community first! village

This week at the Community First! Village

We were excited to see the construction workers framing the spot where our RV will have its permanent home. Now we just have to wait for the cement and we can move to this sweet spot.
IMG_7898

Lovely blossoms from the volunteer squash that has taken over our herb planter.

IMG_7887

A winter garden that wishes cool weather would hurry up!

IMG_7900

Snapdragons! My father always grew these little dragon-blooms, and with their mouths open, they look like fierce guardians of our growing beds.

IMG_7902

Advertisements
Standard
faith, homelessness, life together, marriage

The work of the gods

“To organize a space is to repeat the paradigmatic work of the gods.”

I first read this somewhat obscure line when I was a freshman in college. It was comforting to a clever girl who liked things just so, who wanted the books on her shelves and the essays she wrote to be as ordered as the stars in the heavens. I would quote it blithely to my roommate, who never seemed to catch my enthusiasm for straightening up our dorm room. And yet, this insight–from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane–is not some cant about tidiness being next to godliness. Rather, it means that the way we create and inhabit physical spaces tells a story about how we see the world: who is welcome and who isn’t, what is valuable and what rubbish, what secure and what dangerous. Architecture provides some of the best examples: a house dominated by its enormous garage, for example, tells a very different story from a house with a wrap-around porch.

As my husband and I unpack our tiny new home, I’ve been struggling to articulate what story we are living into in this corner of space and time. Eliade’s line has been a motto of mine for years, and with every apartment, classroom, and office I’ve inhabited, I have tried to organize–even to consecrate–spaces that bear witness to the image of God. In these first days after the honeymoon, however, I have often felt found my efforts to “repeat the work of the gods” frustrated at every step: not enough cabinets in the RV kitchen, disagreements about where the skillets should live, no way to put up curtains. I could no longer rely on muscle memory or habit to tell me where the trashcan was, where to find a dishtowel, much less how to drive to the post office or grocery store. Having to switch to a new cell phone felt like the final insult. “I can’t find the exclamation point on this stupid keyboard!” I sobbed to my bewildered spouse. “It feels like everything is broken!”

These frustrations, though trivial in themselves, have been emblematic of a much larger disorientation. I still feel myself bewildered on this new ground. From our little window each morning, I watch parades of workers roll into the village: construction crews laying cement, volunteers building tiny homes, future residents coming to tend the gardens, even my own husband walking and dreaming about the best way to make this place home. I watch, and I envy them. I envy their purpose and certainty, their knowledge of what to do now, and next.

To organize a space is to repeat the work of the gods.

But we are not gods, none of us. Our ability to order the world, creating that gives our lives meaning, is painfully, blessedly fragile. The job falls through. The long-awaited pregnancy surprises everyone. The house burns. We fall in love. We walk through days, each looking much the same — routine hours, tasks, and dreams. We might proceed for ten, twenty, thirty years, secure in our own vision of the world, until — something breaks.

This summer, instead of simply quoting Eliade, I have gone back to read the rest of his argument. In his spare, calm prose, he asserts something I had forgotten: that before a cosmos can grow into life and order, the old order must break. This break might be terrible or beautiful, climax or tragedy. Regardless, it interrupts our path, interferes with our clocks, leaves the well-ordered room in shambles. No longer can we claim that time and space are all one thing, predictable and uniform. Eliade argues that this break is what allows us to really see the world, to enter into a story bigger than ourselves, a story that does not leave us broken, but re-orients us according to the true center of the world. By shattering the old certainties, the experience of rupture “reveals the fixed point, the central axis for all future orientation.”

Of course, like all deep truths, I actually learned all of this long ago in Sunday School. It was there I first heard the thrilling injunction, “Your life should make no sense without the Gospel.” Christ has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, and this Gospel is both εὐαγγέλιον — “good news,” and σκάνδαλον — a stumbling block. In our first month of marriage, I have felt my heart tearing and growing in this tension. Our house is an RV–it trembles under heavy footsteps, and looks–to my fretful eyes–terribly transient. And yet, it is a space we have organized, consecrated, for the sake of a mission that makes my heart rise up: to repeat–in our trembling, tiny way–the work of the God we worship, who “settles the solitary in a home,” and who created earth as a beautiful garden for mankind to cultivate and keep. We are living here because I fell in love with a man who proposed by saying, “Let’s be ministers of homemaking,” and we have set up our household on the broken, hopeful ground of a place called the Community First! Village. Here, side by side, among the chronically homeless and the people of Austin, we hope to set a table, provoke conversations, plant gardens, make books and babies, find and share good work in ways we never could elsewhere. This space–our home– has high windows and sunflowers on the table. From our door, we step out to join the countless men and women who arrive daily, giving their hearts and hands to help build a true community for those who are alone. It is a place where my husband can walk home for lunch, where friends and future neighbors have already stopped to sit, laugh, and walk with us. It is a space where I can write, and it is perched on beautiful ground: home already to trees and breezes, hares and goats, chickens and children of God. To the extent that I notice and name these things, it is a place where every morning, my envy gives way to hope.

The homes I organize will never again embody my private vision of what is lovely or good. They will be far more complicated, in turns deeper and more demanding. In marriage and in community life, my work will take place in communal, vibrant, maddening, inspiring place, grounded on the fear of the Lord and centered around the love of his living Word. I am terrified and thrilled, grieving and in love, timid and hopeful all at once. I cannot do the work of the gods, but I know how to tell a story. Believe me, friends: this is going to be a good one.

Standard
education, faith, homelessness, life together, scripture

A pint of misery

“What do you do with a pint of misery?”

When John asked us this question, we were sitting on the sidewalk outside of the ARCH, the downtown homeless shelter in Austin, Texas. The ARCH had closed its doors for the night, and we were among those who would have to find another place to sleep. Behind us, an argument was mounting, finally erupting in a full-blown fight, one combatant kicking the other in the face. The security guard had conveniently vanished. John eyed the brawl warily, then turned back to us. He was in his late forties or early fifties, lean and brown from the sun. As he spoke, he crouched toward us, blue eyes looking directly into our own.

“You go down to that University of Texas, where they know it all, and you ask them.” John swung his arm wide, gesturing to all the men and women crowded on the sidewalk, “These people have known nothing but misery most of their lives. Ask them what to do with it –with even a pint of misery?”

I had no answer for his stark question, and so I looked from John to Steven, my fiancé, who has worked for and with the homeless for years. Steven simply nodded, then, noting John’s frame and posture, asked, “Were you an athlete?” John said yes, he had been a football player in west Texas, years before. Soon, he was telling how he came from Odessa to the streets of Austin.

While they talked, I wondered what I would have said to John had I been alone, had I been there without Steven. I had no answer for this question either. In fact, it occurred to me that without Steven, I wouldn’t be outside the ARCH at all. I would be back in Alabama, tranquilly preparing for a normal week of school. I would be sitting in my office at the university, where the terrible question, “What do you do with a pint of misery?” might remain safely conceptual.

But I was not in my office. I was here, sharing a “street retreat” with Steven and several others from around Austin. Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which employs Steven, hosts the retreat, and the goal is simple: to live on the streets for a day or more, seeking the face of Christ.

I was already footsore and hungry before I began to wonder, “How will I know when I see his face? What sign will reveal that Christ is here?” There are a thousand answers to such a question, but that night, I only needed one. When you look into the face of Jesus, he often asks a question that turns your world upside down. Christ’s baffling queries fill the gospels. When his family comes to see him, he asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” radically linking kinship to obedience, rather than to blood (Matthew 12:48). When a man asks how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells a story that discredits pious prejudices and exalts mercy. “Who of these was a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?…Go then and do likewise” (Luke 10:36). Knowing Simon betrayed him in his hour of need, the risen Christ asks, “Do you love me?” (John 21:17), and then makes this humbled, failed disciple the rock upon which the church is built. None of these questions or answers made sense to the world that crucified Jesus. To many ears, they are still hard sayings, shattering certainties.

And so, I knew I was seeing Christ’s face when I heard John ask a question I could not answer. What do you do with a pint of misery? It haunted me as I fell asleep that night–curled up on the edge of a parking lot–and found me early the next morning. Steven, his friend Alan, and I had risen well before sunrise and found a coffee shop. As we enjoyed the consolation of hot coffee and tea, another homeless man approached us. Perhaps because we carried backpacks and looked far grubbier than the rest of the clientele, he saw us as his people. His face was bandaged but still bleeding, his arms covered in red and black marker like some kind of self-inflicted stigmata. We invited him to sit with us, and for the next half hour he did, spilling words as incoherent as the writing on his arms.

Unlike John, this man had no hard edge or argument. His words were a jumble of pain and fear–a heart condition, demonic temptation, attacks in the night, visions of the end times–and yet, again and again, he would return to the name of Jesus, the only anchor against the tempest of his words.

I had no balm for this man’s agony, and so I did the only thing I could in that moment: I listened. As I strained to catch the mumbled words, I thought about Steven’s talk with John the night before. Steven had not evaded John’s question — what to do with another man’s sorrow–but had asked to see more of it. He had asked John about himself, and his life, returning the man’s challenge with an act of loving curiosity and concern. He listened to John’s story, accepting the glimpses of misery–addiction, depression, divorce–that John was willing to show us. Steven did not turn away.

As our morning guest rose to leave us, he asked me my name. When I said, “Bethany,” he nodded. “I know that place, and I have been like Lazarus–dead and raised again.” With that, he left us.

When I move to Austin, my friends and neighbors will come from these streets. They may be men like John, and they may be men like this latter-day Lazarus from the coffee shop. Most of them have known so much pain, and I, who have known so little, am afraid I will be too stunned, too scared, to know how to love. How can I learn but by looking at the wounded face of Christ?

When we began the retreat, Steven did not say, “We’re going to plot a solution that will answer all these problems. “ Nor did he say, “We’re going to find someone to rescue.” Rather, he told me, “We’re going to seek the face of Christ.” And so we did, and when we found Christ, he asked, as he has asked for two thousand years, if we would take and drink from the cup that is filled with his “blood of the covenant, […] poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27).

What do you do with a pint of misery? You take it, and you drink.

Standard