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.

Volunteer Spotlight: Joe Manners

Joseph Manners, Computer Programmer and member of Covenant of the Cross in Madison, TN

How did you get involved with OTN?

I have been working with several organizations in Nashville on behalf of my church, Covenant of the Cross in Madison, TN. However, so many organizations merely want money or behind the scenes help. We sponsored one organization in Nashville for two years providing food, clothing, and what they said was their third highest amount of monetary donation. When I kept pushing that I wanted the body of my church to do hands-on work, I was given several hoops from their organization to jump through. I’d agree to everything and do what they asked and then they would add another layer. I finally said, “Tell me what it will take.” Finally, they said that they wanted a two-year commitment by each person and they would decide what help that person could do. I explained to everyone, including the sitting president of this organization, what we had done and what we would continue to do as long as they allowed us to have hands-on participation. So you can tell based on the story they decided it made more sense to have a moving target of direct hands-on participation than to keep the donations of time, effort, and money coming to this organization.

I decided that we needed to break from that organization and seek out a group that needed people to do hands-on work. I found Open Table Nashville and came to several events explaining that OTN seeks out the tent cities and works directly with those living there. I knew better than to attempt to get involved in this area independently because I had done it before and realized how volatile that can be because we are outsiders and potentially seen as someone that could hurt them.

While we have done many things so far, the direct participation of working with your friends experiencing homelessness has been limited to the Christmas dinner. But I know that we will sponsor several nights this year at various locations.

Open Table Nashville does great things. I have seen this personally. I know that they help people that otherwise cannot help themselves. For that alone my hat goes off to OTN and all of the paid and volunteer staff.

What types of things have you participated in?

I have been involved with several different volunteer (aid) type of groups over the years. Initially, I started in church by following those in need (homeless, most often). For years I worked with a group that would carol at least four times a year at nursing homes. Then I worked with a downtown homeless organization. A group that I truly enjoyed was working with the families that had young children within 2 different hospitals. We would divide into groups providing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for those caretakers for the children, some washed clothes, some gave out gifts, some sat with the families just to let them vent. I have to admit that it was overpowering to see the help that I was providing.

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

I always think of this event. I worked with a downtown organization and on one particular year we gave out gifts. I gave my gift to a homeless woman. It was a rather expensive sweater that would provide warmth beyond belief. I was smug. I was arrogant. I remember telling her “I know that you are homeless, but I wanted you to know that this gift is going to make your day.”

She responded by telling me “Oh baby, I am not homeless, I am merely without permanent shelter. The home is where your heart is. I have a home. I have faith that one day I will have a permanent shelter again. I pray that when that happens that stay on the straight and narrow to keep it. I fight everyday to stay on the straight and narrow. So don’t feel sorry for me. Pray for me. I will pray for you.”

I have never felt so small. I didn’t realize her perspective of her situation. I have never forgotten what we do for those in need is merely to give back hope and to give back a shred of decency that they may have lost. I have been humbled by that event and was changed permanently.

Has your involvement changed the way you perceive your unhoused neighbors?

Yes. This time around when I am working with my church, Covenant of the Cross, I wanted them to understand that homelessness comes in different varieties. The working poor, those who beg out of necessity and those with emotional and drug issues. I want them to help me touch by not only providing things to your organization but by doing a hands on approach. During our Christmas dinner in 2017, I chatted with everyone before they went to each location. I reminded them that they will be changed if they allow it. That helping those in need (as the Bible tells us to do) will change you. But by opening your mind and actually talking to each person you are helping them by reminding them that your family and friends may have abandoned you for any reasons but we are here to remind you that you matter. We care about you.
By doing the above no matter who you see on the streets you will not automatically go to the thought of, “Get a job.”

What advice would you give to new volunteers or people thinking about getting involved?

I believe helping others is what we are called to do scripturally. I believe that if you continue to help instead of it being a pat on your back you will learn that it should be part of your everyday situations. By that I mean that you will start to help and never think about what you are doing it will become second nature to you. How great is that? You will put a smile on your face and others. They will in turn do the same. How great can our small world be if we all just lend a helping hand?

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