UMC Lead | In The World: A Conversation With Ingrid McIntyre

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Kenneth Pruitt: Your agency, Open Table Nashville, was specifically formed as a response to the destructive Middle Tennessee floods of 2010. Can you tell us a bit about the beginnings of your nonprofit?

Ingrid McIntyre: It all started on a scorching day in the late summer of 2008, over two years before Open Table Nashville was conceived. It started when we—a handful of outreach workers, ministers, and volunteers—were  introduced to Tent City, Nashville’s largest homeless encampment located on the banks of the Cumberland River. Over the next two years, we became friends with the residents, advocated with them for their rights, received hospitality from them, attended their weddings and funerals, and realized that a majority of the residents couldn’t stay at traditional shelters because they were couples, pet owners, severally mentally ill, or worked non-traditional work hours. We helped move over 60 Tent City residents into permanent housing, and as the residents left their tents, others moved in. At its prime, just before the flood in May 2010, about 140 people (along with over a dozen cats and dogs) called Tent City home. When the flood hit, we evacuated the residents and their pets to the Red Cross Shelter at Lipscomb University and promised them that we would not abandon them. In the midst of the post-flood chaos, we didn’t grasp the gravity of that promise nor did we foresee the ways it would change our lives.

When the Red Cross Shelter was closing, the city of Nashville failed to provide adequate solutions for the majority of the displaced residents (many of whom would be sent to the streets only to be subsequently arrested). Because we had promised the residents that we would stand beside them, we began organizing volunteers, collecting donations, and asking the city, churches, and land-owners for land on which we could to set-up a temporary encampment. Lee Beaman, owner of Beaman Toyota, offered us 124 acres of land in Antioch, TN, so we moved about 40 of the displaced residents there. After spending 40 days on a 2-acre track of Beaman’s land, the city closed the camp because of outcries from the Antioch community who didn’t want “the homeless” (i.e. displaced flood victims) temporarily in their “back yards” and because the land wasn’t zoned for camping. Then, Hobson United Methodist Church in East Nashville offered to rent us their parsonage for a number of displaced residents to live in (Hobson House) which served as a community and transitional house until July of 2013.

After months of 80-hour work weeks, we went on a two-day retreat in Southeast Tennessee. There, we came up with the name for our group; a group that was growing into a movement through the energy and tension that had been forming around us and around Tent City for years. We named it “Open Table Nashville” (OTN), and in June of 2011, OTN became a religious, interfaith 501(c)(3) non-profit community. In January of 2011, I became the Executive Director.

KP: What’s OTN’s relationship with the United Methodist Church? I’d be willing to bet that justice-minded organizations like yours can sometimes have a lukewarm rapport with larger institutions.

IM: Well, yes and no. My bishop and DS have been super supportive of my call to serve among the margins of society, understanding that it doesn’t fit the normal mold of preacher, pulpit, building. This hasn’t always been the case. I’ve often felt out of place in the ministry world because the path is paved for those on the way to the pulpit. No one really knows what to do with those of us who are called down a different path, so we just have to blaze our own way. Thankfully, the leadership of the Tennessee Annual Conference the Nashville District are supportive, working to make sure we build a good foundation for relationships across barriers we often find within the confines of the institution.

KP: Part of your mission statement claims that you “disrupt cycles of poverty.” That reminds me of the often-used phrase, “disruptive innovation,” where a new system or idea unexpectedly disrupts an old value system through creative thought and eventually displaces the old in some way. Is disrupting a cycle of poverty similar to disruptive innovation? How exactly is OTN being disruptive?

IM: We tend to challenge the status quo. We often build relationships and community with folks that the rest of society has quite literally forgotten about. Some of our friends have fallen through every crack in the system simply because they don’t fit into the neat equation society has set to help “fix” the poor, sick, needy, disabled, etc. You can’t put a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. You can’t sit behind a desk handing out paper solutions and expect all to be well. Being in relationships that aren’t always easy with our friends, empowering folks, advocating together, educating the public about issues of poverty, working on sustainable solutions (affordable, supportive, permanent housing, etc)—these are things that break cycles of poverty and addiction.

KP: So you had your Warholian 15 minutes of fame in February when Anderson Cooper spent a bit of time with you and others in your community to report on the 100,000 Homes Campaign for 60 Minutes. Was that just completely surreal? My favorite part of that whole thing was the video that came later where Cooper talked about thinking differently about homelessness after the taping.

IM: I was overwhelmed, of course. And yes, the Overtime piece online that described his transformation about his views of people experiencing homelessness was incredible. I mean, one of the most well known journalists in the world saying that the stories we shared with him actually made him think differently…humbling. Exciting! Gives me hope that relationships and stories really do help change the world.

KP: Now that more people are able to put names, faces, and stories to this abstract idea of Nashvillians living without homes, what’s the most helpful response, in your opinion? I’m sure you love donations, but what’s the Gospel response that’s not diluted?

IM: Relationships. Consistency. Compassion. LOVE. And these things aren’t easy. Of course, the Gospel isn’t easy, is it? It takes lots of time to educate yourself on the most healthy ways to be in relationship with folks that are really hurting economically, physically, and spiritually.  The best, most basic thing anyone can do is see someone. You know, like, look them in the eye and say “hello” instead of crossing the street or rolling up your window at a stop light. Bus passes are helpful, water is great, food lasts a minute. But to really acknowledge someone’s humanity is a gift that will linger. Especially if we all do it. Smiles, waves, glances, and chit chat can certainly change someone’s day for the better.

KP: You recently became a licensed local pastor after a few years of thoughtful consideration about ordination. What made you decide to do this now?

IM: Well, I mentioned before the challenge of belonging for folks who are passionate about ministry, but not necessarily the pulpit kind. Do we have a place at the table too? It was a rough road on many levels, even in seminary, to figure out the right path for someone like me. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to be affiliated with the church, not because I wanted a particular position or good connections, but because I think it’s important that the church is involved in doing something different than business as usual, that it’s membership knows about it, and that it actively participates in justice beyond its walls. Not just charity and mercy, church, but justice. I wanted to be a part of the institution (*gasp*) because I want others to know that this is Kingdom work, too, and that there are UMC seminary graduates actively engaging in justice work who also want to engage the church. I know it’s not the norm,  but it doesn’t take a steeple, an address, a dynamic preacher, a budget, a committee, and a altar guild to be church in the world. Open Table Nashville is homeless; we don’t have a “place”. We don’t want to spend overhead on buildings and utilities when we could be spending money on housing, etc. Man, those responsibilities and burdens slow us down, sometimes (a lot of times), and when there’s critical work that needs to be done on the streets (and elsewhere) to keep people alive, focusing on things that aren’t essentials isn’t an option.

KP: When we were kids, I thought for sure you were going to be a bishop some day. I think a lot of people would have said that. No joke. Now your work puts you on the grassroots level of Kingdom work. Though I’m sure that shift in leadership style happened gradually over 20+ years, it’s interesting that it did. How has that journey been for you?

IM: I’ve always seen “invisible” people who are living in the margins of our communities. I’m sure it’s because of how my grandparents and parents saw people, built relationships with folks, lived in community with them and provided hospitality in radical ways. Since at least eighth grade I’ve known my life would somehow bend towards justice and advocacy work. Appalachian Service Project, visiting “shut-ins” with my dad, singing at shelters and nursing homes…just a few of the things I remember being staples in my life as a young person. Looking back, those were the things and the times which helped develop my passion for loving people. I love people. I love to love people. Especially people who don’t often feel loved. It’s amazing what just acknowledging someone can do. A smile, a hug, eye contact…game changers!

I’ve referenced the difficulty in finding a place at the table, but I’m thankful for the journey. Each step has led to an incredible unveiling of my truth, of my passion, of relationships that have been life changing. It has helped focus and clarify my calling.  I’ve had to work for it and am so grateful for both the struggles and the pieces that have fallen into place by grace. Does that even answer your question? I don’t think so.  So, you might have thought I would be a bishop one day, but I definitely never did. Ha! And I think maybe I didn’t have so much a shift in leadership style as I did gaining clarity and focus of calling. Through work with the General Board of Church and Society, opportunities to study theology of human rights, studying social movements, etc., I just realized that that is where the Gospel is for me: In the world, walking around sharing love as I can.


ingrid-squareIngrid McIntyre is the Executive Director and co-founder of Open Table Nashville. She graduated from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. in 2008 with a Masters of Theological Studies. Her journey thus far has been shaped by her work with Habitat for Humanity, as a Youth Minister at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, TN, and as the Director of Connectional Relations at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for the United Methodist Church. She currently serves on the Board of the Nashville Coalition for Homelessness, Nashville Transit Now, and the Board of JustPeace: Center for Mediation and Conflict Transformation in Washington, D.C. Ingrid is inspired by heroes like Desmond Tutu, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Dorothy Day and strives to imitate their dedication to justice for the marginalized and love for all.  If not painting, gardening, or militantly composting, she’s probably traveling, reading, working crossword puzzles, or kayaking at her parent’s farm.


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