I was one of two interns at REMERGE in Atlanta, Georgia, last summer. The REMERGE community sparked within me a deep love of reconciliation, what REMERGE calls “joined lives.” It is almost necessary for you to be there to understand, surrounded by neighbors, fold-up chairs and tables, baked goods, and coffee cups. REMERGE’s term “joining lives” echoes throughout my summer in Atlanta. Fueled by the Christian beliefs forming the organization, REMERGE’s mission is “to build communities of peace and activate others for the life transforming work of reconciliation.” These “communities of peace,” marked by the organization’s mission are distinctive in their commitment to the most vulnerable among us. To name just two of these communities, “South Atlanta” focused on reconciliation between children in a neighborhood, while “Central Atlanta” concentrated on joined lives between people in two parks, as well as the general area near a homeless shelter. Though I visited South Atlanta and played a lively game of kickball with a gymnasium of children and some other adults, I spent most of my time in Central Atlanta.
During my internship, I stayed in a hallway with 15 other SHECP interns placed at various locations in Atlanta. My co-intern and I often went a few minutes down the road to Central Atlanta to meet our friend Sylvia Broome, who had her black truck filled with fold-up chairs and tables, goodies, and warm coffee. Together with our neighbors, we greeted one another and unloaded Sylvia’s truck. Sometimes we would set up on the park stairs, while other times just in the grass or dirt. The park transformed into a community of peace, warming as our lives joined once again. Though I might not have realized before this summer, I needed to learn from my neighbors here and the entire REMERGE community. The love and community radiating from the REMERGE community was warm, genuine, and counter-cultural.
When I began my internship, I had completed three years of college at Ohio University This spring I will graduate with a major in social work and certificate in wealth and poverty. With prior learning on topics relevant to my internship, I recognized issues around poverty and inequity in Atlanta, which seemed to help me have a deeper understanding of what some of my neighbors experience. Although I had this knowledge in my mind, there was a difference between knowing information from afar and seeing realities up close. Learning by looking into the eyes of a neighbor, feeling the hot Atlanta breeze, and sinking into the squeak of a fold-up chair was an entirely different experience. As I had conversations with neighbors, one thing I began to recognize was that I had preconceived ideas about people who experience homelessness. I did not recognize this before, and it is unlikely that I would have realized my inaccurate perceptions without listening to and talking with people who were experiencing this. One thing that came to my attention was that each person is an individual, that everyone has unique experiences and personalities. It is not so easy and clean-cut to group someone into a category: saying “people experiencing homeless are like [this]”— not when you know the individual’s personalities and quirks. These kind of interactions allow you to see the unique characteristics of an individual, the way he drinks his coffee, the lingo she uses, his creativity during our art gathering, the kindness they have. You and your neighbor can find places to connect to one another here, and joined lives are beginning to sprout.
Larry Webb, a neighbor and REMERGE board member, influenced my perspective about poverty as I heard his talk titled “We Need the Poor.” Larry described his personal experience learning from neighbors experiencing poverty, needing joined lives. He was changed by an interaction of kindness/generosity and of insight from people experiencing poverty. From Andy Odle (my supervisor, REMERGE executive director), Sylvia Broome, Larry Webb, the neighbors I met in the parks and streets, and others, I learned that I should not go to people experiencing poverty thinking they just need my stuff, like my shoes or clothes, or a positive attitude. People who experience poverty do not just need me or my help, but I need people experiencing poverty too – we need each other, we need joined lives. The gift Larry and others gave to me as they taught me this changed my perceptions.
Not everyone recognized that neighbors experiencing poverty or other susceptibilities have important things to teach others, though. Oftentimes, while the REMERGE community gathered on Saturdays, eating sno-cones, talking and playing board games together, groups from churches would come to the park. These groups seemed to come in with an unhelpful “save the neighborhood” attitude, which REMERGE helped me notice. People at REMERGE such as Sylvia, Andy, and Larry helped me see that groups would come in with assumptions about what the community needed– assuming neighbors in the community needed t-shirts or food and seeing this happen bothered me. Those in the REMERGE community taught me that the church groups’ tables, layered with piles of clothes or containers of food, acted as “barriers” between the people handing out items and the people receiving them. People at the REMERGE community helped me learn that the people from the church groups might leave the area applauding themselves, sharing photos at their churches demonstrating the “good” they had done. It seems very unlikely that the groups coming in asked our neighbors what wants and needs there were, and also quite possible that the groups did not even ask the neighbors’ names.
The REMERGE community was different than the groups who came in with assumptions. REMERGE joins lives with neighbors by knowing the names of neighbors, taking initiative to talk and eat with neighbors, and simply playing together through art or games. Knowing neighbors in Central Atlanta, REMERGE had a better understanding of what neighbors needed or wanted. Sylvia, who focuses on Central Atlanta, knew community resources and customs of this neighborhood where many people experience homelessness, and most importantly, the names, stories, and even quirks of many neighbors. Many of the neighbors knew Sylvia too. Sylvia taught my co-intern and I where the various places were located that distributed food and clothes, provided showers, and charging stations for phones. She also knew of the lacking resources (such as affordable housing) or difficulties neighbors faced (such as violence). One of the most important things that Sylvia taught us was that friendships, not so much food or clothes, lacked here. Sylvia led the other intern and I along with her during some of her “neighborhood walks” on some streets near the homeless shelter, streets that many of our neighbors experiencing homelessness spent time around. Trash laid in the grass across from the shelter – I learned from REMERGE that it was a consequence of the Saturday church groups bringing unneeded resources into the community. The impoverished conditions in this area were shocking to see – fences and sidewalks lining this street were covered with clothing, chairs, and other goods. REMERGE staff pointed out the disparity between conditions in this surrounding area and the pleasantly decorated tourist-y wealthier area not far down the road. Largely influenced by the book Happy City by Charles Montgomery and also by what REMERGE taught me, I recognize that environments are designed and can either be welcoming or inhospitable to joining lives with neighbors. In areas that are unwelcoming to joined lives, I now can imagine something new designed in current unwelcoming spaces, picturing what it could look like if the place welcomed joined lives.
Spending time within the REMERGE community filled my heart with a new hunger for reconciliation/joined lives with neighbors, particularly neighbors who experience poverty or other vulnerabilities. Along with my beliefs as a follower of Jesus, I see more of God’s heart for reconciliation/joined lives, which I believe REMERGE imprinted on me. I believe that God placed me in the REMERGE community to teach me. My new thoughts and beliefs, which are still forming and growing, color the multiple overlapping arenas in my life: spiritual, personal, professional. One way this care of joined lives has changed me is in the way I determine if an organization is a place I might want to work as a social worker. I care if an agency loves and respects neighbors, builds relationships with their neighbors, learns from neighbors. I have a desire, that I hope will only grow, to increasingly live in a way that nurtures joined lives– in the way I spend personal time, the job I choose, the church I decide to be a part of, and even the environment where I decide to live. Andy taught me during my time at REMERGE that the complex networks that run in our neighborhood, city, county, state, etc., and all around the globe are influenced by whether lives are joined or not. There is so much hate and hurt in our world. Division, fear, and violence flood our ears like poison as we listen to the news, drive down the road, or consider the eyes of a hurting friend. Can you imagine what this world would be like if we saw “those people” as “my neighbor”? What if “the people I fear” became “the people I know and love”? How would we all be different if “the stranger” became “my friend”?
Thank you to Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty for this opportunity, and Stephanie Rolph for your assistance with my essay. Thank you Andy Odle, Sylvia Broome, and Larry Webb at REMERGE for your help looking over my essay and for all you taught me which formed my life (your imprint on my life is evident in this essay). Thank you to REMERGE as a whole for showing me what it means to join lives – Angela Green