“A Conversion to the Neighbor”

by Gabe Horton, MDiv3

A 1970s Aboriginal activist group once issued this challenge to well-intentioned white Australians seeking to help:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Marginalia is a student group at Vanderbilt Divinity School that believes our liberation is bound up with the liberation of those at the margins of society. We seek to live in solidarity with our neighbors who are unhoused and incarcerated, to educate ourselves and others, and to advocate for justice.

As one of the new co-chairs this year, I came to Marginalia seeking a “conversion” experience— like the spiritual conversion Gustavo Gutierrez outlined in 1971:

…[a] break with our mental categories, with the way we relate to others, with our way of identifying with the Lord, with our cultural milieu, with our social class, in other words, with all that can stand in the way of a real, profound solidarity with those who suffer, in the first place, from misery and injustice (A Theology of Liberation, 205).

If, as the Gospel of Matthew (25.41-45) tells us, God is found amongst our neighbors who experience marginalization, then a conversion to God is necessarily a “conversion to the neighbor.” In Nashville—as in most other cities­­—homelessness is criminalized, and prisoners are dehumanized at every turn. Liberation from this oppression will not result solely from a change in legislation; such liberation necessarily includes conversion to a spirituality that proclaims unequivocally: “to know God is to do justice.”

In working towards this liberation, Marginalia seeks to educate the wider Vanderbilt and Nashville communities about complex issues, such as an alternative to the death penalty and to the criminalization of poverty. Additionally, through volunteering with Open Table Nashville, Marginalia builds relationships with people who are unhoused. Recently, VDS students spent their last coffee hour before Thanksgiving writing Christmas cards to men inside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.  This spring, we look forward to hosting a reunion for all students and alumni/ae who have taken classes at Riverbend. We also will sponsor, along with the student organization Students Exploring Chaplaincy (SEC), a panel discussion on prison chaplaincy.

As faith communities look forward to the holidays as a season of hope, Marginalia shares the bold hope for collective liberation from all that stands in the way of profound solidarity. If you seek a similar “conversion,” please join us.