by Justin Williams, OTN intern from UT’s School of Social Work
This winter has seen me revisiting the likelihood that Dr. King had me in mind when he lamented those of us “more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
I can’t pinpoint who or what exactly is responsible for bringing this particular quote to life. Perhaps it’s the now-routine experience of dropping people off in front of tents at the cusp of freezing temperatures… or watching an undernourished friend give away the last of his deli meat to a newcomer at camp just minutes after I’ve selfishly consoled myself for all the gas used to drive across town to let him spend the last of his disability check at the grocery store. Maybe it’s the burden of a mental rolodex now full of countless faces that cycle through my thoughts every time I see someone sitting alone on a park bench… or it’s simply the growing numbers of concerned Tennesseans willing to disrupt patterns of violence with their bodies while I fret over due dates on an academic syllabus. In any event though, the onset of winter seems to have conspired with Open Table Nashville just in time for the Christian tradition’s observance of Advent to begin again unsettling and ministering to my uncertain presence within these complex times.
In the wake of another sorrowful Black Friday (which included an 89-year-old Salvation Army volunteer being trampled to death as he collected donations outside a Kmart), it seems necessary to recall the ways in which the commemoration of Advent offers potential for deep subversion of the social religion of consumerism and pseudo-spirituality that marks the worst of our culture’s relationship to the holiday season.
Advent, positioned at the heels of Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmastide, is situated at the intersection of gratitude and a spirit of discontent rooted in longing, expectation, and discomfort with the prevailing order. It is about anticipation amidst uncertain times and requires that we celebrate spaces of abundant mercy and love while lamenting any instance of their absence as we build the courage and faith to act prophetically for their promised restoration.
Advent, if recognized rightly, invites us to sit amidst the tension between furious longing and satisfied anticipation. For want of space (and lest anyone accuse OTN of trying to outdo Marxism!) I won’t include the full passage of Christian scripture here, but the challenge of Advent is fully captured by the Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise that the Gospel of Luke uses to frame the arrival of Jesus into a world in which the appearance of the reign of God is rendered upside-down when overlaid with a socio-political orientation that has lost its bearings and skewed towards the rich and powerful. She rejoices in—and accurately reinterprets for us—the reality of what already is while siding with the dejected and the dispossessed.
As a fledging social worker, I’m drawn to the language of “parts” used in the Internal Family Systems modality of psychotherapy to discuss the presence of inner-personal exiles and I’m intrigued by the potential application of such concepts to sociological functioning. In IFS, “exiles”—a personification of the aspects of our individual (and perhaps collective) Being marked by the pain of fear, trauma, and shame—are suppressed by two other distinct parts that aim to either numb and distract or preemptively protect and police our consciousness and behavior. Though IFS is potentially a powerful metaphor for psycho-spiritual journeying, this winter has served as a profound reminder that the season of Advent is surely an invitation to not only internal transformation but as well to the social upheaval and role reversals of which Mary sings.
Already in Nashville, people without respite from the elements are dying unnecessary deaths in spite of a concerted effort to implement cold weather protocols for outreach and emergency shelter. Chic urban development and broad gentrification in line with the city’s emerging economic growth exponentially increases while a dire affordable housing shortage is exacerbated as existing units disappear and the poor are increasingly criminalized when they experience homelessness.
Advent is a season that was born in the hearts of a people who knew of divine intentions to establish a kin-dom of peace… and yet they hung their indigenous harps upon the willow tree (Ps. 137) and suffered much as exiles and captives beneath the rule of unjust power.
OTN lives in close proximity to those all too frequently held captive by a gauntlet of forces both internal and institutional. Though we are no longer in Babylon or under Roman occupation, we all have ways of naming the colonization of our spirits and—for those engaged in a daily struggle for survival or those of us fortunate enough to sit at the feet of discerning voices that have been exiled—there is little doubt that our sisters and brothers, both elder and infant, contend with the same rubric of systemic oppression that provides the context for the birth narratives that so many celebrate (though often extracted from their social implications) every December.
Though I know there are many with past and present experiences of the harshness of life on the streets that will say OTN has served them in times of need, their presence in my life is an equally profound saving grace in light of the risks of dulled appreciation and a numbed sense of liberative longing that can so easily creep into the holiday seasons passing through my life of privilege.
The authors of the Christmas Gospels subvert triumphalist conventions of imperial birth narratives at every turn. Providing a genealogy that stumbles and stutters through a lineage of unsavory men and blatantly scandalous women, they emphasize their Hope’s status as an impoverished and powerless baby born to a refugee father and his teenaged wife, displaced from their home by a census demonstrating arrogant imperial power and control (perhaps a theme not unfamiliar to those contending with the American criminal-industrial complex). Showing a preference for the margins over political and economic centers of power, the Prince of Peace’s lowly birth within a cave for beasts of burden was heralded by a band of outcast shepherds comparable to the migrant workers that pluck our fruit… or perhaps the friend of OTN that this afternoon could not contain a wide-eyed grin at the prospect of having his felonies overlooked with the hope of an opportunity to clean toilets at a middle school.
Given the manner in which the subject of Advent was first recognized, those banding together in illegal camps and freshly accessed public housing units can’t help but add to my understanding of the ever-deepening concepts symbolized by the candles of Expectation, Hope, Joy, and Peace in my childhood Advent wreath. While exposure to the experiences and perspectives of those marginalized by economic class, white supremacy, and mental health are not in any way new, there remain limits to my capacity to transcend myself with empathy or eliminate the need for teachers; thus their successes and failures, reflections and silence, all challenge and faithfully refashion my acculturation to a status quo decidedly incapable of nurturing the characteristics of Advent. I enter urban camps or approach broken-down cars—the meager fortresses of survival that our neighbors without homes depend upon—and I am engaged with a transparency that echoes my longing for real shalom that requires deep transformation on inextricably linked personal and societal scales while risking no threat of being diminished by true gratitude for the ways in which daily bread sustains and life perseveres.
Walter Brueggemann notes that the task of prophecy is “to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Though I am convinced that housing is a human right and that establishing a permanent residence is the first step in empowering those experiencing homeless to address further bio-psycho-social needs, so many counted among the homeless of Nashville already have much to teach us about alternatives to the dominant cultural myths. Those we work alongside provide moorings in something deeper and truer than the seductions of a status quo that degrades us all but appears more natural to some.
This is good news indeed.
And when we who endeavor to share life with society’s most vulnerable lament the litany of barriers to full dignity that they help us understand—from relationally brutalizing substance abuse and seemingly irreparable family estrangement to dehumanizing legal discrimination and disempowering apathy sometimes masked as “ministry”—we do a disservice to their presence among us by not recounting as well the joy and thanksgiving to which their lives so often bear witness. Neither story tells the whole but both stories must be told, for we sit between exile and thanksgiving, a present reality in which thrones of injustice seem insurmountable while yet the lowly are promised exaltation as the hungry receive their fill. In my short time at OTN, there has been much to beg mourning and to incite anger… but people continue to navigate the housing process and establish homes for themselves in which their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs can better be pursued.
Though I will continue to be convicted by Dr. King’s prophetic witness, the season of Advent provides a timely environment to sit square in the middle of tension that fosters holy anger, risky hope, support needed to defy fear, and the cultivation of graciousness and exuberance towards all the ways in which life cannot help but prove abundant.
As long as some of our neighbors depart prematurely from a world that couldn’t even identify them with a full name… while a new friend of mine (a confessed and convicted murderer, no less!) proves to have a pastoral touch that could never be imparted through institutional seminaries, Advent achingly and graciously continues.