We are one

“It’s been a year since The New York Times declared Nashville the next ‘it’ city,” wrote E. J. Boyer in the Nashville Business Journal, “and it seems the paper's infatuation with Nashville isn’t over yet. The New York Times’ travel desk released its ‘52 Places to Go in 2014’ list (…) and Nashville ranks at No. 15, between Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, and Scotland.”[1] We’re kinda famous, aren’t we? And it’s not just because of some great new restaurants or because Rayna Jaymes, Deacon Claybourne, Scarlett O’Connor and the rest of the Nashville cast give the world an episode of country music soap opera every Wednesday night. Did you watch 60 Minutes last Sunday? If you did, you may have seen Charlie Biter and Rusty Lawrence on national tv, together with Ingrid McIntyre from Open Table and Anderson Cooper. The segment was about a nationwide effort by cities to end homelessness by providing housing first and saving a lot of money in the process. Nashville became part of the movement just recently, after years of good work by churches, non-profits, and government agencies that prepared the ground for what is at heart a simple and common sense concept: people without housing need first and foremost a safe place to stay; then it becomes a lot easier and, yes, cheaper for the community to provide the care and services they might need.

In Nashville, more than 360 individuals have moved from the streets to a home since last summer, and most of them have been able to keep their homes. This is something to celebrate, because one story of transformation is a heart-warming anecdote, twelve stories are an interesting pattern, but over 360 stories reflect a change in how we understand ourselves to be a community. We know a little better that Nashville is not just a bunch of houses and streets with a bunch of people scattered about in them. We know a little better that a city is a community, and how together we can find  creative ways to address the needs of citizens and other residents. The truth is, we are one, we are made for each other, and not just thrown together and pulled apart by invisible hands.

To me, the more than 360 stories are illustrations for what the yeast of the gospel can do over time, when there are disciples who are patient, persistent, and faithful. In 1977 Charlie Strobel was the priest at Holy Name Catholic Church over on Woodland, and one day he gave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a homeless man at the door of his rectory. Nothing could be simpler than a PB&J, right? Nothing could be simpler than Charlie opening the doors of the rectory to those sleeping outside in the cold, and soon a cooperative ministry by a growing number of Nashville congregations began, known to this day as Room in the Inn. It always begins with a simple, human gesture of compassion that says, “I care about you. We care about you. We are one.” A simple PB&J can be sacramental bread, reminding both the giver and the receiver that the love that made us makes us one; that love heals. Even the very complex problems of homelessness can be addressed with caring gestures we all know and understand, and love will show us a way to greater justice we couldn’t imagine before the bread was broken.

Caring gestures we all know and understand. It was on the evening Jesus and the disciples gathered for one last meal, when he took off his robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, and he washed the disciples feet, and he wiped them with the towel, one after the other. He spoke for a long time that evening, but what we remember better than the words, what we see without even opening the pages of the gospel, is the Lord kneeling on the floor. He taught us how to be the community of his friends with a gesture of hospitality none of us expected but all of us understand. He continued to teach that night, column after column of text printed in red in chapters 14 to 16, and if you’re looking for something to hold onto, grab the vine and the branches: they speak beautifully of our unity in Christ, of our roots in love and our fruits of love.

At the end of the evening, before they crossed the Kidron valley to go to the garden, Jesus prayed. The words are not the words of a man in agony, wrestling in the night with God’s will and the knowledge of his impending death; there is not even a hint of struggle. It is the prayer of one who has complete confidence that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in the events about to unfold. The words reflect the love and intimacy between Jesus the Son of God and the One he called Father, but the prayer opens up to include us, the community of Jesus’ friends. His eyes are lifted up to heaven, but his arms are stretched out to embrace all generations of his friends. He prays for us and our work and witness in the world. He prays for us who live in the world, but don’t belong to it – because as Jesus’ friends we belong to him and to each other, a communion of life rooted in the love and intimacy the Son and the Father share in the Spirit.

We don’t belong to the world, but we live in it as agents of divine friendship, as the living, breathing invitation to life in communion with God and one another. We’re not just a bunch of people scattered about the city and scattered in our pews, brought together for an hour before we scatter again. No, we are one in ways we couldn’t even imagine before he broke bread with us. We are made for each other. We belong together like branches on the vine, and the love that draws us into the communion of life in God is also the desire that longs for creation to be whole. “We are one,” God the Son and God the Father say to each other. “We are one,” Jesus the Son and generations of his friends say to each other. And in the end, “We are one” names the reality of all creatures and the world made whole. We are one, not because we make it so, but because the love that made us makes it so.

In the gospel of John, “the world” is often a way of describing those who oppose Jesus. But it was for love for the world that God sent the Son, and in this prayer, at the close of his ministry, Jesus carries not only the names of his friends on his shoulders and in his heart, but the world. Jesus prays for his friends, “that they may all be one…, that they may be one as we are one…, that they may become completely one…, so that the world may believe…,  so that the world may know that you have sent me.” The vision he puts before us is not of the beloved community surrounded and threatened by a hostile world, but of the world coming to know itself as the beloved community it is. The hope expressed in the words of his prayer is that even those who had been hostile to the coming of the Son may find life in his name. The divine desire expressed in the words of the prayer is the reconciliation of all things in the love we recognize in the life of Jesus.

Reconciliation is one of the big church words, and there’s a story that might help illustrate its power.

Sam Bowers was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, when, before dawn on January 10, 1966, he and two carloads of his fellow Klansmen drove to a house about five miles north of Hattiesburg, MS. The house belonged to Vernon Dahmer, and he and his family were asleep when the Klansmen doused their home with gasoline and set it on fire, destroying both the house and the adjacent grocery store. One of Dahmer’s three children, a ten-year-old daughter, was injured in the fire. Dahmer himself lived for a few hours but died that afternoon.

More than three decades later, in August 1998, Sam Bowers was finally convicted, after four mistrials, of the firebombing murder of Vernon Dahmer. Witnesses testified that Bowers had ordered the killing because Dahmer was allowing black voters to pay their poll taxes in his store.

One of the individuals present in the courthouse for Bower’s 1998 trial was the Reverend Will Campbell. Campbell had known Vernon Dahmer from his days as a chaplain at Ole Miss when they had worked together on voting rights issues. Courtroom reporters were shocked, though, to see Campbell being embraced as an old friend not only by Ellie Dahmer, Vernon’s widow, but also by the defendant, Klansman Sam Bowers. During recesses in the trial, people noticed Campbell was talking with equal warmth to both her and him. When a reporter asked Campbell how he could possibly be so friendly with both the victim and the monster who had committed murder, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a Christian, G-dammit!”

While writing a book about the integration struggles at the University of Mississippi, Campbell had realized that he needed to spend time not only with his friends and people who shared his views but also with enemies of the movement. He eventually met Sam Bowers and spent time with him. During one of their meetings, Campbell had been riding with Bowers in a car and Bowers had stopped by a local cemetery to visit the graveside of a friend. When he came back to the car, Campbell remembered, Bowers had tears in his eyes. “Animals don’t cry,” Campbell said. “Human beings cry at the foot of a friend’s grave.”[2]

A tear helped him see the human being behind the mask of the Imperial Wizard, and he reached out to the man. Campbell’s testimony in the courtroom wasn’t part of the legal proceedings. He acted as a witness not for the prosecution or the defense, but for the love that desires and accomplishes our reconciliation.

The last time I saw Will Campbell he was the speaker at a Week of Compassion gathering; he was an old man then, holding on to his cane, bent over and moving cautiously, but with fire in his heart. He didn’t say much, but what he said stuck. “The deepest human hunger,” he said, “can only be stilled by love, unsentimental and dependable love.”

The theme for this year’s Week of Compassion offering boldly quotes Jesus’ prayer, “We are one.” Giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty are simple human acts of compassion, as are washing feet, opening a door and noticing a tear. And yet, in those simple human acts the unsentimental and dependable love of God is at work in the world, healing, restoring, and reconciling, until the world is one.


[1] E. J. Boyer http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/blog/2014/01/nashville-lands-among-ny-times-places.html

[2] See Bartholomew Sullivan, “Bowers Convicted of Killing Dahmer. Ex-Klan Leader Gets Life Term in ’66 Murder,” (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, August 22, 1998; http://www.asne.org/kiosk/writingawards/1999/sullivan.html#Aug22 . See also Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2004), pp. 102-103.