Cook: The holy struggle in Highland Park

Fostered dogs lounge in a window at Mercy Junction Justice and Peace center in Highland Park on Wednesday, May 17, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The center has been forced to close temporarily after safety concerns were raised about two residents who have formed their own religion.

Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center is one of the holiest places in Chattanooga.

Holy and radically hospitable: each day, dozens of folks come in off the Highland Park streets, hungry for shelter, sanctuary, a hot meal, love and kindness. Homeless families. Stray dogs. Kids. Middle- and upper-class folks looking for community.

One woman, fleeing domestic violence, came to Mercy Junction. (It's located in the St. Andrew's Center and is a covenant ministry of the Presbytery of East Tennessee.) Like the Virgin Mary running from Herod, the woman was given shelter, sleeping safely on a beige couch in the beautiful St. Andrew's sanctuary, the century-old stained glass keeping watch from the windows above.

It's holy and daily-bread filling: each day, Mercy Junction passes out canned food, warm bread, hot vegan meals, bags of dog food, tins of cat food. There's a Free Store, where folks swap and exchange things - clothes, toiletries, a good paperback - they don't need for stuff they do. No money needed.

One of seven peace communities recognized by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Mercy Junction is holy and prophetic. They take the church and the weapons of the spirit into the streets, bearing witness with love against injustice.


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(Yes, they protest. And so should you. Christ was not crucified because he played too much golf; he was killed because he threatened the established order, and Christians are called not to passivity, but action.)

Mercy Junction loves all of God's kingdom, especially animals - offering spay-neuter programs, promoting veganism, sheltering a Noah's Ark of cats and dogs each month.

And all of it - the open-door sanctuary, the body-soul hospitality, the radical holiness - is in danger of vanishing.

"That's the crux of it," said Beth Foster. "Whether we can save it or not."

Mercy Junction - Foster and the Rev. Brian Merritt are the directors - pays its bills through donations and renting space to tenants in St. Andrew's.

Several months ago, two men - Ryan Holmes and Tyler Short - asked about leasing a space in St. Andrew's under the guise of an interfaith ministry.

Mercy Junction leaders agreed.

Soon the two men began acting in strange, disturbing ways.

"I declared myself the god of sex drugs and rock music," wrote Holmes on a Facebook post. "I am the big bang."

The pair have holed up inside Mercy Junction and won't leave. They created what they call the Church of Urth - named after a Norse god - while Holmes makes a thread of online posts that are part psychotic, part mumble-mouth, part threatening.

* "I am the Archangel Michael. I am here with my Brother Gabriel. The gate to the Garden of Eden is now open."

* "Prince of Afghanistan a friend of mine. Last Muslim jihadi with cell phone bomb. Watch me blow it up. Locked and loaded."

* "I am tantra. Shiva Destroyer of many worlds. Been at this a while. Have sex with planets."

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Soon, Mercy Junction leaders asked them to leave.

They wouldn't.

But others are.

Mercy Junction has lost roughly 40 percent of its monthly revenue as tenants abandon their spaces out of fear. Mercy Junction shut down its doors, wisely choosing not to run services while the two men remain inside.

There's been no physical violence, so police can't remove them. Mercy Junction has begun eviction proceedings, but last week, neither Holmes nor Short showed up in court. This Friday, after another round of legal proceedings, police can force them out.

Investigators are considering whether Holmes and Short are connected with something more sinister. Urth was a god in Norse mythology that has become part of white supremacist and neo-Nazi culture. Are Holmes and Short acting on behalf of larger groups trying to counter the anti-racist, anti-sexist work of Mercy Junction?

In this battle of principalities, who will win?

The Church of Urth?

Or the Church of Christ?

Mercy Junction needs money. A grant. A sustainer.

A miracle.

"This is a financial plea," said Foster.

In this most Bible-minded city, can we keep such a holy place open?

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329.