The Man on the Other End of the Phone

Someone recently said that all of my FB posts were depressing. I told him I planned to start posting pictures of puppies any day now. I haven’t found the exact right one but meanwhile, here’s a really good thing that happened at Open Table Nashville this week. This happens every week but the details are different each time.

A man I’ve never met called me on my work phone. He had a nice speaking voice, direct and engaging. He said he’d spent about the last few years trying to kill himself with alcohol (I’m paraphrasing) and he’d lost everything now, had gone to treatment, been sober thirty days, was currently homeless, working at a temp service, staying in a motel some nights, trying to get into transitional housing, and very aware that his sobriety was at risk. He was emotional. Rightfully so. I asked him a number of questions and tried to dial back his desperation a little by going through some options. It became clear that all he really needed was one of two things, either the first month’s rent, Four-hundred-seventy-five dollars, or free room and board for a couple of weeks until he could save the money himself.

It seemed possible from my view but I told him that the only guarantee I could give him was that I’d do the best I could to find a solution. Last week (in a similar but far more harrowing situation) I spent the money of a number of churches and agencies and felt obligated to give them a break. Instead, I called on a friend who long ago, found himself in a similar situation. I figured if anyone had access to information or contacts, it would be him and come to find out, I was right. He hooked me up with programs, benevolence funds, and a couple of humans who were willing to brainstorm ideas. I began to get excited, thinking it might happen but still not sure it wouldn’t take another week. A week is a long time in the mind of someone who is just out of rehab. The four of us exchanged e-mails for a minute. When my original friend realized we weren’t looking for a scholarship but more of an entry fee, he wrote: Will $475 do the trick for him?
Then he wrote: Put me down for it. Can I just pay with Paypal to you?

That is when I was humbled out of my skull at 6:25 on a Wednesday morning. I thanked my friend for his sustained generosity and then — I got to call a man who the day before was worried sick for his life and tell him that some kind person gave him the money.

This moment, this phone call, is a precious gift to everyone involved, the patron, the human, and me. There aren’t any guarantees in this sort of work. There’s no criteria, no checklist or tool that can capture and qualify the results of these human experiences and no need for it. This is nothing but skidding head long into loving the people that surround us, even when it could be awkward or inconvenient. It’s about making a choice, about adding stability to someone’s life. It made him cry. He offered to buy me lunch (remember we’ve never met). I told him to get settled into his new routine and call me once he was down the road a bit and I hope he does. And just because it was in fact, that sort of day.. here’s a puppy.

Creating Community

By Hunter Burns, Intern Summer 2018

Before arriving in Nashville, I came from a small town of about 330 people. It was a farming community in southwest Minnesota where all the retired farmers gossip at the gas station for their entertainment. Growing up in a small community, I learned to keep my crowd small. Yet, it’s hard to not know everyone and connect with everyone in a small community.

Then, I decided to make the journey to Nashville for the summer, where I completed an internship with Open Table Nashville. When I arrived in Nashville, I knew nobody. It was a new place. I had new coworkers. I had to find new friends. For a while, it was quite challenging. It seemed so daunting to go out and find new friends, a new community.

Through my experiences with Open Table Nashville, I have learned that we have the power to add to the community. We have the ability to form relationships and create bonds that cannot be broken. Many of our friends on the streets long for a sense of community. Some are fortunate enough to find that community, and others might struggle at times. Open Table is able to foster some community through movie nights, resource shelters, and other gatherings for our friends on the streets.

Like some of our friends, Open Table Nashville became my community.

As I complete my internship and head back to Minnesota, I won’t merely miss the city or my friends at Open Table Nashville. I will miss my friends on the streets. They go by many names…Greg. Harry. Susan. Brian. Sharon…to name a few. A community is whom we surround ourselves with. A community will give the shirt off their back for someone in need. A community will wash each other’s feet and share in lively conversation. A community will stand together in solidarity and advocate for change and social justice.

I encourage you to connect with your community. Find out what community means to you. Grow with your community. Be inspired by your community. Ignite your community in social change.

Lastly, I charge you to be a friend to everyone you meet, and don’t forget to smile today! ☺

The Reality of Being Unhoused

By Lauren Morgan, Summer Intern 2018

As I stumbled through the woods on a rainy and sticky morning, I couldn’t get my mind off of all of the bugs that were probably crawling inside my backpack and on my jacket. We were headed to a campsite. I’m usually not one for the outdoors, especially walking through the woods without a trail to follow and tree branches smacking me in the face. “Welcome to the table,” I thought as I wiped raindrops off my cheek. When we arrived, it was as quaint as a permanent campsite in the woods can be, but it was home to someone.

Walking into a campsite, you have to understand that you are walking into someone’s home. The broken shopping cart and bucket by their tent door is the equivalent of an entryway table in a subdivision style home. Their belongings are scattered, but they are exactly where they are supposed to be. It looks like a mess at first glance, but it is a perfect home.

Once I began to see these things, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I had seen homelessness before, but walking through someone’s home had a greater impact on me than I thought it would. I felt all of the feelings I was expecting to feel: guilt, privilege, and so many other things I don’t have words for. But I also felt a sense of responsibility. I thought about what I had been told by an outreach worker: these people we serve have voices, so we don’t need to speak for them. We just help amplify it.” I then decided I was put at Open Table to make a difference, and our unhoused friends were there to make a difference in me as well. While I felt a rush of compassion for the people I was meeting, I was also hit with a harsh reality that I knew existed but I didn’t ever want to face it.

In 2013, 29 benches that the unhoused used to rest were removed from the downtown Nashville area. This was to ensure that the unhoused would not be visible on the streets. This succeeded in taking away places to rest, not giving people homes. The 2018 Point In Time count of unhoused people in Nashville was at 2,298. This number doesn’t even begin to cover the other 18,000 living in temporary shelters, their cars, transitional housing, or those who were currently hospitalized or in jail. There isn’t any more time to be forgotten about when you are unhoused. 118 lives slipped away in Nashville in 2017 due to being unhoused. This includes death from illness, extreme weather conditions, hunger, getting hit by cars, and abuse. People are dying just trying to survive another day. It shouldn’t be this hard. There isn’t any more time. Homelessness is not something to be glamorized. It’s graphic, violent, and very real. Things have to start changing now. Affordable housing ends homelessness. Fair opportunities end homelessness.

Celebrating INTERdependance Day

By: Madison Lindeman, Summer Intern 2018

I’m writing this in the early hours of July 4th, a holiday that I have always loved. This isn’t born out of a strong or particularly distinct sense of patriotism; I have just always loved the parades, the cookouts, the fireworks, the sense of community with the people around me. Many years, you can feel a sense of togetherness binding you to the people around you – we all live in America, so ideally, today should be a day for all of us.

These past few years, though, I’ve approached this holiday with a lot more cynicism and skepticism than in the past. It’s hard to feel the passion behind Independence Day when I don’t feel like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness apply equally to everyone.

Especially this summer, after a month with Open Table Nashville, the songs and rallying cries of this “Independence Day” ring hollow to me. It is not easy to celebrate a country that, though it is among the richest in the world, has people dying on its streets every day; or to applaud our independence when that individualism leads to a lack of compassion for our neighbors; or to praise a nation that refuses to acknowledge shelter or health care as a basic right that all people deserve.

Particularly for our friends experiencing homelessness in Nashville, the system we celebrate on July 4th is not one that works for them. Nashville continues to develop into a playground for the rich while ignoring those struggling with food, shelter, and health care, and stalling in the effort to build affordable housing. This city, and cities across the US, continue to celebrate freedom and independence while using that individualism as an excuse to ignore people all around them who continue to struggle with basic human needs.

At OTN this week, we’ve been celebrating Interdependence Day, in an acknowledgement that we live in an interconnected world, part of a rich thread of visible and invisible links that unite each and every one of us. Patriotism should not ignore how people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, people experiencing homelessness, and many other groups in the US still don’t experience that ideal American freedom. We cannot ignore the pain of those around us, for in the words of Emma Lazarus, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.”

So yes, take the 4th off, throw those burgers on the grill, and enjoy a night of fireworks – there’s nothing wrong with that! But please join me in also celebrating our interconnectedness rather than just our independence. Join me in remembering the responsibility we have to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to be kind, to remember that our liberation and freedom is bound up with those around us. This week, strive towards that goal and be intentional about how you interact with the people around you. Whether it’s handing off a cold bottle of water to one of our friends on the street, volunteering with Open Table Nashville, or just giving a smile and greeting to people around you, take time to feel and celebrate the interdependence of this world we live in.

Volunteer Spotlight: Robb

How did you get involved with Open Table Nashville?

While attending an employee-appreciation fund drive a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to meet OTN’s staff and learn about OTN’s overall mission – both leaving an impressive mark on me!​

What types of things have you participated in?​

Bi-monthly volunteering at the south side Resource Shelter focused on guest overnight preparation, fellowship, praying with guests when requested.​

You are a regular volunteer – why do you choose to spend your volunteer time with OTN?​

OTN’s ​mission represents a clear, simple, direct and effectively-managed hand-to-mouth strategy toward assisting and comforting the poor.

Has your involvement changed the way you perceive your unhoused neighbors?​
Not really as I was a weekly volunteer instructor at Room in the Inn for several ​years. OTN has however deepened my passion for working with the marginalized while heightening my compassion for them.

What advice would you give to new volunteers or people thinking about getting involved?​
Just jump in, do your best and know that every kind act delivered toward the underserved does not go unnoticed by them nor our Lord!

The Power of Home

By Abby Hyman, Open Table Nashville Intern

For the first week or so of my internship with Open Table Nashville, I was stumbling over boxes that seemed to find their way into every nook and cranny of my 650 square foot apartment. My husband and I were moving to Mount Juliet after living in the heart of Nashville for the majority of our first year of marriage.  When we toured the apartment during the final months of our senior year of college, we romanticized living together for the first time after 6 years of dating and were willing to live anywhere we could afford. We didn’t care that we’d have to follow each other around like lost puppies to navigate the apartment, or that our bed would barely fit into our bedroom and we’d have to suck our tummies in and slither between the wall and the bed frame to get into bed each night.

When we signed our lease, we didn’t notice that the walls and cabinets were painted dark neutral colors, that there was minimal natural light seeping in, no storage to hide the hodge podge collection of random junk we’d acquired as hand-me-downs, or how the chaos of busy 8th Ave S. would ignite my anxiety every time I had to turn left out of the parking lot. During the first few weeks, it was a sweet story I imagined we’d tell to our kids in the future — you know, of how we’d do anything for love, just to be together. But by the end of the first month, this “sweet” story turned into a desperate prayer – Lord, help me not lose my sanity and please, for the love of God, give me some time to be by myself.

It wasn’t until we moved into our new apartment 12 months later that I realized the power of a house—the physical space one lives in—and the drastic impact it has on your mental health, physical health, and feelings of peace, security, and self worth. As the first few weeks of living in our new place unfolded, I realized how my wellbeing struggled to be cultivated in the tiny apartment we were living in previously. Now, we could open the windows and let in sunlight and fresh air. We could indulge our deep desires for hospitality, giving our guests a bed to sleep in rather than an old couch in our living room. We could cook dinner together without having to put pots and pans in our living room, dining room, and “guest bedroom,” because they all were the same in this tiny space of less than 300 square feet. How much more is this truth for another human who lives in a tent hidden in the woods.

I find it no coincidence that my initial shock from the glimpse into homelessness I experienced during my first few days at OTN occurred simultaneously with my move into a beautiful, Nashville-esque apartment community. During the day I’d be at a campsite under a bridge, sitting on a milk crate on the “porch” of a tent that a friend experiencing homelessness invited me onto to chat. At night, I’d be mounting my flat screen TV and organizing *two* closets of clothes, one for winter clothes and one for summer. #wut #privilege

Open Table Nashville was founded on the truth that housing is a human right. Many of the most vulnerable folks in our communities sleep on concrete streets, in broken tents, hidden in the woods, or under a bridge. Once you see homelessness, you cannot look away, because it’s unfathomable that people in the “It” city, and other cities around the globe, live in conditions that you wouldn’t dare let your pet live in. Folks who are medically vulnerable, folks who have experienced heavy amounts of trauma and violence, and elderly and disabled folks all live on the streets of Nashville. No comfy bed to rest and recover in, no door to keep the curious stranger out after dark, no shower to wash away the sweat of a full day spent in the hot summer sun. When you realize that housing is healthcare, that housing is security and dignifying, how can you deny the fact that housing is a human right?

I’ve begun to face my overwhelming privilege as it juxtaposes the reality of many of the folks living on the streets, and I see two worlds existing simultaneously. In one world, there is flood insurance for days of torrential downpour. In the other, a quick summer rain destroys everything one owns. One world is full of opportunity and comfort, people who have the support of their families, and the ability to make choices of what to order at Barista Parlor and what photo of their designer dog to post on Instagram. In the other world, a free bottle of lukewarm water, a clean pair of socks, eye contact and a five dollar bill from a stranger…are all gifts that declare a good day.

A friend I’ve met through my experience at OTN spoke this truth, stating that if you haven’t experienced homelessness—actually wondered through the streets with no place to call home—you have no idea of the realities of this life. He said if people with power could experience homelessness just for one week, everything would change. The barriers to housing would be eliminated. “Creepy people” as Bob Goff describes, would be given a second chance and easier to love.

I agree with my new friend. Although I do not hope you experience the atrocity of homelessness, I employ you to open your eyes. To connect with the stranger flying a sign on a street corner. To volunteer with Open Table Nashville at their resource shelter. To give a hot meal or cold bottle of water to a new friend who is living on the streets.

Open your eyes. See the realities of homelessness. You won’t be able to look away.