Murphy Davis: Surely Goodness and Mercy

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Surely Goodness and Mercy: A Journey into Illness and Solidarity, by Murphy Davis
Open Door Community Press, Baltimore , MD, 2020

Murphy has been dancing with the angels for a long time now, but she still has the grace to think about the rest of us, to teach us some of the steps. What a rare and precious gift from a rare and precious person.” - Bryan Stevenson

I visited the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008 to meet Murphy Davis in order to paint her portrait for Americans Who Tell the Truth. I found her, as anyone might have in the past 25 years, in the midst of recovery from life-threatening illnesses. Her chemotherapy for cancer had been briefly paused while she had had her gallbladder removed. In spite of discomfort and pain she came downstairs wearing a headscarf (the chemo had taken her hair) and pajamas. Her mind and spirit, though, were  strong, focused, buoyant, and fully dressed. She says that for years death has stalked her, but did not frighten her because  “death was a powerful presence I had met again and again in prisons and execution chambers, on the streets and in the cat holes of the homeless … . To live in solidarity with the poor is to share proximity to death.”

In order to understand Murphy Davis, why I wanted to paint her, and the long journey of her life in service to the homeless, the poor, prisoners, and for peace, it’s best to first consider that word “solidarity” which is in the title of her newly published memoir. When many of us think of being in or standing in solidarity with some group or cause, we are making a statement of concern and allegiance, but we are not necessarily pledging to  take on all the  conditions and burdens that define that group, to make walking in their shoes the sine qua non of solidarity, to insist on confronting the causes of the injustice, not merely treating the symptoms. Solidarity is often something we say rather than feel obligated to do.

Murphy, in partnership with her husband, Dr. Eduard Loring - both Pastors in the Presbyterian Church - have made abolition of the death penalty, creation of housing for the homeless, struggles for racial and economic justice, and cessation of war their life work. In 1981, Davis and Loring founded the Open Door Community, a diverse, activist residential Christian community dedicated to changing the economic conditions that create homelessness. Since the center opened in downtown Atlanta, the Loring-Davis family has lived in the community with the homeless, former prisoners, and others who have come to join the struggle to feed the hungry and agitate for justice. They survive economically by donations. They take no salary. They gave up their life savings. They gave up health insurance (an incredible choice for someone who has suffered 8 cancers in 25 years).

About her radical solidarity, Murphy says, “Solidarity means stretching our hearts. It means giving things up - not once, or twice, but continually. It means forgoing privileges and conveniences that make things easier for us while leaving others to fend for themselves … . Solidarity means that we recognize the liberation of the poor as our life’s agenda.”

Murphy’s radical solidarity frames all of her medical tribulations as the condition of her authentic pact with the poor, the most marginalized and punished in our society. It means she operates from the unassailable strength of unconditional love. The freedom of her solidarity affords her immense political leverage because she has, as Janis Joplin sang, “nothing left to lose.” And her life has been about using that political leverage. The Open Door Community performs militant advocacy for universal healthcare and insists on a society that considers the dignity of every person necessary in defining the common good.

Considering Murphy’s 25 years of medical struggles, struggles as relentless as the afflictions of Job, one might think her title Surely Goodness and Mercy is meant ironically. Not at all. She feels herself blessed to live a life of profound service, to be in the company of many people as dedicated as herself and surrounded by love. Her personal suffering is a parable of the suffering of the poor and homeless, the abused, and the suffering of the earth itself, which is under attack by the same market forces which create poverty.  She says, “... in our era of technological frenzy the earth cries out to us, and its pleas most often fall on ears rendered unable to hear by the frantic life of market capitalism and its voracious appetites. The illnesses that afflict our bodies  are not apart from the devastation and weeping of the earth itself.” 

Murphy writes easily and straightforwardly of the work of Open Door and her medical travails. She never asks, “Why me?” Again and again she sees critical illness “... as an opportunity to grow in wisdom and love.”  And one of the book’s surprises is its humor. Amongst all the descriptions of doctors and treatments is a wealth of anecdote and amusing detail. 

But this book is really a hero’s journey.  Murphy would never describe it like that. As she struggles with the vicissitudes of her health and the punishments visited on the poor, the abused, the discriminated against and the imprisoned, she never gives up.  At times Murphy is like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons who continually resurrects himself from bone-crushing, body-splattering mishaps to continue the chase. In Murphy’s case the chase is for peace, justice, dignity, and love.

Murphy Davis’s life engenders awe for her courageous dedication to justice in the same manner that Dorothy Day did, or Dr. King, or Fannie Lou Hamer. We hear the word “authentic” bandied about all the time these days. In our culture of identity politics and political correctness, many people are challenged about their right to speak authentically for demographics other than their own. With Murphy, all those challenges become irrelevant. Her radical solidarity creates an authenticity beyond question. It models for us all a life lived for goodness and mercy, a life lived for love. A life rooted in the heart of justice. Read her book and discover what a life of militant, loving service can be and  do.

Order Surely Goodness and Mercy: A Journey into Illness and Solidarity for a donation of $15 from the Open Door Community Press,  PO Box 10980, Baltimore, MD 21234-0980, (404-290-2047), opendoorcomm@bellsouth.net

book jacket