In my first week at the Haven on Market Street in downtown Charlottesville while we prepared breakfast, one of the volunteers asked the kitchen supervisor if she should cut up the small tomatoes for the daily pan of cooked vegetables served at breakfast. The response was a resounding “Yes! Always cut the tomatoes.” It was a seemingly innocuous exchange between volunteer and manager, but the explanation was more profound. “I don’t know! A cut tomato shows a little bit more preparation and care than tossing them into the pan uncut.” The significance of such a statement was lost on me until I began to read through Ed Loring’s encounters with the homeless recounted in I Hear Hope Banging at My Back Door.
Throughout the Open Door Community, a Christian residential community in downtown Atlanta, hope radiates in all the dark and unseen corners of homelessness. Ed Loring, the community’s director, can be disgusted by “The Hell of Homelessness” (Loring, 20) which is devoid of comfort, a necessity that “can make us liars and cheats” (15) leading to inequality and oppression. In the same breath, Loring hangs on to hope that “the journey towards justice is the journey to life, to salvation and healing” (8). For Loring and the Open Door, this dichotomy is engrained in their eschatology. In their battle to end homelessness, there is a balance between the temporary pain, heartbreak, and struggle that sometimes characterize their present battle for the end of homelessness and the unflinching and perpetual hope found within the striving for future justice. They are “betting their [lives] on the victory of the cross, on the ultimate justice on Earth” (Loring 72). This hope cannot be shaken by present misfortune and loss brought about by ever-expanding injustice in Atlanta and beyond. It is also unhindered by the blunt realization Loring has that he will not experience the eradication of homelessness in his lifetime. “I can see it; I’ll never touch it” (72). In Atlanta, the Open Door Community has come to the conclusion that they will work their entire lives in order to see change in the deeply entrenched injustice found within their city’s institutions, but will never actually get to see it come to fruition in its totality. The Open Door Community sits in the hell of homelessness refusing to exhibit “a stunted moral growth as becomes those who flee social problems rather than resolve them” (46). They choose to promote “a suffering sacrificial love in accepting the consequences of life with, among, and on behalf of the oppressed and prisoner” (69-70). Encouraged by their encounters with people in Atlanta who are homeless, and spurred on by acts of kindness and love, the Open Door Community faces injustice head-on knowing that they will ultimately be victorious. This may not come during their lifetimes because they are trying to uproot injustice that has been entrenched in Atlanta for generations. Rather, they choose to listen to the hope banging at their back door even when the rest of the block suggests that despair and discouragement should be the appropriate response.
Which brings us back to the aforementioned encounter in the kitchen of the Haven. While there are notable differences between the two organizations–Atlanta and Charlottesville are two different places with different histories–this hope for the future is a distinct commonality. At its core, the Haven is supposed to be what the name suggests; a haven. Like the Open Door, the Haven is “a place of hope where people are given a respite from the daily challenges they face and access to assistance to help overcome them” (Haven Volunteer Manual, 7). In both situations, the desire to eradicate homelessness is the ultimate goal. However, what if these goals are never fully realized in Charlottesville during our lifetimes? Will we become discouraged if we do not see the Promised Land? That is why the tomatoes should be cut. It is a tangible manifestation of the hidden hope to which every volunteer and staffer at the Haven clings. A deep, transcendent hope that care and hospitality, kindness and sacrificial love will not return void. A hope found in the “simple moments and endeavors that redeem life and fill our cups to the brim of love and hope” (Loring, 20). Because we desire to see Charlottesville’s homeless population cared for and to have their immediate needs met, we cut the tomatoes. Because we hold on to an unflinching and undeterred hope that one day homelessness will be eradicated and every person in Charlottesville will have a home, we cut the tomatoes. Ed Loring hears hope when the homeless bang on the back door of the Open Door Community seeking respite; I see hope in the cutting of the tomatoes in the kitchen of the Haven.