Spirituality Profile: Peter Gathje

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by Chris Reeder-Young

Peter Gathje. Pronounced ‘GET-key.’ Professor, activist, Manna House partner, family guy and a lighthouse of sanity on social media. His messages are always relevant, but I think now is the time to share as many super-Memphian messages as possible.

Gathje was born and raised in Rochester, Minn. He went to Catholic grade school, high school, and college where he was taught by Franciscan sisters and Benedictine monks. Since then, his journey has taken him through many wonderful communities in the US. Thankfully, he calls Memphis “home.”

He first came here by way of Christian Brothers University as a professor in their Religion and Philosophy department. Gathje was there for ten years before joining Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS), first as a professor of Christian ethics and then the Vice President/Dean of Academic Affairs.

Gathje says his ministry has two parts: education and radical hospitality. With education, he feels that great teachers love their students and are passionate about what they are teaching. He learned a deep appreciation for why asking questions and searching for meaning are “worthwhile tasks if we’re going to live good human lives with one another.”

Second is radical hospitality which he says recognizes that we all need places where we are welcomed simply for who we are. Manna House, opened and run by volunteers since 2005, “creates a place of sanctuary, where people are able to relax, engage in conversation, and not be threatened; the guests, some of whom are homeless, all of whom are living the best they can under poverty and the violence of our economic and political and cultural systems.”

While a grad school at Emory, he connected to the Open Door Community in Atlanta (now in Baltimore). This was a Presbyterian Catholic Worker Community, living and working with people on the streets and in prisons, especially death row. The community also agitated for justice through civil disobedience, street protests etc. He said, “my eyes were really opened to racism, poverty, and the violence of the system in imprisonment and executions. The spiritual disciplines of being a monk worked well with the activism of this community, prayer, worship, bible study focused on Jesus as liberator, combined with the experiences with people on the streets and in prison…are crucial for what I do today, both at Manna House and MTS.”

He met his partner, Kathleen, when they were both volunteering at Manna House; both remain activists and engaged with organizations such as the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, Workers Interfaith Network, Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and OUTMemphis, which houses homeless LGBTQ+ youth through the Metamorphosis Project.

“From the very beginning,” he said, “and to the present there have always been unsheltered LGBT people who have come to Manna House. We were committed from the beginning to be welcoming of all, affirming of each person who arrived at the door. We take seriously Matthew 25:31- 46, where Jesus says, ‘whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me’. This means the person on the streets is the very presence of Christ. This means the excluded, marginalized, denigrated, despised, are the very presence of Christ. This applies to LGBT people as well; they are made in the image of God; we are to love others as God loves us.

“I have seen too many guests who were kicked out of their family homes and their churches because of their sexuality. And I have learned about Christian love from those guests, as they care for their brothers and sisters on the streets. They want what we all want—to be loved, respected, treated with dignity. I think God is big enough to love people of different sexualities. And we are all called to engage in our sexualities with love and respect and faithfulness to each other.”

Gathje reminds us to ask questions and to dig deep into how to show and exchange love. “When I teach Christian ethics, I encourage students to dig into the various arguments around the morality of homosexuality, but not as an abstract moral issue, but as with all moral issues, to take seriously that human lives are at stake. I do not require students to take a particular position on this issue, or any of the issues which we may cover in a semester. What I do urge is that they all remember that at a minimum, love does no harm, and that every single person, including our enemies, are who Jesus calls us—commands us—to love. And love requires treating people with respect… Love requires seeking to understand people, taking their experience seriously. Love sometimes also means disagreeing and engaging in hard discussions where we have significant conflicts…Love is pretty much the opposite of what is happening in churches today that are dividing over this issue.”

I was curious to learn more about who inspires Gathje. His list included Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X., Cesar Chavez, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his parents, Friar Rene McGraw, Ed Loring, Murphy Davis, Room in the Inn guests and volunteers, Brad Watkins, Paul Garner, Andre Johnson, Earle Fisher, guests and volunteers at Manna House, just to name a few.

And what is his one magical wish? His answer is at the center for so many things Memphians fight for: “housing and health care for every human being.”