So yes, clean sheets are a vital part of what we do. So is filling out housing paperwork, visiting encampments, listening to stories, delivering medication, moving folks into housing, and maybe, just maybe, being still for a moment. Every day here at Open Table Nashville is a new adventure. You never know . . . you might even be inspired by a group of teenagers at a Laundromat.
By Lauren Plummer
As my season of work has been drawing to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the beginning. In the summer of 2011, I was healing from some life wounds and trying to figure out where faith and justice were calling me in the world. I had just moved back to Nashville and began volunteering at OTN because my friends, Lindsey and Brett, were some of its recent founders. Because of OTN’s Catholic Worker roots, I started reading The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, very much in search of community myself.
In those days, when we weren’t on the streets or at Hobson House, you could find the sometimes handful of volunteer staff huddled around Ingrid’s kitchen table, taking on the post-flood housing crisis one day at a time and living on manna, as we often remarked. In our eight years, we have grown to a staff of fourteen, we’ve moved hundreds of people into new homes, we’ve built deep relationships and stood with our friends in struggles for justice. We now have thriving outreach and education programs and even a micro-home village well on its way. When I think of how much has grown since those early days, I remember these words of Dorothy Day reflecting on the growth of the Catholic Worker Movement, as I read them back in my first weeks:
We were just sitting there talking when lines of people began to form, saying, “We need bread.” We could not say, “Go, be thou filled.” If there were six small loaves and a few fishes, we had to divide them. There was always bread.
We were just sitting there talking and people moved in on us. Let those who can take it, take it. Some moved out and that made room for more. And somehow the walls expanded…
The most significant thing about The Catholic Worker is poverty, some say.
The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone anymore.
But the final word is love. At times it has been. . . a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know [God] in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.
People often want to know what is it that we as outreach workers actually do. At our best, we go wherever people are struggling and try to accompany folks on the way to wherever they need to go. We try to build up some community around people, and to the best of our ability, we try to not abandon people when things seem hopeless or we don’t know how to help. We try to keep showing up anyway, and bringing our listening and as much non-anxious presence as we can muster. In my experience, there has been a lot of trying and trying again.
So much of the substance of our work happens while we’re just sitting there talking with someone (or better yet, listening) at a camp, at the hospital, in a car, under a bridge, at the side of the road, or in an endless string of waiting rooms. It’s here in the mundane that impossible things have happened, little by little. It’s here in a thousand tiny moments where I’ve experienced the miracles of building trust and holding out hope. It’s here where I’ve sometimes been exhausted. And it’s here where I’ve been transformed.
I’ve seen no fairytale endings. I’ve buried a lot of people before their time and watched people I love get wrecked by addiction, violence, and oppressive systems. And I’ve also seen a lot of people keep on living or staying sober even when they didn’t think they could make it one more day. I’ve seen people finally get a little peace and then turn around to offer hospitality and a helping hand to folks still on the streets. I’ve seen people build communities out of almost nothing, and I’ve learned to count these things as miracles. I’ve learned that taking care of each other is our most holy work.
It’s hard to say what exactly has happened in these years or to put my finger on a single moment that changed me (though there have surely been memorable moments). So many of the joys and sorrows I’ll carry forever from this season have come from the times we were just sitting there talking and a friendship started to form, or a trauma finally found a voice, or we made space for anger and disappointment, or we laughed and found reasons for hope.
I don’t think Dorothy or I mean to say all of this just happened by accident or without our noticing. We certainly make plans, pay close attention, and invest great labor. I mean, rather, that proximity, presence, and persistence have been the key. What we practice every day in relationship with each other and the earth, especially in the small things, matters. We can and do climb mountains, a step at a time, when we keep showing up in whatever ways we are called — to speak the truth, to sit and listen, to bear witness, to love even when it feels like being tried through fire. Sometimes when all we know to do is be together intentionally, Love meets us and makes a way out of no way.
So much has happened in this wild and blessed journey. Though I ache to leave it’s daily rhythms and surprises, I know it will keep growing and going on. I give thanks for all the people who have trusted me to walk beside them, those who have shared their most tender stories with me, those who have made me laugh in spite of it all, and those who have been patient where I failed. I give thanks for my steadfast co-workers, for the ways we’ve struggled together, the things we’ve held, and for the depths of companionship we share. Because of you all, I have known community, and I am not alone anymore.