Hello, family and friends!
A month ago I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and began working as a Young Adult Volunteer at the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta, helping individuals and families fleeing domestic violence, transitioning out of homelessness, or living with HIV/AIDS furnish their homes. Before I share my thoughts on my experiences thus far via this blog, I want to thank the Young Adult Volunteer program for the opportunity to live and work in Atlanta for a year, as well as the Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship, a congregation that finances our housing, a purple house with a front porch where we gather to eat supper and a winsome garden of orange cosmos flowers and cherry tomatoes. I’m also grateful for the lovely members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia for helping me raise the funds necessary to participate in the program. Your financial support made this year of service possible, and, though you are many miles away, your love continues to buoy my spirits as I face my own failings and naiveté, seek divinity through shades of doubt, and bear witness to heartbreaking hardship.
First off, a little about my three housemates and their work:
My housemate Cat is working at the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center where she helps people experiencing homelessness attain documentation and identification so they can apply for food stamps and other critical social services.
When I visited her work site I spotted a portrait one of the clients had sketched in colored pencil of a woman with a poofy black mane, the shading of her face intersecting at odd angles, so it appeared as though there were scratches across her cheeks and forehead. She had a smile packed with teeth, little blank squares neatly lined along her top and bottom lip, and irises that matched the hue of her red lipstick. With those meteor-like red eyes inflaming her stare, I could not help but imagine some crossness within her, despite the smile. After hearing stories from Cat about the line of desperate clients spilling through the OAC front doors everyday and the burdensome bureaucracy and systematic injustices clients have to navigate to meet their basic needs, I wonder if the artist’s unique choice in eye color was meant to reflect righteous anger.
My other two housemates, Jeremy and Wesley, work at Mercy Church, a radically welcoming nook of faith and grace tucked away in the basement of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church. At Mercy Church a small community of people, many of whom are struggling with homelessness, convene during the week for coffee, prayer, worship, bible study, group discussions on overcoming addiction, lunch, and other resources, including a foot clinic and clothes closet.
Cat and I attend worship services at Mercy Church most Sundays. The sanctuary is little more than a circle of chairs around a candlelit table, with a crucifix propped up against the kitchen counter beyond and a plastic punch bowl for a baptismal font. One Sunday there was a man sleeping on the floor with a bandaged foot and vomit sopping the backside of his jeans, his head resting on a pillow patterned with blue monkeys that looked like it belonged in a baby’s crib. Another Sunday a man told me if I did not permit the government to insert a microchip into my mind, I would be tortured for ten days and beheaded, pulling a folded up magazine article out of his wallet to substantiate the delusion.
This past Sunday at Mercy Church, my housemate Wesley led the singing at the beginning of the service, strumming his ukulele for accompaniment while a man behind him tapped drumsticks on a pair of bongos made out of empty Maxwell House coffee containers and duct tape. We sang, “I saw the light I saw the light, No more darkness no more night, Now I’m so happy, No sorrow in sight, Praise the Lord! I saw the light. “ One of the men who is notorious for his tone deafness was singing, as he often does, with gusto and louder than anyone else in the room, knocking us all off-key. At one point the man beside him started laughing and said, “Hey, the Bible says make a joyful noise. Didn’t say it had to be good.” The tone-deaf man smiled wide, belting the wrong notes even louder.
After we sang, we read through the parable in Matthew Chapter 20 comparing the kingdom of God to workers in a vineyard each receiving a denarius as payment for their labor, regardless of whether they had begun working in the morning or at dusk. When the workers who had been toiling all day in the hot sun griped to the landowner about how unfair it was that they had received the same pay as those who had only been working for an hour, he reprimanded them, asking, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” We had a long discussion about the bountifulness of God’s grace, unfathomable in a world in which we are constantly competing for limited resources and comparing our wealth. In this cutthroat reality, it’s much easier to believe those who have little deserve little, a belief that breeds resentment when we see unearned gestures of kindness uplifting people who are struggling. One woman talked about how God’s grace ruptures through these confines of supposed deserving, spilling infinitely. And in the span of infinity, the difference between going to work in the vineyard at sunrise versus sunset is barely a wink of time.
Because many of the people who come to Mercy Church are living on the streets, suffering from a lack of adequate sleep and nutrition and, as a result, compromised mental health, the space is often roiling with extreme emotions; Jeremy and Wesley have more than once been caught in the crossfires of vicious cursing, trying their best to defuse a fight. They told us about one woman in particular who had been asked to leave the community for throwing chairs at people, and who, on a Sunday morning not long after her return, began splashing everyone with water from the baptismal font.
I don’t think it’s in spite of the fraught atmosphere that people find solace at Mercy Church, a place where they can be cantankerous or eccentric or tangled up in the throes of addiction and know that, even if they are asked to leave for throwing chairs, their community will not desert them. The first day I visited Mercy Church one of the pastors, Pastor Chad, was leading a group discussion on recovery from addiction, making notes on an easel about how we all rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms to confront life’s stressors, and how a low point with addiction can be a blessing, an opportunity to admit we need help and offer ourselves up to the grace of God. At the bottom of the easel he wrote the words, “You are beloved,” and then circled it over and over. I’ve often thought of people as beloved children of God, though the passivity of the sentiment has recently begun to bother me; sometimes I wonder if it’s a way for me to foist the responsibility of loving marginalized people who are difficult to love on God, so that I can stay blind to their suffering, content in my own bubble of privilege.
At Mercy Church, the words Pastor Chad had circled over and over were more than a platitude, more than a nice thought to brighten a tough day. When Pastor Chad told people they were beloved, they did not need to depend on faith in a higher being to know it was true, because he would embrace them, or call out, “Be safe. I love you,” or “te amo” before they went through the church doors and back onto the streets.
All of this is to say, there is a basement of a church in downtown Atlanta where the kingdom of God thrives, and I’m so blessed to be able to learn from the Mercy Church community this year. I haven’t even begun to talk about the Furniture bank yet; I’ll tell you about it in my next post! Thank you for reading. More soon! Love,