In Atlanta's Open Door Community great room
used for dining, meeting, worship, and study
used for dining, meeting, worship, and study
In the United States, we celebrate our birthday as a sovereign state on the anniversary of when our first Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence — July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
On this federal holiday, nationwide we celebrate our nation’s birth with speeches, prayers, music, picnics, fireworks, and parades. Here, in Atlanta, the annual 10-kilometer Peachtree Road Race is held (since 1970).
Another local tradition takes place in the shady backyard of the Open Door Community, where this year more than 500 hungry guests from Atlanta's streets enjoyed a delicious picnic of traditional fare. Celebrating its 25-year anniversary, the Open Door is an oasis of hope and loving kindness, in the trendy Poncey-Highlands neighborhood.
Community residents (some have a PhD; others, dropped out of grade-school) and volunteers managed a complex logistical operation graciously. When the caller announced the numbers on guests' tickets, men and women, in orderly fashion, found places at tables for six covered with cherry-red-and-white-checked tablecloths.
The guests: a slice of the American pie
Men and women, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Most spoke English, some spoke Spanish, and many more remained silent. Numerous veterans of Vietnam, the Gulf, and Iraq Wars. Multitudes born into poverty. Others, once privileged, down on their luck. Mostly everyone appeared weary, worried, hot, and thirsty.
Some guests were bandaged from recent falls; others got around in wheelchairs or used canes. One woman announced that she had given birth a week ago ("No, four weeks ago," her companion corrected her), and she anticipated my question: "Mama is caring for the baby." Many guests, before eating the bountiful meal, bowed their heads in hushed prayer, giving thanks to the Creator for blessings of food and more.
Skin tones of the human family, from white rice to dark chocolate. Fellowship. Smiles. Jokes. Laughter. Silence. Gratitude. Sorrow. Confusion. Cheer.
Tasty grilled hamburgers, baked beans (mixed with molasses, brown sugar, mustard, ketchup, and garlic), slaw, potato chips, an array of relishes, watermelon, and iced tea and water.
Serving on the second shift
My friend Gary joined me on the second shift volunteer team. From noon to 3 pm, we refreshed and reset emptied places and wiped vacated seats, brought refills of food and drink, and, whenever possible, chatted with the guests.
Open Door volunteers wear nametags so it's always easy for folks to start a conversation with me. They read my name, and ask me to explain it [Hebrew: date palm or date, the fruit]. I love plugging my Biblical namesake, and I invite them to read the source text. "Genesis 38," I tell them. "Check it out." While some guests know the story (II Samuel:13 chronicles a different Tamar), a few cite the source — book, chapter, and verses. Sometimes we engage in discussion, even disagreement, on the messages of the text. I always learn from these exchanges.
George spotted me, and asked me to check his pronunciation: "sha-alu shlom yerushalayim," he mouthed slowly. (Thursdays, my calendar says, "Open Door," and months ago, George had asked me how to say, in Hebrew, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.") He probed, "Does sha-alu" have a double 'ah' sound?" It does. It had been a while since I weighed these words of Psalm 122.
Chatting it up
A woman named Phonesia shared that, "Four weeks ago I had been serving a prison sentence ... eight years." I caught my breath and stammered, hopefully, "Today, you are clean as a newborn baby." Phonesia, worried that our conversation had taken a downward spiral, added that she would love to be of service at the Open Door. "Hang on," I urged, and then I spotted Tony, my go-to man in a purple-colored shirt declaring “No War.” I directed Phonesia to him, bid her Happy Fourth, and a hearty welcome.
Roosevelt, on hearing that mine is a Hebrew name and surmising correctly that I am Jewish, said, "We share a common history." Thinking that this African-American man had slavery on his mind, he explained, rather, that "In Germany, your people wore the yellow star and mine wore the pink triangle." Memory. Horror. To his "May I hug you?" my expression read, "Bring it on." The struggle. In solidarity. Never again.
Reggie and I beamed to see one another after a long absence from the Open Door. He had found a job, and lost it recently. "On to Plan B," he optimistically declared (following his grandfather's philosophy). "Plan B," I repeated, "Have you read Anne Lamott's book by that name? He reached into his backpack for a small spiral notebook and a pen. "I'll write it down, and when the library reopens after the holiday, I'll look for it," he promised himself. (Anne Lamott — you would be tickled that people are discussing your writing here.)
As the last guests picked up their bundles and left, volunteers cleaned up and restored the space to a backyard under large shade trees. Gary and I unloaded his car and brought into the sorting room the donations that my neighbors Hope and David harvested from their closets and shelves. Good, clean, fashionable clothing and shoes for all occasions and seasons, toiletries, and luggage.
It had been, for me, a fine July 4 celebration. Thank you George, Phonesia, Roosevelt, Reggie, and all guests. Thank you, Open Door. Thank you, framers of the Declaration of Independence. And thank you, champions of independence everywhere.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
— Preamble to the Declaration of Independence (excerpt)