Justin, Maguire Fellow in Nashville

Justin B. is a graduate student studying religious ethics. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2017 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is spending the summer volunteering with Open Table Nashville, which serves low-income and homeless populations.

Not The Blog Post I Wanted To Write

This is not the blog post I wanted to write, nor the one I thought I would write when the summer began. But it is I think the most important one I will write for readers of this blog.

I figured that it was likely that in working with folks experiencing homelessness that I would write about mental illness, I just did not think it would be my own mental illness about which I would write. All summer I have been fighting nearly debilitating depression and anxiety. It is a well-known, if rarely talked about, fact that Ph.D. students have an alarmingly high rate of mental and emotional illness. The stress of the pursuit of a doctoral degree along with the pressures of publishing, conference presentations, fellowships, community service endeavors, and looking for future jobs, not to mention responsibilities not part of academia like family commitments, possible religious obligations, friendships, and the elusive, but necessary, attempt to find time for self-care all add up to a mental break waiting to happen.

For me, the break happened right around the time I started my summer as a Maguire fellow. The weekend before my Maguire fellowship responsibilities were to begin, I presented at an academic conference, then I had my first comprehensive exam scheduled right after my first week working in Nashville. The stress of prepping for a conference and studying for a major exam, along with the whiplash of being back and forth from the streets to the academy, might have just been too much for my brain to take. To be candid, I have dealt with anxiety and depression for most of my life, but it had been 20 years since it had hit as hard as it did this summer.

Between researching on community land trusts, the adaptive reuse of churches for affordable housing, and accompanying people experiencing homelessness on their journey toward stability, it has been an intellectually and emotionally exhausting but very rewarding summer. Through it all I have had countless phone conversations with my doctor’s office (since I was in another state and could not actually go in for appointments), added and adjusted medications, fought through crippling depression and anxiety attacks, and frankly, had to readjust my schedule and cancel a number of meetings. I am thankful that the leadership at Open Table Nashville is made up of people who understand mental illness, and thus who have been very gracious to me by allowing me to work as I have been able, to adjust meeting times, and generally surrounded me with encouragement and kindness.

Some of the cocktail of medications that help me with my mental health.

I guess the best way to wrap up this post is to simply remind folks that mental illness is real, and it often doesn’t make any sense. In my case, I’ve been able to spend the summer doing work I love with people I adore. I got to be in my favorite city, and my family was able to come stay there all summer as well. I mean, for goodness sakes, I am writing for this blog because I am the recipient of a fellowship at a major university. I should be happy. But, mental illness doesn’t work like that. In short, it seems to me that this post is really a plea. For those of you who don’t suffer from mental illness, please be supportive of those who do even when you do not understand it. For those of you, especially among my Ph.D.-seeking colleagues at SMU, who do suffer from mental illness, I want to exhort you to seek help.

I just had my first session with SMU’s very fine counseling services, and I will have another appointment this week. I am hoping that with the support of my family, friends, colleagues, and professors, a cocktail of medications, and the psychiatric care at SMU that I will be able to wrap up my Maguire fellowship with excellence and enter the new semester with my mental health improving day by day. If you are a student fighting through mental illness, I hope that you, too, will seek and find the help you need.

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Feet Are Gross

Feet are gross. I have never liked them, yet last week I found myself with some unhoused friends’ bare feet in my hands as part of one of Open Table Nashville’s foot clinics. At these outreach events Open Table staff and volunteers offer basic foot care to our friends on the streets. Generally it is like a pedicure that one might get at a beauty salon or spa, but not focused so much on the visual aesthetics of feet as on their comfort as folks living on the streets and in shelters tend to do a lot of walking – often in bad shoes and socks.

I am part of the Christian tradition and, naturally, washing feet has a particular religious meaning to me. But many others who join in do it for any number of reasons. Whatever the case, I understand a bit more now the significance of the story in the Bible where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Like our friends on the streets here in Nashville, Jesus and his disciples (along with virtually everyone in the ancient world) walked almost everywhere. Their feet must have been covered not only in dirt and whatever else may have been on their path, but also with blisters, sores, cuts, callouses, and ingrown toenails.

As I sat on the ground with a man’s foot in my hand (we’ll call him Matt), I washed, scraped, and clipped while he and I had a delightful conversation about traveling, where we’d been and where we yet hoped to go. We landed on Ecuador in particular because my wife and I were fortunate to go there last summer, and he and his girlfriend hoped to travel there someday if they can get their finances in order.

Open Table Volunteer providing foot care for a friend experiencing homelessness.


Tending to Matt’s feet was one of the more terrible and meaningful experiences I have had in a while. It was terrible because feet, as I mentioned already, are gross. It was meaningful because I was humbled to be in such a position wherein I was sitting, quite literally, at the feet of someone who, in many other circumstances, over whom I would be in a position of power. I have stuff, a fair bit of it in fact. Matt needs stuff, also a fair bit of it right now.

Close up of foot washing.

It is thus often the case that relationships between people who have stuff and those who need stuff tend to be merely transactional. In other words, the one who has stuff gives it to the one who doesn’t, and the interaction basically starts and ends right there. However, in the work at Open Table, they work to be relational. Foot washing is one way to build the necessary bridges, or raze the potential barriers, to beginning relationships because the process takes time, makes for some interesting conversations, and shows the person whose feet are being cared for that they matter. Even their gross feet matter.

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Where are we supposed to go?

It was thirteen years ago when I first started traipsing around in the woods, beside railroad tracks, and under bridges looking for homeless camps in Nashville. Yesterday, my first day on the job with Open Table Nashville as a Cary M. Maguire Fellow, I was fortunate to once again be in the woods between some railroad tracks and a highway at a camp where about 20 people are living, surviving.

When we pulled up to the camp, which is tucked away discretely behind a truck stop, there was a bulldozer piling up mounds of limbs and debris. As is often the case for our friends and neighbors living in these liminal and precarious spaces, this group is being threatened with removal from what is currently their home. We were there to see how to help them organize to figure out how to fight, or if need be, to flee.

A bulldozer clearing the brush that provides privacy for our homeless friends.

The rumble of the bulldozer’s engine and the clanking of its tracks nearly overwhelmed our conversation as we met, but that only forced us to move closer together into a huddle to hear one another.

I mostly just listened as distressed people showed the range of their humanity in moments of distress asking again and again, “where are we supposed to go?”, and in other moments asserting their own dignity and resilience by declaring, “we are going to fight this, to fight it together.”

Lindsey and Hailey, two of the leaders of Open Table, who have years of experience in these situations, skillfully guided the conversation by helping their friends decide what course of action would best serve them in the fight for their right to exist.

For those who don’t know, Nashville, like many cities, is experiencing a housing boom, which means the city’s poor are enduring a housing crisis. There are simply not enough places for people to live. As of right now there are an estimated 15-20 thousand unhoused people in Nashville. There are new, and generally quite expensive, condos, apartments, and other developments going up all over the city. Homeless camps are being displaced over and again, leaving fewer places for those experiencing homelessness to seek refuge. Shelter beds are full. Camps are being torn down. Old vacant lots and hidden-away places are being developed. Low-income neighborhoods are gentrifying. “Where are we supposed to go?”

Housing prices have skyrocketed, with prices tripling, or more, in some neighborhoods. Where affordable houses and apartments once stood, now there are condos, McMansions, and “flipped” dwellings going up. Not only are our friends on the streets asking, “where are we supposed to go?”, but our friends who have been in safe, decent, and affordable housing are now being forced to ask the same question. Nashville’s unhoused population has increased by at least a full third in the past five years. An increasing number of kind, dignified, hardworking, intelligent, and otherwise wonderful women and men, human beings, are asking “where are we supposed to go?”

While we were at the camp a police officer pulled up to check in on the camp’s residents and remind them that they are supposed to be removed sometime in the coming days. As our friends gathered around the officer they once again asked, “where are we supposed to go?” With deep sincerity and regret, he responded, “I honestly don’t know.” Unfortunately, the answer is often prison, or worse, the grave. Last year countless unhoused people were arrested simply for trying to survive, for existing, as poverty becomes increasingly criminalized and policed. In recent years in Nashville, more people have died due to homelessness, from infections, freezing to death, heat stroke, and other complications than from homicide. “Where are we supposed to go?” None of the answers seem acceptable.

Some of the tents where our homeless friends currently stay.

But, with the help, resources, and encouragement of organizations like Open Table, the voices of our unhoused friends are being amplified as they also declare, “we are going to fight this, to fight it together.” At least for the summer, I will be joining the fight as I research models for a community land grant, help set up resources shelters, wash feet, and most importantly build friendships across a number of socio-economic lines – and join the chant “we are going to fight this, to fight it together.”

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