By: Derek Sean Turner

When I was a kid, about thirteen years old, I remember my mother taking yoga classes—this was at the height of the Farrah Fawcett inspired exercise craze. I would constantly harass my mom about how silly yoga looked. Fast IMG_20150901_160843forward to 2015, I am stuck in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone—I do not remember who—sent me to Highland and Ponce de Leon to ‘Mercy Church.’ I appreciate Mercy for the activities it offers—Bible study, art class, and music, especially—but above all else I like the yoga classes. Pastor Maggie leads a yoga class on Fridays, in partnership with Centering Youth—a local non-profit that offers free yoga classes to at-risk youth and marginalized populations. I really enjoy the way it relaxes me and helps me find inner peace.

My favorite yoga positions are Locust pose, when you lie on your belly and use your back strength to lift you arms and legs off the floor; Warrior pose, where you stand in a lunge with both arms raised and reaching for opposite walls—this one really works my muscles; and Tree pose, where my balance is challenged—this one helps me find a deeper connection with God. Come join us!

A Holy and Wholly Different Experience


By: Parrish Jones

Pastor Maggie Leonard likes to throw water around, especially baptismal water.

As she writes in her church newsletter, “It is no mistake when the water poured into our baptismal font gathers energy and sloshes over the sides onto the floor. God is there, right in the middle of the mess of our relationships.” Worshippers at Atlanta’s Mercy Community Church, which is nested in the Druid Hills Presbyterian Church, where Leonard serves, find the spray from the water a bit surprising, but Leonard hopes all will come to accept it as “a delicious drop of grace on our skin.”

Being at Mercy Community Church is like entering into baptism as one finds oneself immersed in a holy and wholly different experience — homeless people eat breakfast, serving each other, anxious to share about all that is being done in the community. Instead of the housed serving the homeless, one finds the homeless serving each other and the housed. Following breakfast, the participants immerse themselves in fellowship, worship and the Word.

Each of the five weekly services, occurring on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, incorporates a different creative enrichment program: writing, small group counseling sessions, drawing and painting. Also on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, worshipers prepare food and serve it on the streets. On Sundays, Mercy feasts at the Lord’s Table and, then holds a common meal.

This schedule sounds like a full plate for the two-full time pastors — Leonard and Chad Hyatt —both of whom are serving without compensation except for the few donations Leonard gets from friends and family. Hyatt and his wife derive their income from her work at a local university.

This decision came after several years of serving as a full-time staff member of a Pentecostal church. Hyatt experienced a transformative experience in Jamaica when he traveled there to do mission work with the Roman Catholic order Missionaries of the Poor. He helped monks trying to rescue a man from a stoning and then ministered to him in his dying moments. Hyatt referred to this experience as a baptism that led him and his wife to move closer to the margins of ministry.

Leonard got involved in Mercy while working as a chaplain at an Atlanta hospital. She went with a friend and couldn’t stop going. When her first call came up, she felt committed to the community and followed that call, receiving validation through the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She was ordained by the presbytery at a service at Mercy. Those who can’t afford a full-time pastor need pastoral care just as much as those who can, Leonard said.

It is an odd mix for a church to have a Presbyterian pastor working with a Pentecostal pastor who studied at a Methodist school of theology. But Hyatt and Leonard celebrate their different styles of worship just as they celebrate the diversity of Mercy, which includes members of all ages and of Anglo, African American and Latino backgrounds.

The diversity is also celebrated by music ranging from rock ‘n’ roll to quietly meditative. The singing is accompanied by guitars, an African Djembe drum, a vase with glass stick, a soup pot, coffee cups, tambourines and a gourd shaker.

While Mercy is made up of mostly people who are homeless, other members have homes of varying degrees of stability. Mercy regularly prays for those who are incarcerated or dealing with mental or physical illness. Bible studies deal honestly with the issue of addictions and other “sinful” behaviors.

Who are the members? Hyatt replied as Leonard nodded agreement, “Those who come. Traditional models of membership can exclude and we want to include.” Some who are highly engaged with Mercy are members of other churches. In this, and other respects, Mercy is unlike most churches as Kevin Bowden, who shared his gift of music during worship, said, “I have found God, love, grace and home here at Mercy.”

Also, unlike many churches, Mercy is not insular — it touches the lives of the more than 250 people it counts as its community. Part of Mercy’s ministry is keeping track of those who are serving prison sentences, thereby maintaining their connection to the community.

Three days a week, Mercy immerses itself in the city by loading grocery carts with soup, water, sandwiches and coffee and pushing them to two locations to share food on the street. At each place, they pause and bless the food that it may bless the lives of those who eat it and thereby continue the circle of baptism by which we promise to nurture God’s children with faithfulness.

Parrish Jones is an ordained minister member of St. Augustine Presbytery and teaches philosophy at St. Johns River State College and writes for PNS and other media outlets. He has recently published Presbyterians on the Frontier: A Story of Presbyterian Border Ministry 1984 to 2014. You can purchase his book and learn more about his work at

A Bad Pray-er

By: Maggie Leonard

I have a confession to make.  For most of my life I have not been good at praying—I do not mean that I did not pray well, I mean that I did not pray.

During church service prayers I colored loudly (according to my parents).  I groaned and protested at going to youth group.

In college, I hid when asked to pray aloud at the campus ministry.

In seminary, there was no room for heart in my formal prayers, beautifully crafted words of hope that pointed to a carefully plotted theology of God’s promises.  ch51Moreover, I learned about spiritual formation and spiritual direction and thought it to be a boring practice for self-indulgent, lazy, and/or privileged people.  I knew that good Christians, and especially pastors, prayed, and I felt sort of bad that I did not, but there was too much to do and prayer felt trite.

When I was a chaplain at a local hospital, because it was my job, I prayed with people and asked for things—but never too much, just in case a healing was not in God’s plan, and carefully choosing my words so not to offend my own theology.

Yes.  I was a bad pray-er.

Or at least I was bad at what I thought it should look like.

When I first started at Mercy, we prayed unscripted prayers before meals and once during the Sunday service.  That was it; and it suited me just fine.  After a few months the hives I develped from having to pray without warning, on cue, and without specific theme, had almost started to disapate. We Presbyterians have prayers of confession, for illumination, of intercession, of Great Thanksgiving, before the offering, after the offering—each one separate and spoken at the appropriate time during the service.  When we first decided to switch the schedule and Chad suggested that we have an hour of prayer every time we met, I almost quit—or at least gave him a look of disbelief and skepticism.  To spend long periods of time in our little noisy church each day in prayer?  He must have gone crazy.

The hour was boring enough, but I had to act like it meant something to me, and I had to herd others who were equally uninterested  and skeptical into the room.  Together we started to explore the Psalms, the Rosary, “silence” (Chad playing music in the background, bags rustling, food being eaten), and Ignatius’ Examen—which I thought of as looking at the highs and lows of the day.  Most days, words felt empty and, if I were doing the Examen, I was so aware of my failures—when I spoke in a harsh voice, acted in spite, paid less attention to someone than they deserved, or took something personally that was not meant with ill-intent—that I forgot about grace.  Reviewing my day only brought guilt.

I prayed, like a good Christian, about once a year, and it was not while I was at Mercy.  I had a stirring in my soul when I journeyed to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to help facilitate conferences or retreats.  The worship services on those retreats always filled me and left me with a great energy and sense of peace.  The one time I journaled that year would be while there—in the quiet of that place, staring off into the expansive plains behind which majestic mountains and cliffs stood, I could see how God had been at work in my life that past year.

I always felt refreshed after my time in New Mexico, but, at best, that opportunity only came around once a year.  The other 360 days a year, I would try to calm my anxiety with action, doing something about the problem.  God was busy—and only helps those who help themselves—so it all depended on me, I thought.  My call was set before me; I already understood it, so I set to work.  I would return to herding at Mercy.  The fix was temporary, it was not sustainable, nor would my work be if I did not change something.  I had to find ways to incorporate what I did at Ghost Ranch in my everyday life—being unplugged, journaling, praying, silence, hiking, reflecting.  I realized that many of those things could be done at home.

I started hiking on Saturdays and realized that they were indeed walking prayers.  I read a chapter on a book of spirituality toward the beginning of my hike which gave me a framework for my thoughts. The processing I do, an opportunity to reflect on my week, allows me to imagine new ways of engaging old problems, and see where God has been at work.

I also found myself sitting in my bedroom, lighting a candle and meditating.  Perpetually, I am in my head—worrying, analyzing, dreaming.  Breath prayers became crucial for my sanity; a break from the business, a break from the anxiety, a break from the fear that I hold.  In those moments when I bring my attention to my breath and slow it down, I start to become aware of the energy in my body.

I recently visited a little house of prayer in south Georgia called Green Bough, excited to see a dear friend.  I was surprised to discover that I left not only with a full heart from seeing a kindred spirit, but also with an awakened sense of rhythm.  At Green Bough we prayed together multiple times a day—midmorning, evening, and night—and I also had short devotions by myself first thing in the morning and last thing before bed.  Upon returning home, I yearned for those moments of communal quiet and the rhythm of stopping to appreciate what God was doing that day.  I actually wanted to come back and pray at, with, and for Mercy.  I wanted to make a regular and nightly ritual of prayer and remembrance.

The funny thing is, when one starts to feel the rhythm of prayer, its hard not to discount where prayer is.  I may have been bad at praying the way I though prayer was supposed to look—mountain-top experiences every day—but I was, by no means, a stranger to prayer.

Maybe there was prayer in those early years too.  Toward the end of high school, my heart would flutter at certain scripture passages, and I found myself stirred when reading the word “BEHOLD!”

While in campus ministry, I found myself more confident in myself than ever before and love just seemed to pour out of me in all kinds of wholesome directions.  I also started to see the scriptures in an unfamiliar light and became curious and excited to put into action the new challenges I heard.  Faith started to have real life consequences.

During my volunteer year in Guatemala, I wept.  And I cried.  And I boo-hooed.  And I was broken beyond words.  And I was lonely.  And I had a hardened heart.  And I felt rigid.  And I was loved. And I was sung to.  And I had to try and listen because I didn’t know how to speak.  And I softened.  And I learned.  And I laughed. And I loved.

In seminary, I learned that my emotions were okay, even good, and that I did not have to stifle or apologize for them.  I learned my limits and was liberated by the realization that saving the world did not depend on me—God was at work!

While I was at the hospital and miserable, I clung to my yoga practice.  I learned about grace and flexibility and breathing and process and gained an appreciation for silence.

I suppose the softening of our hearts takes time.  As we get older, I think we also come to appreciate more our humanness, our limitations—not just that we are mortal and therefore must be careful, but that we cannot and should not think that we have to do it all.  It is only in being aware of our limitations that we can truly be forgiving of the limitations of others.

I have heard it said that we are not human beings trying to become more spiritual, but that we are spiritual beings trying to become more human.  I think this to be true.  Our flaws present us with opportunities for us to grow, a reason to offer grace to others—they are just as broken as we are— and to turn to God because God is working in a much bigger way than we can imagine.

At Mercy, we talk constantly about process.  Praying is not about arriving somewhere.  It is about being truly present to the moment in which we find ourselves.  It is about understanding our motivations—especially our fears and insecurities—so that we might respond in a less reactionary way.  It is about sitting quietly and listening, that we might put our worries aside for a few moments and sense God’s comfort and call on our lives.  All in all, we find the opportunity to be more human, more loving, and to open ourselves to true growth and transformation.  Now, when I neglect the rhythm of prayer and meditation in my life, I miss it.

I now see how broken and perfect my prayers have been.

Dante’s Baptism

By: Megan Hodges

Surrounded by all of God’s followers

Dante Evan Weaver was welcomed John, Magee, Dante

with open arms and open hearts.

Drop by drop,

water gently touched Dante’s head

as he was blessed in the name

of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is as if we saw God’s Word

in the pure water dripping

on Dante’s face:




The joyous  community gathered around the little table

and welcomed Dante into

the Mercy community.

Everyone was able to witness

God’s love at Mercy’s first baptism.

The 35-Year Layover

By: Vickie Headrick

My name is Vickie Headrick.  I came to Atlanta 35 years ago by way of a Greyhound bus in 1978.  I was coming from Montgomery, headed towards Knoxville—I had a two and a half hour layover here in Atlanta and have been here ever since.Vicki's Hands

Mercy was, and is, a safe haven for me.  It has been a good place for me to visit, especially when there is bad weather (our worst nightmare on the streets).  Before I started attending Mercy I had been homeless for about 15 years off and on.  I am glad to have a place where I am welcome during the day.  I spend a lot of time walking—sometimes all day and half the night— looking for a place where I am welcome to rest or lay my head.  Sometimes I can manage to find a friend to put me up for a few days, it’s nice to get a shower, a fresh change of clothes, and be able to rest peacefully.  Sometimes one of God’s angels comes along and puts me up in a hotel for a couple days.  Much of my day is spent trying to find refuge from the weather or find a spot where I would go unnoticed.

I like how Mercy built itself as community and how we help and nurture our friends, homeless or not.  Mercy has helped me to utilize my spare time.  Like the phrase goes, “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.”  I know that I will always have a place to come, not only to utilize the facilities, but to have a chance to mingle with my friends, and participate in Bible studies and recovery meetings.  I have learned a lot.

Recently, we at Mercy joined up with the good people of St. John’s Lutheran Church.  They put aside a part of their church property to have a garden with us.  I had a good time gathering with them at the church one Saturday to start the project.  We nailed boards together to create raised beds, which we then painted and filled with dirt.  There is one bed of tomatoes, another of squash, a third with melons, and the last is filled with strawberries!  It was well worth getting dirty for the project; we will be eating well this summer!

Listen, Picture, Pop

By: Lynda Baker

It’s Friday: time for good old Lectio Divina—my new favorite way of studying God’s word!  Lectio Divina is a way of praying and listening for what God has to say to us that has deep roots within the church.  At Mercy, we use it to help us study the Bible and get firmly rooted in a passage.

When we study this way, I do not know what passage has been chosen for the Bible study.  In part, this is done because many of us like to read along.  Instead, we are encouraged to listen, at least for the first two of the three times we read the passage.  When we listen to words, instead of reading them, we process the information IMG_4981differently, new ideas stand out to us.  I settle back and listen to God, pretending this is the first time I have heard it.

The first time we read the passage, we are invited to notice one word without any additional comments.  I am like a shallow swimmer, floating at the deep end of the pool.  Lectio helps me to dig—or swim—deeper, especially when I don’t know the context of the passage.  I like to picture the passage as it is read.  When it is “the word” for me, its picture takes me over, and it is all I see.  It just seems to pop out!

We read the passage again—or rather, it is read to us again.  After a brief silence, we again share, this time a phrase taken directly from the scriptures.  This time it is like I am bobbing on the surface of the pool, sometimes dunking underwater, fully wet.  I just listen, picture, and pop—again!

As we look at the board where our words and phrases are listed, as a community we start to see the movement of the larger picture.  Or if multiple people share the same word or phrase, we can see where God is directing the attention of the church.

Together we read, not just listen to, the passage one final time.  This time the book, chapter, and verses are announced.  We are encouraged to consider the “so what?” of the passage—our own questions and where we feel like our lives connect to the passage.  I share with the rest of the church what God has been speaking to me in the passage and have the opportunity to hear the experiences of my fellow community members.  I finally dive into the deep, cool waters of the swimming pool, surrounded by God’s word and grace.   That’s why we have come to love Lectio Divina in our community!


By: Dwayne Brooks

About a year ago, I was banned from Mercy because I acted aggressively toward someone who was upset with me.  We started to argue and things escalated—neither of us could control our temper so our time away from the community escalated too.  One week became one month, became six months, as we couldn’t quiet down.  “Make it a year, three years, forever!” I baited the pastors.  Six months is the one that stuck.Dwayne Brooks BW Photo-Martin

At first getting banned did not matter—I was mad and didn’t want to be at Mercy anyway.  It took me a while for the consequences of my actions to sink in.  I’ve had arguments with other people before, but this was the first time that I was banned for a substantial amount of time.  After a week or so I felt that I had let myself down both by my reaction and how I carried myself.

I continued on with my work but knowing I could not go to Mercy left an empty space in me.  I kept popping up at Mercy, even though I was not supposed to, because I had nothing to lose—I was already banned.

Recently, I was banned again, this time for a month.  Instead of coming around during that month, I stayed away.  I knew that I would be able to come back more quickly if I showed that I could respect boundaries.  When I am away from Mercy I miss it.  I enjoy the singing which helps relax my mind.  And I find that the Bible studies build up my spirit.

Losing my temper has not been helping me to be who I want to be or to interact with others the way I think I should.  While I was away from Mercy I had the chance to take an inventory of myself and really think about how I react to things, especially where I am in denial about my actions.  I watch my surroundings and take it all in.  I see lots of things, lots of violence, lots of people treating each other poorly.  When I am mad, I frequently try to suppress it until one day, everything that I have been holding in comes out.   At that point it doesn’t matter who I hurt—the water must boil, the ball must unravel.  I need a release.

I am learning how to control my temper a little better, though I still have a long way to go.  I need Mercy in that way; it is difficult to try and change my attitude when I am alone.  I have started talking about some of the things that are on my mind—expressing myself rather than holding things back.  I have found that it really helps me to express what is on my mind either to one of my pastors, my mother, or my Higher Power.  I feel better and more relaxed when I express myself, as if a hard ball in my stomach deflates.

It is a process, as we say.  But it is good work, and I’m proud of the progress I have made.

From His Side Blood and Water Flowed

By: Chad Hyatt

The story of Mercy begins with a baptism.  I had been baptized before, while in college.  That earlier one was the “official” one—the one we recall when invited in worship to remember our baptism.  It holds deep meaning for me still and need never be repeated.  But the baptism that began Mercy was 24-41altogether different.  I didn’t seek it.  It caught me: sudden, spontaneous, of the moment, in the Spirit—not unlike the surprising flow of blood and water from the wounded side of Jesus on the cross (John 19.34-35).

I was working in Kingston, Jamaica, with the Missionaries of the Poor, a Catholic religious order founded in the early 1980s by Father Richard Ho Lung.  For those who have no idea about the varieties of Catholic religious life, I usually describe MOP as “Mother Teresa for guys.”  All over the world, communities of vowed brothers give their lives alongside the poorest of the poor in “joyful service with Christ on the cross.”  Daily life is organized around prayer, community, and the works of mercy: to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, to welcome the stranger, and to visit the sick and the prisoner.

A man, already dying from AIDS and abandoned in the dirty gutter of a Kingston alley, was about to be stoned to death by a frenzied crowd.  One of the brothers ran into the streets, somehow carrying with him enough authority to disperse a mad, stone-wielding mob, and along with another one of the brothers, brought the dying man back to the house.  Immediately, they set about the task of cleaning the man from the blood and dirt and filth that covered him, head to toe.  It was more than the two brothers could manage themselves.  Close at hand and watching it all, one of the brothers saw me and asked if I would help.

That was my call to baptism, there in the showers of a Jamaican house of hospitality.  I held the man as best as I could, my trembling arms beneath his sagging shoulders, as we stood together under the cold water that poured from the shower head.  The two brothers worked together, slowly, methodically, gently, stripping the ragged and filthy clothes from his wounded body.  Water mixed with dirt and filth, and mud and blood mingled, as the streams ran in widening arcs toward the drain at our feet.

Holding his wounded body in my arms, I was baptized—plunged deeply and outside my control—into the human experience, one marked as indelibly as if by blood with suffering and death.  Why is our experience, created for beauty, soaked in blood?  Because we hurt one another.  And we hurt ourselves.

As Father Christian de Chergé, one of the Trappist monks martyred in Algeria, observed with humble wisdom:  “I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.”

But baptism is being plunged not just more deeply into suffering but more deeply into Christ.  Jesus himself was immersed into the depths of suffering and death, becoming a “curse for us.” (Galatians 3.13-14)  Like Jesus, the man I held in my arms was a scapegoat, already outcast and now ready for sacrifice.  In the  eyes of the mob, this man with AIDS was cursed.  They saw him as an evil that must be eliminated for fear the curse would spread to include them.  But Jesus has once for all redeemed us from such scapegoating violence.  Through Christ we are baptized into the experience of cursedness so that we might be delivered from it—from both the shame of being the one cursed and the fear that drives us to curse one another.  In Christ, we see most clearly that God is present in our suffering—and does not abandon us even when we cause the suffering of others.  Always God is active to save, to heal, to lead us toward life.

In baptism, we say both a “yes” and a “no.”  We say no to Satan, the “accuser”: the frenzied fingerpointer, the rabid segregationist, the angry stone-thrower—the dark power behind all our scapegoating.

From these works we turn away.  But saying no is never enough; we must also say yes.  We say yes not just to God but to God’s own work in our broken world: the works of mercy.  We become part of a community with a vocation of yes: of engagement with pain and suffering, with brokenness and death—with the human experience, even at its darkest depths.

The grace to be found in the story of the man dying with AIDS is not in the event itself, in the simple fact that it was happening.  Grace is found in seeing that it is happening—that it has happened, that it will happen—and entering into it so that we might act to redeem.  We are called to act with God and with our sisters and brothers to redeem everyone who suffers—and all who create suffering.  By grace we know violence must be stopped, but because of grace, it cannot be stopped without our participation.

This is the deep call of Mercy—and how it started with a baptism.  Our church is the direct result of experiencing God’s grace by holding a dying man in a shower and the need to say yes to that grace.

Mercy is a community with a vocation of yes.  We are sent out into all the world but particularly into the abandoned alley-ways where children of God are left to die—so that all of us might be lifted up together into God’s own decisive and resounding yes to life.  This is my story, but I believe it is the call of us all.

May God give us the grace to remember our baptism.

We Are Not the Probelm

By: Cara Nurmi

We are the people you don’t greet:cara photo

We walk the streets while you sleep,

Reinvent what you don’t need,

Counterbalancing your greed,

Direct the children you don’t feed.

We do our part, we are the art—

We are not the problem.


We are the ones that you reject,

We pay our debts in self-respect.

You got it wrong, we write the songs.

We are not ashamed when we are wrong,

You can see it all, we don’t have walls—

We are not the problem.


We are the ones that you call bums—

But what we’ve got we will give you some.

We suffer hard, but we have fun,

Certain we are real as they come

Not always right, sometimes we fight

But we don’t do it out of sight

We’re people too, not just you—

We are not the problem.


Some rich men buy their way to hell;

Some poor find their way as well.

Depend on chance, just like the ants,

Or God and Jesus, if that’s what frees us.

By the cover is not how they judge us—

We are not the problem.


We’re like the air, we’re always there.

We might be polluted, but what do you


From where do you come, the dirt and the


We are not the problem.

A House of Love:

Art and Becoming Artisans of a New World 

By: Chad Hyatt

At Mercy, we believe in God. And we believe in art, too. In all its mediums, art is one way of expressing the many ways God is present with us in both our joys and struggles. Our life together includes Friday Art Class, a safe-space where we draw, paint, Advent House of Love Photoshoppedand work with fabrics. We’ve painted Southwestern retablos, Byzantine icons, and Fourteen Stations of the Cross. We’ve made tee shirts, our own paper, prayer flags, and even the occasional Star Wars-themed piñata. Our walls are now a bright orange and a bold purple, painted by friends and members of our community. We have a mural in chalk of Jesus and the Woman at the Well and a large, made-by-hand crucifix, both in Mercy’s own distinctive style.

But that’s not so strange, when you think about it. Art has always been important for faith. In the image of God, we have been created, after all. And the God whose likeness we bear is the one both Scripture and creed affirm as the “Creator of Heaven and Earth.” It might even be said, as did Paul, that humanity is God’s art.

Art is powerful for faith because it is a way of sign-ing truth. The sacraments that feed our faith are rich in signs for us of God’s new world and the liberating work God is doing with and among us to bring that world to be. The water of Baptism, whether bountifully and lavishly poured over us or into which we are boldly plunged, speaks loudly of vitality, abundance, gratuitousness, washing—even living and dying and being raised again to new life. In the same way, the bread, cup, and table of the Eucharist proclaims a better sermon about God’s life with us than most preachers ever could through the simple signs of meal, invitation, welcome, thanksgiving, and sharing. By these holy actions and common signs, we are guided. By doing them faithfully and remembering them when we gather, God’s people begin to image life itself differently. It is through the power of sign that we, as the old song says, begin to “have another world in view.”

At Mercy, we have ‘art-signs’ of our own that help guide our lives as a community. One of them, often found hastily drawn on the white-board during Bible study or incorporated into our logo on stationary, is a little drawing we call the ‘House of Love.’ Like all such images, it is simple, and yet like the best of them, it’s meaning deepens and expands the more we reflect on it. The picture itself is modest enough. At the center is a little house and, within it, a large heart. Behind the house, towering over it, almost overshadowing it, are the ominous skyscrapers of a prosperous cityscape.

For us, it means we are called to be a community that embodies love while living all the while in systems that are often opposed to love—perhaps not in name, of course, but in practice surely. This is the world of hate, greed, and violence. In such a world, amid such systems, the house of love seems small, vulnerable, and insignificant. It is seemingly overwhelmed and easily overpowered when contrasted with the imposing towers of our present system, which seem at once both strangely alluring and wholly intimidating.

This simple image came to me one day while walking in the city, taking in all its impressive and frankly beautiful sights. I was returning from some errand for the church, and rounding the corner, I saw our little community, fully and wholly alive in the shadows of the much bigger buildings of our city. People of every sort laughed and sang and teased one another, some talking quietly, a few shouting. Here and there, someone sat off to the side strumming a guitar. I knew others were inside, busy sharing clothes, cooking meals, praying. I saw a house of love.

Signs can often be misread, though. Let me be clear: an image of our community as a house of love in a world often opposed to love is not meant to be us-versus-them propaganda. This is not about patting yourself on the back and feeling good. Nor is it finger-pointing. It is about naming ways of being in our world in which all of us are part and participant, for good and bad, for love and hate. And it’s about the call, the invitation, to live with one another differently. Two other images frequently sketched on the white-board in our Bible studies might  help us get a little closer to what I mean: one is a ladder, and the other is a table.

What we call the house of love and the world of hate are driven and sustained by core values. The core values of the world systems, as many of us experience them, might be described best by the image of a ladder. We’re successful, we’ve arrived, we’re somebody—if we sit at the top. The goal is to get there and, after that, to stay there. Or at least to get as far up as you can, even if that means stepping on someone else. For us, the top may look like wealth, power, celebrity, enviable relationships. No matter where you are on the climb, you can take comfort in knowing someone else is beneath you. Everyone has his or her ‘place,’ if you will, and while we want to move higher, it’s safest to make sure those below us don’t. Jesus calls us to flip-over the ladders of our culture. “The first shall be last, the last shall be first,” he said. “The great shall serve, and the servant of all shall be the greatest among you.” That’s not ladder-theology.

The table is an altogether different image. The table is a vision of sharing, of welcome, of hospitality. With a seat for everyone, it evokes a sense of genuine equality and mutual care: loving one another, serving one another, washing the feet of one another. This is an image deeply rooted in the gospels, too. Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners,” in large measure because he sat around tables and welcomed the outcast. Clearly, there are echoes of the Eucharist, the last table meal Jesus shares with his disciples. For us, the table is a vision of a new humanity.

As Peter Maurin said, we are called to build a new world in the shell of the old, finding building materials in the crumbling structures all around us. We can all be sisters and brothers in the house of love or share-holders in the world of hate and greed and violence. And it’s not as simple as transferring your membership from a country club to a church. Daily we must choose: in even the smallest of actions and how we steward our goods, with whom we share relationships and how we handle the power given to us. It does not matter if we have much or little. We must choose daily.

Wherever we are on the ladder, be sure of this: we are called to go down it, not up. To do so is a reversal of all we’ve been taught: the world sells us upward mobility. But in the words of Henri Nouwen, the gospel calls us to something different, a ‘downward mobility.’ This is the way of Jesus, the pattern of life to which he calls all of us who would faithfully follow him toward a new world.  As we go, let us dismantle the ladders themselves, and in their place build a great table for all of God’s children at the heart of the house of love.