. 16

 Good morning sunshine. We woke up at 8am on mattresses in the middle of a sunday school classroom/bedroom of Knoxville Mennonite. Sunlight poured through the windows, and glistened on the light frost outside. It was going to be a good day.

 We were reunited with Sylvia over breakfast. While we feasted on coffee and donuts, she shared with us her incredible life story. She had grown up in a conservative Mennonite Community near Lancaster, PA, and was kicked out of her church as a young woman for her rebellion against the puritanical dress code and stifling ideas. She went on to do MVS in a migrant worker camp in Florida, where she came face-to-face with social injustice, “My church thought I was radical before,” she laughed and said. On her return home, she confronted her mom and criticized the gap that she saw between the poor people that Jesus associated with and the overly self-righteous church. She felt called to reduce that gap. Radical indeed, and a great intro to our visit to the Open Door, which tries to ‘reduce the distance’ between the rich and poor through its radical practices of hospitality and community.

 We finally arrived at our destination after an idyllic picnic on the red clay shores of Allatoona lake in Red Top Mountain State Park. It fed our souls as well as our bodies.

We pulled into Atlanta and squeezed into the back alley driveway of the Open Door just in time for a tour of the house before the day’s events began. We marvelled at the colourful artwork, inspiring peace posters, and protest signs that wallpapered the large house, and delighted in the eclectic rooms that we would be staying in, called the Dorothy Day, Frederick Douglass, MLK, and Willie Dee Wimberly rooms. We settled into our home away from home, and then went downstairs to join the worship service that was just beginning.

 It was a powerful experience for all of us. As February is African American History Month, we sang passionate renditions of Negro spirituals and songs from the Civil Rights movement. The 3 novices, Mary Catherine, Emma and Terry each brought to life the inspiring stories of black historical figures: Ella Baker, Paul Robeson, and Fannie Lou Hamer. This was followed by more music, and then the Prayers of the People, in which community members shared their joys and concerns (all of them…). It was wonderful to hear many stories of transformation, and get a sense of how involved folks were in each others’ lives. They really seemed to model God’s “Beloved Community," as said in their version of the Lord’s Prayer that left us all in awe:


Our Beloved Friend

Outside the Domination System

May your Holy Name be honored

    By the way we live our lives.

 

Your Beloved Community come.

    Guide us to:

        Walk your Walk

        Talk your Talk

        Sit your Silence

Inside the court room, on the streets, in the jail houses

As they are on the margins of resistance.

Give us this day everything we need.

Forgive us our wrongs

    as we forgive those who have wronged us.

Do not bring us to hard testing,

    but keep us safe from the Evil One.

 

For Thine is:

    the Beloved Community,

    the power and

    the glory

        forever and ever.

Amen.

 Communion felt more meaningful than ever before as we broke bread for each other, drank from the Cup of Liberation, and pondered the sacrifice that Jesus’ death modelled for us. The symbolism of the bread and wine was made even more poignant by the portraits on the sanctuary walls of men on death row. Communion extended into supper as we quickly transformed the sanctuary into the Great Banquet Hall, and enjoyed a delicious vegetarian meal. The community supper provided an opportunity to get acquainted with some of the larger than life characters that make this place what it is: Ed, Emma, Terry. We’re all looking forward to getting to know them better and joining with them in the week’s life and work.

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 Monday, Feb. 17

 The day started with us gathering for breakfast and a circle. Every beginning/ending here begins by gathering in a circle, holding hands, sharing, and praying for the tasks and requests at hand. This morning during circling time, we heard about the court case we were going to attend. One of the main areas of work for people in the Open Door is prison solidarity and visitation/letter writing with those on death row in Georgia. We were going to observe a sitting of the Georgia Supreme Court for the final proceedings in an appeal on the legality of holding the producers and suppliers of the drug Pentobarbital, used to carry out the Death Penalty. It was to be a verbal defense where each lawyer was given 20 minutes to restate their position, address five questions about the case and rebut their opponents comments.

Mary Catherine drove us along with Emma, John and Terry to the courthouse in one of the Open Door vans. The same van that the community uses once a month to drive family members of those on death row to visit the institutions holding their loved ones.

Gold gilded doors, a metal scanner and the latin text, “Fiat Justitia. Ruat Calem” ("Let justice be done, though the heavens fall"), met our eyes as our minds prepared to hear the two lawyers present their arguments to the panel of 6 supreme court judges.

Before the case, there were about 20 lawyers called up to the bar of the supreme court to be “sworn in." In his address to the lawyers, one of the presiding Justices gave an interesting analogy. “Lawyers are like meteorologists. We try to predict the outcome of the law for our clients.”

During the formal hearing, it was amazing to notice the transition of the language used. From colloquial it morphed into legal jargon - formal, impersonal, logical, excessive. The language seemed empty from our perspective and, coming from a lack of legal training, it required quite the effort to follow the arguments. A white female lawyer argued in favour of the current legislature that allows the State to withhold or not attain information on the source of the drugs used for the death penalty. A black male lawyer argued against the legislature. Both were grilled by the six Justices, who often interrupted the lawyers midpoint to ask another question or seek clarification on an issue.

We observed that the court system is very much in place to argue about the law, but it has little to do with meeting the needs or desires of victims/offenders of that law. It upholds justice in a fallen world without imagining how it could uphold justice through restoring a fallen world (how true the quote, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” perhaps it should be “Let justice be done through restoring us to the heavens”).

Heads spinning with legal jargon we returned to the Open Door for lunch and spent the first bit of the afternoon cleaning some of the many bathrooms in the gigantic rooming house that is the Open Door. Once finished with our cleaning tasks, we took some time to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and green grass along the Freedom Parkway Park just down the street.

Around 4:00 pm we circled up back at the Open Door, with some of the community, before heading to a Moral Monday protest. Moral Monday protests started in North Carolina and they are against cutting services due to austerity and conservative politics. In particular, Moral Monday Protests work against the hijacking of religious language by groups such as the Tea Party in a call to reclaim ‘moral’ language in the public sphere. In North Carolina this year protests were upwards of 80 000 people. As Atlanta is the State Capital, a small group of people have brought Moral Monday protests to bear on Georgia’s issues and are protesting weekly at the State Legislature.

 We arrived just as the protest was opened by a Black Reverend praying for justice in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr.


 We had a fantastic time hearing many different speakers on funding cuts to public education in Georgia - $7.6 billion in the past number of years. The 120 people who were gathered were very inspiring. We raised our voices in song, helped hold signs (“Education not Incarceration”...) and participated in group cheers in the spirit and in the footsteps of “Martin” and the civil rights movement which still is a very visible struggle in the south.

The evening held dinner around the table in a circle fashion. Dinner extended into a brief bible study and the weekly community meeting.

The community meeting involved listening to the 15 people that currently live at the Open Door share minutes from the community leadership meeting, the weekly rotation and chores list, personal issues, hospitality issues and ongoing community life struggles. We witnessed a very open and real consensus discussion on the possibility of inviting a friend from the street to live at the Open Door. It was inspiring and humbling to see how frank, honest and open people were during the meeting about their feelings, motivations and personal issues - nothing was left in hiding and if so it was called out by others. One of the members did not want the friend to live in the house, while most were in favor of giving it a try. The way people included everyone's voices and were genuinely accepting of dissent was a beautiful model to witness.

 

Tuesday, Feb. 18

Another amazing day.

This was our first time experiencing the Open Door’s soup Kitchen, which is their primary point of connection and outreach to the community around them. The most unique part of the Open Door’s model is that a large amount of the volunteers have a street or prison history. There was an atmosphere of people sharing with their friends, out of an abundance that belongs to all of us. This isn’t the White rich people serving the poor Black people, but rather, it’s everyone coming together to share in a meal.

The Open Door offers a wide range of resources to the community during the soup kitchen time. People came to eat a meal, take home sandwiches or food hampers, take a shower, trade in their clothes for new clean ones, pick up pills and medications (based on their own personal needs), or check their mail.

We spent the evening at Mary Catherine's house, eating a meal together and then discussing Cornel West’s book, “Race Matters." Having not read the book ourselves, we were primarily observers, listening to the conversation. At the end of the night, we were prompted to provide some of our thoughts and feedback. The conversation spanned a wide range of topics, and asked a lot of big questions. It was exciting to engage in this conversation with people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences with different perspectives and ideas.

At the end of the evening as we were cleaning up, I noticed how incredibly comfortable and welcome I felt, as if I was simply hanging out with a community of friends who I’d known for a long time. Time tends to go slowly in a setting like this. I feel like we’ve been here a week and I’ve known these people all my life, even though it has barely been over 2 days…

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Wednesday, Feb. 19

Today was perhaps the most full day, both in terms of time and the level of learning. We started off at 9:45 am instead of 8:45, and began circle shortly after breakfast. The morning teaching circle started off with a beautiful African American song that had its roots very close to African tradition and style (likely West African). Right after we watched a dramatized documentary on the rise of slavery in the US in the 1700’s. Though I found it meaningful and informative, the appropriateness of showing it for the morning lesson/pre-soup kitchen time sparked some controversy at the community level. Some of the Black women who had come in to volunteer, but not stay for the lunch time discussion of the documentary, said that they felt ‘trapped’ watching it. Ed, who was leading the teaching, didn’t really make any attempt to speak to this, and we went straight to the closing prayer. Some, such as Laura, felt the closing prayer was worded very awkwardly given the context of serving economically ‘trapped’ Black persons, juxtaposed with the ‘enslaved’ Black people depicted in the documentary. It seems to me that Ed is a big proponent of stirring the pot, and is extremely aware of his privilege and has specifically dedicated his life to breaking down race divides. I think it is likely that he showed the documentary intentionally knowing the pain it would bring up to try and have a truthful discussion of southern history across race/economic divides. However, intentional or not, the atmosphere felt heavy, like sandpaper grating on skin. Right after the interestingly worded prayer, we went to serve the community with food and other needs, just like the day before.

I was stationed again at bag check. Joel was on laundry, Laura did/helped with the sorting room, and Joshua ushered/oversaw different areas in the main corridor. I, like the day before, had a great time at my station volunteering with a friend from the street. I was way more comfortable and confident at bag check, and less over aware of my skin colour.

We later broke for lunch, and ate some great soup and salad. While sitting at the table, we had a reading, and then had a discussion on the dramatized documentary. Many of the black people in the room didn’t like the pain the film gave them, and felt it wasn’t appropriate. Some felt Ed was imposing an agenda. As Joshua pointed out later during our small group reflection time, he was following exactly the method or philosophy outlined by Cornel West, with a bit of the style and in your faceness of Malcolm X. One of the volunteers brought up the valid issue of having “consent.” Some of us talked about the need for trigger warnings later. Ed clearly did state he had an agenda, and though he valued the point of consent, didn’t feel he needed to do things differently. He was fairly firm in his stance to the end, and pretty unapologetic. Though he had done things in a way that honestly made him seem like someone who didn’t understand the race dynamic in the room (which is very ironic, and likely intentional), he did get us talking about race. He did make a good analogy to the Jewish community building museums, reclaiming their Holocaust narrative. This was a redeeming point somewhat in his talk, and provided context for what he was trying to achieve with it. However, it did end up feeling unproductive, and felt to many handled in a way that was tactless.

After the heavy talk at lunch, we talked one on one with Ed (one of the founders) and Mary Catherine (a current novice). This was perhaps the most enlightening talk of the week. I personally understood Ed a bit better in the 10 minutes or so that he spoke to us. I remember his words that they use “behaviour” as a medium of exchange. They are not doing things for “free” in that sense at the Open Door. We spoke then for almost 1.5 hours with Mary Catherine, and had a very upfront account of positives and challenges at the Open Door.

The day ended with a great community supper provided by Peachtree Pres., an amazing social Justice group. The dinner was followed by a foot clinic. An amazing experience. It was not really the spiritual experience that some of us had been expecting, but it was very satisfying to learn how to do foot care for people who often have nowhere to change their socks or take their feet out of their shoes. I developed a good bond with the guy whose feet I was taking care of, and he thought I did a really good job. I was happy. Several med school students volunteered with us during the foot clinic and they were pretty fun to talk to. The herbalist lady running the clinic was especially cool. She is going to Kenya in a little bit and needs advice on where to stay in Nairobi.

All in all, a very packed day. A lot of reflections to be had.

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Thursday, Feb. 20

 Thursday at the Open Door is pretty relaxed. We circled at 8:45 and set up for Trusted Friends showers and a brunch meal. A friend from the street, was volunteering as a haircutter for folks. One of the amazing aspects of the soup kitchen and hospitality services the Open Door provides is the way people who are or used to be on the streets volunteer right alongside those of us with white privilege who have never needed for anything. Unlike the previous two days, the 50 or so people on the Trusted Friends list required very little help or direction around the house so the morning serving time/soup kitchen was freed up for us to eat with the guests. I had some good conversations with various new friends, while Joel, Laura, and Nathan bathed us all in folk music from “Rise Up Singing”.

I asked David, who has been living at the Open Door for 10 years, what the most significant change he has noticed in the community was. His comments were interesting. “A while back, Open Door had an open yard for anyone to sleep in and was more welcoming to guests in various states (drunk, high, etc). This caused them to see the police frequently. To manage the chaos, they had to institute many laws around what different groups of people were able to do, when, etc. Through the last 10 years, partly as the partners have aged and partly from experience, the Open Door has become much more restrictive and hard lined about who is allowed to access them or be on their property (sober, not high). This in turn has allowed them to lower the amount of specific rules and live more with an ethic of beloved community over a stringent rule book way of life.” Another thing that was stressed in several conversations I had Thursday morning was how what the community looks like is so dependent on who is around and it changes a fair amount.

In the afternoon we had mostly free time so Adi got to go out and reconnect with an old friend in town, and Joel, Laura, and I spent the afternoon enjoying the sun, hiking the biggest granite deposit in the USA: Stone Mountain.

The trip into nature had a weird reminder of the backwardness of consumer society. The 1200 ft stone mountain is privately owned, so there are a bunch of different attractions around its base. One such attraction, involved a snow maker in the plus 60 degree weather to create a massive tubing hill in view of a curved image of 3 confederate generals in the mountainside. What a strange way to enjoy nature.

Evening saw us all back at the Open Door, enjoying a delicious southern meal made by Terry with mac ‘n’ cheese, cabbage, meatloaf, cornbread, and fresh banana bread. We finished off a more relaxing day with a quick tour of Little Five Points, the artisan and other store area, and a fantastic game of epic DUELS, followed by a brief reflection time and sleep.

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Friday, Feb. 21

 On Friday morning, we had the wonderful experience of going to the King Center. We were led by our expert behind-the-scenes tour guide, Terry, a novice from the Open Door. After a week of learning about Dr. King (or just "Martin," as he is often referred to here) and his inspirational non-violent message and sacrifice for social change, we were excited visit the centre. We began at his birth home, which we flew through in about 10 minutes, with hundreds of students on our heels.

It was cool to learn about Auburn Avenue, and the community of black businesses that had once flourished there. It was also interesting to see the contrast between the middle-class black homes on the King family's side of the street, and the cheaper shotgun houses that lined the other side, and became home for many blacks following the city's race riots.

 We then went to Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King Sr. and then King Jr. famously preached. It was incredibly moving to sit in those pews and listen to recordings of Mahalia Jackson, King's favourite singer. I could almost see Martin up at the pulpit, rattling the stained-glass windows with an inspiring sermon or protest speech. The clock at the back of the sanctuary was stopped at the exact time of day when King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

 We continued with a visit to the museum, where we watched a film on Martin's life. While it gave a good overview of his growing up years and his involvement in the civil rights movement, we noticed that it didn't include any of the more critical excerpts from his "Beyond Vietnam" speech or anything about his fight for economic justice, which was just beginning when he was killed. And of course, there was no suggestion that he was likely killed by the government...

 The most poignant part of the museum for me was the video clip of King's "I've been to the mountaintop” speech, in which he accepted his pending fate and laid out what he hoped his legacy would be. King set a truly amazing example for all of us. I can only hope that my life will make a fraction of his impact.


 After a full morning at the King Centre, we went out for a celebratory lunch at Atlanta's dining room, Mary Mack's Tea House. We filled our bellies with delicious southern food: fried chicken, collard greens, fried okra, tomato pie, mac 'n' cheese, sweet tea, and much much more.

 Finally, we headed back to the Open Door to say our goodbyes to our new friends. We were sad to leave, and they were just as sad to see us go. It was amazing how well we had all connected over the week, and they almost convinced us to stay...

 But almost as soon as we had arrived, we left and made our way to Dayspring Farm, the Open Door's peaceful retreat in the mountains. There, we enjoyed going for a walk in the woods with Gladys and Dick, two of the Open Door's older partners. They were very knowledgeable when it came to identifying plants, and shared with us many stories about the farm from over the years, like the building of their swamp, and the recent vandalism of their trailer by an angry neighbour. They also gave us a historical tour of the barn, which they had beautifully renovated. And finally, we ate pancakes together and they shared with us the story of their lives, before and after the Open Door. I was so encouraged by their enthusiasm for communal life, even after all these years, and their nudging to try it for ourselves.

 I just might.

Comments:
Challenging, raw... beautiful

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and reflection: Joshua, Laura, Addy and Joel!

There is so much here- ideas about justice, prayer, living in community with others, serving the poor- living amongst the poor, spending time in nature... what an enlightening journey you embarked on.

Thanks for the thoughts and ideas you've shared. I'm both challenged and encouraged by what you saw and heard.