On Wednesday, March 7, 2007, I was lying on my bed in the middle of the afternoon, eyes wide open, when my cellphone rang.
I hadn’t slept much the night before, or the night before that, for that matter. Although I was utterly exhausted, I knew that sleep would not come now, either—even in a comfortable bed in a relatively dark and quiet dormitory room at the Nashville university where I was enrolled as an undergraduate student.
I had just returned from a disquieting walk around my university’s campus with a member of the administration. As I eyed the sidewalk, he wrapped his arm around my shoulder as a father might a son whom he’s part proud of, part disappointed in. “We are so glad that y’all want to raise this awareness for the homeless,” he said. “But I really don’t think a protest at city hall is a very good idea.”
Two nights earlier, my best friend (now my wife) and I had sat across from the administrator in the university’s student center while he criticized at length our decision to organize a large-scale letter-writing campaign and demonstration to encourage Nashville’s mayor to follow through on his plan to build 2,000 units of low-income housing for the city’s homeless population, a plan which was—both then and now—embarrassingly underdeveloped.
In retrospect, I can’t blame him for his frustration. Part of an administrator’s job, after all, is to ensure that an institution’s order and reputation remain intact. But the edifice of order came crumbling down when, earlier that day, he had received a call from a friend in the mayor’s office who asked him, apparently with great displeasure, why in God’s name his students were planning to disturb the peace with such nonsense.
As it turns out, power does not appreciate a challenge—especially when marginalized people have anything to do with it.
Lying on my back in the dark, I didn’t recognize the number on my cellphone, but I knew I’d better answer, especially during a week such as this one. “Hello, is this Mr. Krinks?” the voice asked. I answered that it was. “This is Lt. Hawkins of the Nashville Central Precinct.”
My heart skipped and nearly stopped as it dropped into my stomach. The lieutenant notified me that groups of more than 20 people intending to conduct a march through downtown must request permission from the city four days ahead of the event. But we were already three days out, which meant that a march would result in arrest. He asked if I understood this.
Shaken, caught off guard, and without a chance to think it through, I answered that I did. Bearing a weight in the center of my chest I had not known before, I spent the remainder of the week staying up late into the night with my friends and co-organizers, planning, re-planning, praying, and trembling before a spirit and a movement far more awe-inspiring than anything we could have dreamed up on our own.
A friend once said that there are at least two kinds of social movements in the world: the kind you sit down and start from scratch, and the kind that comes like a river to sweep you away. I found myself advocating for Nashville’s homeless community as a 20-year-old college student not because I possessed any sort of unique virtue, but because, faced with the reality of thousands of people spending night after night without shelter in my own backyard—people who, as I was beginning to understand, bore the very image of God in the lines of their faces—I had no other option.
Part willing, part eager and perhaps part foolish, I let the river guide me, and before I could think twice, I was standing with more than 100 other students and faculty before our city’s seat of power trying, as best I knew how at the time, to proclaim some fragment of good news to those who bear the burden of homelessness in our city.
Four years later I am still trying to echo, as concretely as possible, the words that Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed to the crowd in his inaugural sermon: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Indeed, I will only ever be trying to echo and embody this proclamation. I am, as I have come to understand it, a laborer in a vineyard not my own. Grand outcomes and solutions are good and fine, but they’ll only ever matter if I’m willing to get my hands dirty.
And being willing to get my hands dirty means being willing to relinquish my own comfort, well being and security for the sake of others. For what good is good news to the poor if the one giving it isn’t willing to get close enough to look that person in the eye and to be affected by what one sees there? Perhaps this is part of what it means to restore sight to the blind, for maybe it is I who am blind, unable to see in a woman asking for help on the sidewalk a sister, a friend—or even God. Indeed, perhaps it is I who am in need of good news and liberation.
If I have learned anything about serving and advocating for those who are marginalized, it is that my efforts are of no use if I am not willing to become vulnerable to the suffering endured by those who live and die on the margins of society. To become vulnerable, as I understand it, is to refuse the temptation to exercise a domineering sort of power over those I seek to serve. It is to refuse the distance that would protect me from getting over-involved in a stranger’s complicated poverty. It is to refuse the security that would hedge me in against the risks that come with challenging or seeking to change a broken system.
Indeed, even more than these things, to become vulnerable is to become willing to experience all manner of reversal. Shifting places from speaker to listener, from host to guest, from liberator to liberated—this is what it means to serve the poor, the outcast and the marginalized. For marginalization and poverty have to do with far more than a simple lack of financial stability. To be marginalized is to be invisible, unheard and unknown.
Therefore, what the homeless man asking for money on a downtown sidewalk needs, just as much as he needs money, is for his face to be seen in close proximity, his voice and story to be heard in conversation, and his name to be spoken aloud in the presence of another. Only then can the other symptoms of poverty begin to be addressed and alleviated.
With these things in mind, on my good days, I seek to spend my energy on behalf of those who suffer beneath the weight of poverty and marginalization. To make visible those who are invisible, to amplify the voices of those who are perpetually silenced, to speak the names of those who are otherwise unknown—if there is a vocation for me to enter more fully in the years to come, I pray that this be it.
When my wife and I taught creative writing and poetry to homeless men at Room in the Inn’s Campus for Human Development, and later to women at the Tennessee Prison for Women, we did our best to lend a language typically reserved for institutions of higher learning and publishing to people normally too busy trying to survive or stay sane to think about things like metaphor, meter or rhyme. But because poetry is the language of depths, it can also function as a lifeline, a new way of seeing and being in the world that is indispensible for people who daily endure the deafening and debilitating silence of society’s margins.
As we have entered into relationship with people journeying from homelessness to housing, healing and community, time and time again, just when we thought we were the ones serving, the tables have been turned. From the night we spent with fellow Holy Week observers beneath an enormous tarp-canopy in the woods a few hundred yards from the Cumberland River as the recipients of hospitality from a homeless couple and their injured friend, to the spontaneous Christmas gifts, calls, and late-night car repairswe have received from people we thought we were helping with housing and resources, we have witnessed reversals that keep us mindful of our common humanity with people who, as it turns out, are not so different from us.
Today, as editor of The Contributor, Nashville’s street newspaper about homelessness and poverty, which is sold by approximately 400 homeless and formerly homeless men and women, I have the opportunity to help make visible and approachable—on countless street corners across the city—men and women who would otherwise go unknown by the rest of the community. As a form of dignified employment, The Contributor helps provide the means necessary for hundreds of men and women to find financial stability and often housing.
Working with homeless, formerly homeless and nonhomeless writers, I am blessed to be able to help publish and distribute a newspaper that makes poverty and homelessness a larger part of our city’s conversation—all while providing work and fostering community across class lines.
And finally, as a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I recently helped draft an official statement on poverty to be included in the school’s statement of its commitments, I have had the opportunity to take part in deep, engaging and constructive conversations about how to make the alleviation of poverty a greater priority within our various faith communities. For whether one is a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist or otherwise, the call to care for the poor, the stranger and the outcast is part and parcel of what it means to be a person of faith.
As a person of faith myself, I believe humans are made for community. Or, as South Africans in the fight against apartheid put it, “I am because we are.” But as nice as it might look on paper, the wounds of poverty and marginalization, individual and structural alike, will not be healed until more of us live as though such an idea were actually true. And thanks be to God, as the last four years of my life have made unmistakably clear, it is.
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: John Russell, Justin Wright
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