Our Friend Mike

By Ingrid McIntyre, Executive Director and Co-founder

In 2012 I got an email from my colleague David about a guy named Mike who was living in his truck in the parking lot of the church where he was serving. Like most of us, David wasn’t quite sure what to do. It’s hard to know what to do, if you should do something, how to do it—when you meet someone who is in desperate need of housing. It’s particularly difficult when the person you meet has physical or mental health complications. Where do you start? It can feel overwhelming.

We often joke at Open Table Nashville that it takes a master’s degree to learn how to navigate our social service systems. That’s not too far of a stretch, though. It can be rough. There are so many agencies, such limited resources, specialties, public vs. private, not to mention the waiting, rules, regulations, and qualifications that all differ from resource to resource, and the waiting… (Ugh – pull your hair out! Did I mention the waiting?)

I got in touch with Mike shortly after David gave me his number. We met up and I began listening to his story and learning about his most immediate needs. Here he was, a 62-year-old former insurance salesman who was recently divorced and had no other family to turn to for support when he had the fallout of his life. He was literally deteriorating by the day as he, and all his earthly belongings, took refuge in his small truck on the west side of town near his former home. His most urgent need was refrigeration. Mike had diabetes and needed to keep his medication cool. That’s no easy task when you don’t have a place to live, when you don’t even have an electrical outlet, much less a small refrigerator. So Mike did his best.  He kept his meds cool in the heat of a Nashville July by filling his small cooler, morning and night, with ice from the gas station next door. It was clear to me that Mike wasn’t going to make it very long in this living situation.

Thankfully, after a while we were able to secure housing for Mike. But that’s not nearly the best news nor the end of the story. The housing we found for Mike was in Franklin (15 miles south of Nashville), and we knew that retention work with him would be difficult from that distance. Life is a lot. And because it can be so heavy and overwhelming at times, I thought, if he wanted, Mike might find it encouraging to be connected to a faith community close by. I thought this would probably help build and strengthen his community near his new home. So I called some friends from my former congregation in Franklin, Christ UMC, and enlisted some help. We could not have imagined the faithfulness and love that would shine from this relationship.

Cut to Cathy and Barbara.  

These two fiercely faithful humans stepped up and befriended Mike as soon as he moved into his new home. They are busy moms, each with 3 children, both in the healthcare profession and dedicated to community and church involvement. Certainly, they didn’t have loads of extra time, but they knew that Mike’s experience in housing would only be as successful as the community around him was strong. And so for four years they were his transportation, his nurses, his “daughters”, his family, his friends, and his angels. They picked him up and took him home from church, they helped him navigate and receive hospital and nursing care when he needed it, they took him grocery shopping, and even helped trim his toenails. (THAT IS LOVE.)  They extended their love out of their comfort zone, out of what they thought were their abilities. They didn’t know exactly what to do, but they knew how to love, and even on the most frustrating days, love they did.

On May 16, 2018 I had just arrived in Columbus, OH for a conference when I got a text from Barbara that Mike probably wouldn’t make it though the night. He had come to his transition place for the next leg of the journey. He was surrounded by his midwives, who held his hands (just like they had so many times before) as he moved from this life into the next.

I can’t think of a more beautiful story. It wasn’t perfect by any means. It was trying, messy, difficult, new, and exhausting. I give thanks for my friends Barbara and Cathy who were willing to sacrifice and risk. I give thanks for Mike’s life and all he shared with us—all he taught us. And I am once again reminded that though there is darkness and scarcity, there is also light and abundance, and that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only love can do that.”

There will be a memorial celebration of Mike’s life at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 10 at Christ UMC in Franklin. All are welcome.

For resource help: www.wttin.org 

For our list of education opportunities: opentablenashville.org/initiatives/education

Living Compassionately

By Sarah Miller, Open Table Nashville Intern

What does it mean to bear witness to the suffering around us?

What does it look like to have hope in the midst of that suffering?

These are heavy topics, but this is what has been on my mind lately. As an intern with Open Table Nashville, I have had the privilege of walking alongside our friends experiencing homelessness and of hearing their stories. The more I have gotten to know a few of them, the more they have shared of their suffering with me. At the same time, I have also been able to see the remarkable resilience they hold and the signs of change coming on the horizon.

I think that bearing witness to someone’s suffering means to give them space to be fully themselves – fully human. It means listening to them without judgment and without trying to “fix” their situation for them. It also means not running away from my own personal reactions of fear, sadness, anger, or anything else that comes up inside of me as I watch and listen. If I cannot be present and compassionate with myself and what I am experiencing, I cannot be fully present for someone else.

At the same time, I’ve learned the importance of looking for hope in the midst of suffering. For me, that means recognizing the incredible strength that our friends have and the amazing privilege it is to be invited into their journey. I think having hope also means actively working towards restoration and reconciliation and looking for the places that work is being done around me.

Remembering that I am not in this alone and that the weight of the world actually doesn’t rest on my shoulders helps me to better care for myself and to remember my place in this work.

For me, this experience of suffering and hope has carried a spiritual weight, especially in the month of March as I pondered Jesus’ suffering and resurrection during Easter. As difficult as it has been at times to process all of this, I have been so grateful for the relationships I have gained and the support from our friends and our staff. I know that I will carry this experience with me as I leave, and that I will be better equipped to live a life of compassion wherever I go in the future.

“We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life of compassion.”
“Accepting This” by Mark Nepo

The Work of Resurrection

Written by Lauren Plummer

O Death, where is thy sting? For folks who celebrate Easter resurrection, it’s a rallying cry on Sunday morning — at once gutsy and disconcerting. For anyone who has experienced the death of a beloved or anyone who has been paying attention in the world lately, these words feel like a slap in the face. The sting of death is everywhere. From our children dying at the hands of gunmen on any given school day, to people wasting away in prisons or without healthcare, from an unarmed man shot by police in his own backyard to those dying without housing in our streets, and each personal loss of a loved one — these deaths hurt like Hell. We ask, “How much longer?” and “How many more?” and it seems like the answer is always,  “Much longer; many more.” Some of us are weeping and exhausted. Some of us are hollowed out and numb. We may be grieving publicly at vigils and marches, with our faith communities and friends, and we may be grieving quietly in that long slow sadness that lingers and circles around us in currents after death upends our world. Wherever we find ourselves, the sorrow of death around us is deep and real. The idea of finding hope in some future bodily resurrection of the faithful offers me little consolation about the suffering and injustice in the world now. The good news for me is that Love has swallowed up death and continues to do so every day that we make it so — that we have the opportunity to practice resurrection in the here and now.

Where are you finding or giving new life? Flowers are blooming, our little corner of the world has turned green again, and it feels like a miracle. I mean, like a real miracle. I’ve finally become aware that I struggle with seasonal depression, so when the early signs of spring start breaking through the ground, I feel a shroud being lifted and know hope and resurrection deep down in my body. I’ve made it to the other side again! I saw with my own eyes how dead everything was (and how dead I felt inside on some of the coldest, darkest days of January), but the mint is sprouting back, soft green sage leaves are opening, and the peach trees are bursting with pink buds. As I tend my plants, I dream about the possibilities of June and July when my hard work will bear fruit. I commune with my grandma in this season, feel her love, and continue to learn from her earthy wisdom. In this way the love she and I shared in her life (and now) and our love for the earth saves me a little every year – keeps me green and growing in places of myself that often become calloused. In spring, I return to myself as the earth is being revived, and my garden becomes a tiny site of personal resurrection.

march-for-our-livesOr take last Saturday. I stood with thousands of Nashvillians in a march organized and carried by young people. They called us together to bear witness to the atrocity of gun violence ravaging our nation and to cry out for legislation that values human life over the gun lobby’s agenda. It was imperfect, and it was breathtaking. Kids were dancing on the lawn of the courthouse, young folks drummed and lead chants, and I could see that death did not have the final word. I don’t say this in a way that assigns a sentimental meaning to the deaths of all the students and people killed by police violence or domestic terrorism. Rather, I mean to say that death and its henchmen have not silenced us but steeled our resolve. It has given us an even greater shove forward — to love louder and push harder because we are fighting for our lives, for those who have been taken, and for the world we know is possible. In this way we practice resurrection, the way the fierce, divine love of Stephon Clark’s community is making a wave that will help turn the tide that will make it more possible for black and brown folks to flourish in this place.

Is it enough to say that death is overcome because in this part of the western hemisphere flowers bloom again every spring? Because children are leading and dancing, death can’t really hurt us? Does this negate the pain of loss? Surely not. But I’m reminded of something our friend and mentor, Rev. Bill Barnes, often said: “Look for signs and wonders.” So friends, I am out here looking hard for hope these days, and what I am learning is how to create it by loving and fighting more deeply for what is good. I’m learning to pay attention to kids, to cultivate beauty, build community, and take risks for my neighbors, and it’s giving me life. I am learning that Love keeps bringing me back in big and small ways, sometimes I get to help be part of the Love that brings other people back, and this goes on forever. What I’m saying is, with the help of God’s grace, we do the work of resurrection every day, if we’ll be awake to it. The call is clear: bring back those who have been pushed out and excluded. Bring back those who have been incarcerated and deported.  Restore life to the ghettos of poverty and life to the earth which is languishing under the weight of exploitation. Lift up healthy relationships and wellness in yourself and community. Love demands it. No need to wait for someday, Easter folks. The work is ours to do, and it is now.

What Happens After Moving Into Housing? 




By Te’Aira Tucker, Retention Coordinator

Greetings Friends!

 As many of you know, at Open Table Nashville it is a celebration when one of our long time friends finally moves into a home! It’s a new chapter in their lives! It’s a wonderful and exhilarating feeling when our immediate concern is assisting them with getting furniture and settled into their home. Our friends are no longer shivering and quivering in the biting cold or suffering from heat stroke in Nashville’s glaring sun. You might think that struggles have come to an end after someone moves into housing, but sadly it’s not the case.

The initial excitement of moving into housing starts to fade when bills pile up and money comes up short. The system of poverty still exists and it sets up small obstacles to trap people into a cycle of uncertainty and fear of losing their home. There are many factors our friends face that come into play as a result of the system. For example, a person making $13 over the poverty line, makes too much to qualify for Government food assistance (SNAP), but they don’t make enough to pay for their high electric bill. Or, if a person unexpectedly gets laid off, is not receiving unemployment benefits, and is terrified at the possibility of living in their car again—they are out daily hunting for a job.

I am sure many of us experienced a time when we were behind on one bill payment and it become hard to catch up on it. Who did you turn to when you needed financial advice or to express your frustration that your electric bill was high this past winter compare to last year? For me, I often turn to my mom and sister. Others turn to their partner, friends, or maybe you don’t share your business with others. Likewise, our friends are the same. Some call us to express their frustration, but many others don’t share until someone calls to check on their well being and asks about their rent or electric bill—That’s when the flood gates opens. All the anxiety and fear rolls off of them as they talk about what’s going on in their lives.

It is a crippling overbearing pressure on your chest when you don’t have a job, can’t pay rent, your landlord wants you out, you don’t have enough food in your home, and your electric will be soon cut off. You don’t know what to do or who to turn to. During that difficult time, you may need someone to simply let you pour out all of your emotions without judgement, to be supportive and have a listening heart, and yes maybe even get you out of this situation.

As Open Table Nashville’s Retention Coordinator, I journey with our friends at this new chapter in their lives. We celebrate when a rent or electric bill is paid or when they purchase a phone to setup email and Facebook accounts to reach out to their family members. These milestones are worth being celebrated.

Now, understand I am not the fixer but rather an ally of support that try to safeguard their housing. I brainstorm with friends on a plan to prevent them from losing their homes, arrange for them have nutritious food, work with them to find employment, and provide emotional support to those who are overwhelmed by their situation.

It is honestly a scary feeling when your electric is cut off. It is overwhelming when you get a 30-day eviction notice and only have a specific amount of time to find a place. It is stressful when you can pay electricity and rent but won’t have enough money left to buy food for yourself.

At those moments, our friends may feel alone in their homes. But they are not alone.

We, at Open Table Nashville, work hard to keep people in their homes. Some people may consider the streets again because they are fearful, angry, and devastated at their housing situation even though they know the streets weren’t safe for them and they remember that they fought for months and even years for this home. They are grateful but their situation is incredibly stressful that they see no way out of it. In these circumstances, I often remind our friends that we are there with them and we will continue to walk together with them on their journey to housing stability.

And now, I welcome you to share your compassion and have an open mind to our friend’s new chapter in life. There are times when it seems there is no hope in sight in those cloudy days but we will push through it and find rays of sunlight. 

There is always hope.

Trauma-informed, Relational Approach

By Georgia Hiatt, Intern

Two weeks ago I pulled the overnight shift at one of our resource shelters. I am happy to pull my weight, and I volunteered to do so. Still, I did not particularly want to. I was anxious that I would not sleep well. I often have trouble falling asleep and knew it would be difficult in an unfamiliar environment. I looked forward to getting to better know some of our friends, but I was still nervous about making small-talk. Crowds can overwhelm me at times, even with the skills I have developed for living with anxiety. Some of our friends have told me they avoid shelters for these same reasons.

Even with my anxiety about the night, I knew I would be okay because it was not my first night sleeping in a shelter and anxiety has not killed me yet. Also, I was able to feel safe, despite my anxieties, because I trust my friends at Open Table Nashville. I knew if I needed to leave, the staff would have supported me in that. It’s exactly this trauma-informed and relational approach that attracted me to Open Table Nashville in the first place.

I went out canvassing one-night last winter and was floored. Open Table Nashville seemed to have mapped out all the camps in the city, and the outreach worker I was paired with appeared to know every one of our friends on the street. I thought about my life and the healing I’ve received through the cultivation of healthy bonds and supportive relationships. I knew Open Table Nashville would be a place where I could nurture my own abilities to be that kind of friend because relationship building is an integral part of the OTN mission. For our friends experiencing homelessness that trust could mean the difference between life and death.

None of us are immune to the life circumstances that can preclude homelessness. Some of us have the resources to avoid it. All of us are capable of cultivating a culture of restoration and disrupting cycles of poverty, trauma, and oppression.

To This I Am Called

By Kim Grant, Street Chaplain in Externship

The warm an inviting aromas of hash brown casserole, cinnamon rolls, and strong hot coffee permeated the morning stillness, and gave a sense of how things ought to be on a cold winter’s morning. Those wonderful smells belied the fact that we were in the old Methodist Church turned into a winter shelter, a respite from the bitter cold, but definitely how things ought not to be. The old church offered a workable kitchen to prepare hot meals for our friends experiencing homelessness on these unbearable nights, and a hot breakfast before returning our friends to the reality that is life on the street. Folks were fed last night and loved as best we could. I looked into the tired eyes and my heart melted, as person after person came through the food line with a full plate and gratitude on their lips. One dear lady was shivering so badly, she was unable to hold her coffee cup. I wrapped my hands around hers as I poured her coffee. She was entirely grateful simply for a cup of hot coffee, let alone a good meal, and a mattress on the floor of the gym. It had been bitter, snowy and wet the previous three days and we received forty-eight friends experiencing homelessness into the shelter that night. Dinner was basic, although the corn bread was a particular hit! To a person the attitude was one of sincere appreciation and thanks for our efforts. Is it not the very least we can do, to offer a hot meal and shelter from the cold to our most marginalized fellow human beings?

After everyone had eaten, they settled in for the night. This shelter had decent bathrooms for everyone, and many washed up as best they could. We cleaned the kitchen and the food crew left around 10:30 to make our way home, as others stayed on for the night as innkeepers. The ride home offered time to process what I had just experienced, certainly one of the most life-changing nights of my life. I knew homelessness and hunger as a seventeen-year-old, having told my parents I was gay and leaving, never to return. It wasn’t prolonged homelessness though, just a few weeks, a short stint caused by a mixture of my rebelliousness and my parent’s lack of love. This was very different. Earlier in the evening I sat with several people as they ate, engaging them and acknowledging their humanity, our humanity. My heart is crushed, and blessed, and challenged to never look away again.

 
Awakening very early, I left the warmth of hearth and home with a full stomach, in the heat of my SUV, with a cup of coffee, and made my way back to the old church turned winter emergency shelter, to prepare breakfast. The coffee pots were alive with activity as the first order of business and priority. Our friends sheltered overnight would awaken soon with the flick of a switch, the harsh gym lighting transforming utter darkness into bright florescence, signaling morning. The ovens contained pans of hash brown casserole and other egg dishes, perfuming the kitchen and seeping under the still-closed door to the sleeping area. As the overnight staff began rousing the sheltered ones, I began to set up the hot food table. Breakfast and lots of hot coffee were welcomed by all, more than the reality that another day of life on the cold streets awaited them. We prepared brown bag lunches for our friends to take as well. Before long the last of our friends were shrouding themselves in layer upon layer of clothing and heading out into the paralyzing cold. My ride home was quiet, no radio or music as it seemed indulgent.

It took me a few days to process what I experienced, to make sense of the senseless. The dual nature of the experience continues to haunt me. On one hand there is such total need and lack of resources. Yet I feel a great sense of hope and purpose, having prayed for the opportunity to use my cooking skills to make a difference in people’s lives. I have cooked extravagant meals for wealthy clients, over the top fundraisers for professional theatre companies, multi course dinners for friends, and many gluttonous holiday meals around the table. Cooking a simple meal for our friends experiencing homelessness has outdone them all, and is the fulfillment of my heart’s desire to serve others. The sense of fulfillment in knowing that I am doing the work, the good work, for which I am uniquely gifted, overwhelms me, producing a deep sense of hope and gratitude. The warm and inviting aromas of hash brown casserole and strong coffee will forever signify one of the most blessed experiences of my life, for to this I am called.